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5 Ways to Fail at Writing Government Contract Proposals

Published 05/31/18

“I want to submit a mediocre, error-prone, non-compliant proposal for this government contract job.” Said no one ever. 

Yet, many professionals in our industry do this every day—not because they want to, but because they may not have the right tools, experience, or resources to write successful ones.

If you aspire to do contractual work, learning how to write a great proposal is a must. And like anything else in life, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. Here are five things you should never do when writing a proposal.

Fail #1: Not following (RFP) instructions

One of the fastest ways to lose a government contract is to submit a non-compliant or “nonresponsive” proposal. As silly as it may sound, many firms don’t include all the necessary details and/or fail to submit their proposals on time. 

How to succeed: read carefully, and respond appropriately.

A winning government proposal is a compelling narrative about how your company can provide the best solution to the agency’s needs. A successful business case relies on facts, historical performance, and precise cost estimates. And most importantly, a winning government contract proposal follows all the agency’s written requirements—including font type, size, and document organization.

The first step in writing a successful proposal is pretty simple: Read through all the written requirements until you have a firm understanding of the ask. Then, follow all those instructions to a T.

Fail #2: Insufficient supporting data

After you understand the ask, the real (writing) work begins. it’s time to describe exactly how your firm will deliver the solution the government seeks. All too often, professionals in our industry put too much emphasis on the “telling” portion of the proposal and fail to provide enough substantial evidence to back up their story.

How to succeed: Remember, data speaks louder than words.

You can be the best storyteller in the industry, but a government review panel isn’t looking to hire the most talented author. The panel members want to hire the best firm for the job. And there’s no better way to convince them you’re the option than to show proof—with actual data, realistic estimates, and a proven track record.

Don’t underestimate the power of historical and current market research. Refer to similar jobs your firm completed, and conduct a post-mortem. What worked well, and what didn’t? What did you learn that you can now bring to this job? Do your homework on similar contract work other firms did. Familiarize yourself with their project estimates vs. real costs, so you have real-world references to include in your narrative.

Fail #3: Minimizing the importance of a Basis of Estimate (BOE)

Even if you’ve done a good job explaining (and proving) your firm can deliver the best solution, you still need to demonstrate how much it will cost and how long it will take for your company to complete the job. Many proposal managers see a “Basis of Estimate” requirement and fixate on the last part—the estimate. But the BOE is so much more than that. It’s actually a project execution benchmark. And right or wrong, the BOE sets the tone for the entire project. 

How to succeed: Recognize the BOE is both an art and a science.

Talk to your engineers and technicians about the importance of using facts instead of judgments to back up their cost and hour estimates. Help them understand that “good enough” quotes aren’t good enough to win a government contract. Reviewers want to see the data behind the numbers, so they can be confident the work will get done on time and in budget with minimal variances.

Remember, presentation is everything. You can have the most well-thought-out action plan, but that means nothing if a third-party reader can’t understand it. Establish a methodical process to turn your team’s numbers into a narrative. Consider using software that keeps the proposal and estimate tied together in the same database so the story automatically reflects estimates. 

Fail #4: Too many errors

If relying on multiple people to input multiple data points into multiple tabs of an excel document is a recipe for disaster; then making sure all those numbers add up correctly in all places is a perfect storm. Mistakes happen, but too many can cost you the bid.

How to succeed: Develop a great QA process.

One great way to avoid making careless mistakes is to designate at least two individuals to QA everything before submission—preferably people who didn’t input any of the data. One person should check for misspellings, grammatical errors, and typos. And a different person should make sure the proposal answers every question, includes all pertinent information, and follows all submission guidelines. 

Keep in mind, you should still be the last person to touch the proposal before submission. But you can rest a little easier knowing your QA team has already combed through it by the time it reaches your desk. In most instances, a quick run-through is all you need to do before hitting submit.

Fail #5: Mismatched summary and supporting schedules

Every proposal has two pieces: The narrative and the data. And our industry uses Microsoft Word to tell the story and Microsoft Excel to show the data. Even though Word and Excel are both part of the Microsoft Office Suite, their features, formats, and uses are completely different. 

So, you’re left typing Ctrl + c and Ctrl + v to transfer crucial information and numbers from one document to the other. With all that copying and pasting, mistakes happen. And let’s not go into what happens if someone makes a change in one of those documents.

How to succeed: Think outside of the (Microsoft Office) box.

Even though the final proposal format is a combination of Word and Excel documents, you’re not confined to working in just those two programs. Consider using a software that ties everything—integrated estimating, pricing, and earned value management tools—all together. 

So, when anyone on your team makes a change, it recalculates and updates everything in the proposal in real-time. Manual tasks are tedious and create a breeding ground for mistakes. Automating those tasks streamlines the entire process, almost eradicating common human-errors, and makes it easier for you to see how everything comes together.

Fail less, succeed more with BOEMax

The business of government contracting is huge. The federal government executes thousands of contracts worth hundreds of billions of dollars each year. To say there’s a lot of opportunity to do contractual work, is an understatement. 

And since the competition is fierce, we want to give you the upper hand with our all-in-one estimating, pricing, and proposal software, BOEMax

It’s designed to prevent all five of the fails we just mentioned. 

For example, with BOEMax, your teams can all work on their pieces of the proposal simultaneously using various estimators and pricing models to enter and lock down data, which reduces errors early on in the process. (Bye-bye fail #5!)

If you want your government contract proposal writing skills to improve, keep this list of fails close by the next time you’re writing one. Steering clear of them will put you one step closer to winning the bid.