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When pursuing a government contract, a thorough understanding of your customer’s problems is one of the biggest advantages you can have over your competition.

The closer you can get to the customer, the better your solution will align with their needs, and the higher your probability of winning the contract will be.

Here’s what you can do to truly understand your customer’s problems before and after the RFP drops.

How to better understand your customer’s needs before the RFP is released

Many say that if you’ve only begun engaging with the customer after the RFP is released, you’re already too late. This is true more often than not.

There’s a lot that you can do before the RFP drops to understand what your potential customer is looking for in a solution. If you build a relationship early, you’ll be in better position to establish your company as a trusted and capable partner.

Attend Industry Days

Industry Days are events held by government agencies to communicate the programs they’re working on and issues they’re facing in their operations. Many of these programs may eventually lead to contracting work, and that’s good for you if you’re present at these events.

Though the information presented at Industry Days may be very high-level, these events are a great way for you to learn more about government initiatives and network face-to-face with agency buyers.

These initiatives and needs frequently change, so attending multiple Industry Days can give you a better understanding of agencies’ strategies over time.

Additionally, you may also gain some insight into who your competitors might be. A little competitive intel never hurt.

Industry Days provide a solid networking opportunity that can position your company well for future contract pursuits.

Analyze the potential client’s past projects and budget trends

A little bit of research into your potential client’s past projects and budgets can help you gain a better understanding of their needs.

Take a look at their budget allocation trends. Is your potential customer dedicating an increasing amount of their budget to projects that are in your wheelhouse? That’s a great sign that you may be able to get a piece of that growing pie.

If that fraction of their budget is shrinking, it’s a signal that the services that you offer may not be as important to the buyer as they used to be.

You should also research past solicitations to determine whether your lead is a frequent LPTA or Best Value buyer. Gathering information on your lead’s prior buying history, budgetary pressures, and award history can help you answer this question. Then you can decide whether this buying style fits your strategy.

Respond to the RFI

An RFI (Request for Information) is issued by an agency procurement officer to gauge interest in a project and identify vendors who can potentially provide a solution.

After reviewing responses to the RFI, the procurement officer has a better idea of the feasibility of the project and can decide what to do next – scrap the project, wait and see, or issue an RFP.

Many government contractors forgo responding to the RFI and just wait for the RFP to drop.

Big mistake!

By responding to an RFI, you can:

  • Highlight your understanding of the client’s problems
  • Position yourself as a capable solution provider
  • State any concerns with the project, such as an ineffective approach, infeasible solution, or any other hurdles that may arise.

Responding to an RFI can be time-consuming, which is why many contractors pass. But an RFI response is an excellent way for you to learn more about the client’s needs and get ahead of your competition.

Here’s a great episode of the Contracting Officer Podcast that discusses whether you should respond to the RFI.

Maintain contact with key stakeholders

It may seem too obvious to mention, but phone calls and in-person meetings with your potential customer are the most effective ways to get a better understanding of their needs. Meeting as early and often as possible with key stakeholders will help you learn about their issues, improve your relationship with them, and position your firm nicely when the RFP drops.

Rehearsing these meetings with prepared, concise questions aimed at learning more about the customer’s needs and problems can be invaluable. These discussions, combined with additional research, can reveal tidbits of information which can help you get a leg up on the competition.

Meeting with multiple key personnel such as the contracting officer, program manager, and technical leads will provide different points of view on the purpose and objective of potential projects and shed light on the needs and goals of the organization.

As you can see, there are many things you can do prior to the RFP release that will help you learn more about your potential client and better position your company to win future projects.

Understanding your customer after the RFP drops

A further understanding of your client’s needs will come when you review the RFP when it is released. You’ll need to read through an RFP several times to fully comprehend the scope of work, identify any problems with the specifications, and understand the criteria upon which you’ll be evaluated.

Here are some of the things you should hone in on after the RFP is released.

Thorough review of the statement of work

First and foremost, you need to determine if the proposed scope of work found in Section C of an RFP is feasible and complete.

An incomplete scope of work can lead to bidding assumptions, impossible objectives, and many other complications. These problems can make the bidding field uneven, project success unattainable, and potentially subject the entire process to legal objections.

When reviewing the statement of work, try to identify any ambiguous and poorly explained specifications and contradictory statements that need clarification.

You can also look for ways to differentiate your offerings from your competitors in this section. If there are any requests that align extremely well with your core competencies, you can refer to these heavily in your proposal

A subset of a poorly written statement of work is if your potential client is requesting dated or impossible technology. This project pitfall may leave your client ultimately dissatisfied with the final product and can have negative repercussions on your business.

A clear understanding of the statement of work is imperative for you to create a strong proposal and execute a successful project.

Review the evaluation criteria

Section M of the RFP is where you’ll find the criteria on which you’ll be evaluated and the scoring system that will determine who wins the bid. Read this closely!

This section highlights the primary factors that will be considered when awarding the contract, as well as how important each factor is. These factors may include but are not limited to:

  • Past performance
  • Technical approach
  • Project management approach
  • Product capability (if the RFP is for a specific type of product, and not a service)
  • Cost competitiveness

When reading Section M, you should have Section C (the Statement of Work) sitting right next to it. This will help you connect the dots between what work the client wants done and what criteria is most important to them in determining who can best execute this work.

Identify similar past solicitations and completed projects

History can give you a glimpse of the future.

Digging into similar past solicitations, whether they turned into projects or not, can give you a lot of insight into the customer’s needs and behaviors.

Why were some of the agency’s past solicitations not awarded? What hurdles did the agency face? Knowing these issues that happened in the past can help you craft a better solution to avoid these hurdles.

Researching similar past projects, successful or unsuccessful, can also give you comparable insight. A basic understanding of the awarded contractor, project costs, and any hardships will be important information when preparing your own bid.

Ask clarifying questions

After reviewing the statement of work, evaluation criteria, and similar past solicitations and projects, you should ask questions and request clarifications from your potential client.

These clarifications will be addressed publically and by formal revisions to the bid documents to ensure a fair playing field for all bidders.

Requesting a clarification regarding a hole in the scope of work is an important request. This protects you from competing with other bidders who missed this hole and omitted that expense from their bid, falsely deflating the cost of their project. It also protects you from having to provide an unscoped service, possibly at your own expense.

A full understanding of your clients needs versus the scoped technology, infrastructure, or equipment is also integral in successful project planning. Requesting clarifications on outdated portions of the spec can allow you to avoid major headaches.

Benefits of increased understanding of your client’s problems

There are a multitude of benefits which come from an increased understanding of your client’s problems.

A full understanding of the project scope can lead to a big picture view of that project and potential client. The knowledge you gain will turn into a more keen ability to discern between projects right for your company and projects wrong for your company.

The increased understanding should also allow you to efficiently allocate your resources and personnel. Understanding your clients needs and comparing to recently completed projects will allow your management team to schedule team members in the best way possible.

A detailed review of the scope and similar project failures will allow you to better identify key milestones within the project. Identifying such milestones will be mutually beneficial between your business and client. It will keep your client’s project on schedule without the need for your company to incur overtime costs to makeup project delays.

This will ultimately result in the ability to promise your potential clients a streamlined deliverable. The more information garnered during your review process allows your to combine all of your planning aspects appropriately and efficiently. You will be able to combine a well-planned workforce with a detail oriented project schedule. This will be appreciated by your client and relieve the stresses of lesser planned projects.

The streamlined deliverable should be reflected in a proposal for a cost-effective, fast-tracked project. These factors should make your proposal viewed in a positive manner by the potential client.

Effectively repeating this process for each proposal will increase your probability of winning bids. The increased win probability will result in more contracts and financial gains for your company.

Conclusion

Comprehensively understanding your clients’ needs is many times the difference between you and your competition.

The process begins well before the RFP is released. Attending Industry Days, performing research on budgets and past projects, responding to the RFI, and maintaining relationships with key stakeholders can help position you as a strong partner and even allow you to influence future solicitations.

Once the RFP drops, a thorough review of the statement of work and evaluation criteria (often side-by-side) is imperative. Researching past solicitations and projects will help identify potential hurdles. And asking clarifying questions will increase your understanding of what the client really wants.

All of this should result in an increased PWIN for your opportunities, high-quality proposals, and new projects and increase revenue for your company.

What are you doing to get closer to your customers and truly learn about their needs? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.