How To Balance Proposal Compliance With Differentiation

What should you do when the RFP’s requirements and the customer’s expectations differ?

Writing a winning federal proposal is tricky business. On one hand, you need to demonstrate compliance with the solicitation as it was written. On the other hand, you’ve done your research and talked with the customer. And you know there’s a mismatch between what the customer wants and what the RFP asks for. 

Why would this happen? And perhaps more importantly, how do you win? 

The rules for doing business with or as the US government

Let’s start by understanding why the solicitation may have been written in the way it was.

Within the annals of the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) are the myriad rules contracting officers must follow when procuring new goods or services. These include parts 8 (BPAs, DOs, TOs), 13 (BPAs and simplified buying), 15 (negotiated contracts), 16 (basic agreements, BOAs), and 35 (BAAs).  

As burdensome as the requirements sometimes seem for everyone involved — government and contractor alike — I find it helpful to remember that they exist for well-intentioned reasons. 

These rules uphold the spirit of the FAR itself: to deliver the “best value product or service … while maintaining the public’s trust … and promoting competition” (FAR 1.102). 

That’s a legitimate goal.

One way the FAR promotes competition is by leveling the playing field. Doing so makes sure no one has an unfair advantage or disadvantage. One way the government does this is with common evaluation criteria. Evaluation criteria, a shared component of FAR 8, 14, 15, 16, and 35, standardize the way each contractor’s proposal is measured

This is an important point, so it bears repeating. Every submitted proposal will be scored against these evaluation criteria. And only these criteria. 

Complying with evaluation criteria while responding to your customer’s needs

Developing an RFP is just as complex for the government as responding to one is for industry. Sometimes things are lost in translation during the long period between draft and final solicitation. 

That can lead to a mismatch between the customer’s actual needs and the evaluation criteria. 

For example, the evaluation criteria might ask for a can opener that can withstand extreme temperatures. But you know from talking with the customer that they just want a can opener they can safely use on an aircraft. 

So, what’s the point of building a relationship with the customer before the solicitation? Why take time to learn about their needs and pain points if the solicitation is going to measure you against a different standard?  

It’s actually pretty simple: compliance is not a differentiator. 

Every offeror needs to respond to the stated evaluation criteria. So, showing that you can meet the requirements as set forth in the evaluation criteria is just compliance. That’s par for the course; the minimum acceptable answer. 

Communicating to them that you understand their issues and can meet them where they need you is responsiveness. This is how you discriminate your offer from others who can also comply with requirements, but who may not have the same understanding that you do about what it takes to meet the customer’s needs. 

Achieving both compliance and responsiveness

How do you achieve both compliance and responsiveness? 

The language you use is one big way to show the customer that you are both compliant and responsive. Throughout your proposal, use your customer’s vernacular. You should do this in two ways. 

First, mirror the phrases they use in their solicitation as closely as possible. Matching terms with the evaluation criteria makes it easier for the evaluator to find and score them. 

Second, and perhaps more importantly, also be sure to sprinkle in key terms that they used when communicating with you before the solicitation was released — in emails, phone calls, and meetings. This is a great way to overcome the mismatch between your customer’s needs and the evaluation criteria. And it’s a good reminder to keep the customer first. Sometimes, responsiveness might even mean using language outside of your brand standard. But doing so can pay off big. 

Using the same phrases that your customer does both in and outside of the solicitation helps them think of your solution in their own language. It shows that you understand their needs and helps them see how your solution fits the requirement better than any other.

And that just may turn a tricky loss into a satisfying win.

Post written by Corinne Jorgenson and edited by Molly Gamborg.

Woman in orange jacket writes about proposal compliance.

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