What is a Proposal Debrief?

By: Sue Kuligowski    July 20, 2021     Kokopelli Insights

What is a Proposal Debrief Blog cover

"You never lose. You either win or you learn.” – Nelson Mandela

Nobody sets out to fail. Unfortunately, in the proposal world such a loss can be costly, both to your bottom line and long-term sustainability of your organization. Requesting a proposal debrief is a powerful and effective next step after the submittal of your proposal – win or lose.

Implementing proposal follow up measures like planning internal “lessons learned” meetings to ask members of your proposal team to review client feedback as well as gauge how they felt about your current in-house proposal process also goes a long way. 

The goal of the follow up is not to kill yourself to be perfect (nobody is) or to write the perfect proposal (one can dream), but to promote a culture of listening, learning, and maybe even changing in order to crush your next effort!

Proposal debriefs, however, is not the time to point fingers or play the blame game, but to identify and acknowledge internal imperfections as well as determine ways to tackle internal and external factors that may be preventing you from hitting your best proposal game.

Here’s something to think about. The average win rate for RFPs falls below 50%. And on average, organizations win 47% of the RFPs they bid on. In 2020, research showed that 16% won fewer than 40% of RFP bids, while another 16% won fewer than 30%.

So while I’m not here to celebrate or encourage failure and loss, I think it’s important to keep in mind that to stay in business or grow your business, we’ve got to assume each of those organizations above (aka your competition) dusted themselves off and tried again—and you should, too.

Proposal loss, by the way, can be the result of a variety of factors. Sometimes, no matter how well planned, a proposal takes a twist or turn that will leave you holding on for the ride. In some cases, a glitch in your process is the culprit. Your goal in identifying these weak spots is not to further torture yourself, but to take that soul crushing fail and learn from it.

The reality is, we all fail at something (or some things) at some point(s) in our life. Whether professional or personal, failure can be tough to swallow. We talked about this in our earlier post about how to recover from failure. A proposal debrief is one way to bounce back stronger than ever.

What is a Proposal Debrief?

A proposal debrief is when the contracting officer and other involved evaluators sit down to discuss both the strengths and weaknesses they found in your proposal with you. In other words, they determine what made you stand out or fall short against your competition. 

Government proposal debriefings help agencies or buyers to choose the most qualified contractors or sellers to supply goods and services at a fair price.

Debriefings help ensure a fair playing field for hopeful contractors, too, by encouraging you to have thoroughly thought through your capacity to do a good job with little to no risk to the agency. This helps protect the agency (and their investment) while also helping bidders from walking into a situation perhaps they weren’t ready to take on (which is never something you want to do).

Debriefings also help to prevent favoritism in agencies choosing one contractor over another (like an incumbent) by holding everyone to the same standards and set of rules.

Should you choose to request a post-award debrief, you can expect to receive the overall evaluated price and technical ratings given to the winner along with their rationale for award. You won’t receive your competitor’s trade secrets, information marked as confidential, and privileged financial information exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.

Thanks to FAR 15.506, the government is required to provide you with feedback on your submitted proposal. Basically, this means that you are entitled to a post-award debrief from the government so long as you submit a written request within three days of notification whether you won or lost.

You can learn more about how to make a FOIA request here.

What are the Benefits of Requesting a Post-Award Proposal Debrief?

Requesting a proposal debrief and taking what you learn will better prepare for your next RFP response opportunity, especially after coming off a loss. Generally, the debrief encompasses things like: 

  • Price rating

  • Technical rating

  • Past performance

  • Reasonable responses to questions in accordance with client expectations and RFP requirements

Not only is this a great way to see where you ranked well or fell short against your competition in these areas, but it’s a perfect opportunity to gauge whether or not you should consider adjusting and/or improving your internal process.

Don’t sit on what you learn from a post-award debrief. Once you have this information in hand make sure you use it!

"Change is not made without inconvenience, even from worse to better." - Samuel Johnson

4 Steps to Improve Your Proposal Win Rate with Lessons Learned from a Proposal Debrief

During the purgatory otherwise known as that time between hearing whether you’ve won (or lost) your proposal—it’s time to regroup your group. Even ahead of receiving the formal proposal debrief.

Consider implementing the following four steps whether the proposal ends up being a win or lose. The following steps have merit for both situations.

Step 1: Hold a Post-Proposal Meeting with Your Proposal Team

You submitted your proposal and breathed that beautiful sigh of relief. Let’s face it, maybe it’s the first time you’ve been able to breathe in a month. Now is not the time to rest, though—it’s time to get real.

While proposal teams often go into a new opportunity raring to go, a lot happens between initial RFP review and RFP response/submittal. So, before your team moves onto the next project, take a moment to reflect on the good, bad, and ugly while it’s fresh on everyone’s minds. Because even though on the surface everything may have appeared to run smoothly, it’s rare not to have encountered a few bumps.

Kokopelli Pro Tip: A post-proposal meeting is not the time to hold anyone’s feet over the fire, but to run through what went right and what went wrong in order to identify ways to strategize for your next opportunity! 

Have an agenda, ensure participants have time to bring feedback and ideas to share, and make sure to have a plan of action moving forward.

Important questions to ask (and answer):

  • Did you complete the proposal Go/No Go process to determine your chances? 

  • Was marketing intel shared with the group to allow for capture planning? 

  • Was the response organized and coordinated efficiently and effectively? 

  • Was your cost competitive? 

  • Was the schedule an obstacle? 

  • Was your internal response schedule realistic in turn? 

  • Were you able to use boiler or past proposal content or did you have to start from scratch? 

  • Were your resources in place—subject matter experts, necessary documentation, and reviewers?

  • Did you encounter technical difficulties? 

  • Was your proposal team’s communication adequate from start to finish? 

  • Was your design appropriate to the client, market, industry? 

  • Did you stay focused on the customers problem or provide a strong solution? 

  • Did you respond in accordance with requirements outlined in the RFP? 

  • Did you meet internal deadlines and respond on time?

It’s not only helpful to walk through questions like these to see what went wrong, or could be improved upon, but to see what went right that you can build upon.

The end game is to ensure your team moves in the right direction rather than succumbing to, “But we’ve always done it this way” syndrome. Now is the time to use what you’ve learned from your lessons learned meeting and debrief to:

  • Identify effective proposal contributors (writers, editors, graphic designers, subject matter experts, reviewers) for future opportunities 

  • Inventory your proposal response capabilities

    • Organization capacity to complete projects 

    • Existing boilerplate/knowledge base

    • Technology (software programs and proposal writing tools) 

    • Graphic capabilities

While your team is all together, now is also a great time to prepare questions you would like to submit as part of a post-award debrief request. While these questions may vary from proposal to proposal depending on the specifics of the contract opportunity and/or RFP requirements, some typical ones are:

  • Why did we win or lose?

  • What was our score in relation to other bidders and/or the successful contractor? 

  • What were are strengths? 

  • What were are weaknesses?

  • Were we competitive in price? 

  • How could we have improved our response?

Step 2: Follow up with your Client for a Post-Award Proposal Debrief

Requesting a proposal debrief let’s your client know that you care.

Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for a meeting to discuss what they felt may have been lacking in your proposal or made another proposal stronger. You should always submit a written request for a proposal debrief as soon as you receive the notice of award.

This follow up should become part of your regular proposal protocol win or lose, but especially lose and especially if you ever hope to win a contract with said client.

Identifying what you may have done wrong (or could have done better) is the only way to ensure that you don’t make the same mistake twice! This is why your recovery method is everything.

We talked about the significance of writing to the most important person in the room in our earlier post about how to win over your proposal evaluator. Understanding the reason(s) an evaluator may have eliminated you from the competition is invaluable to your proposal process.

Kokopelli Pro Tip: Always request a debrief win or lose. As an awardee, identifying issues ahead of the kickoff can help you to adjust or modify your approach to avoid issues heading into a project. If you’ve lost a proposal, this feedback can help you to enhance the quality of your responses while sending a message to the client that you’re serious about improving and winning their business.

Some questions to ask if you’ve lost a bid (note that in some cases, some information may be restricted):

  • Who won and out of how many bids received?

  • What was your score?

  • Was the decision based on technical evaluation capabilities or cost? 

  • Were you competitively priced?

  • What were your strengths or where did you score high?

  • Where did you fall short?

Take the time not just to review what may have gone wrong, but also to see what your competition may have done right. You may find that by adjusting schedules, improving communication, or trying a slightly different approach results in an improved product.

Whether you’ve been in the proposal business for a week, a month, or a couple decades, you know that proposals are the perfect storm for errors. With so many requirements, expectations, and amendments, you’re bound to swing and miss from time to time. Murphy’s Law, technical malfunctions, and last-minute deadlines don’t help your cause either.

No matter the reason, losing a proposal can feel gutting.

I’ve worked with folks from little to no experience to veteran proposal writers who still struggle to find the right strategy, theme, sell points, and/or figure out how to justify a higher price point. Below we talk about how you can help yourself and your team to not only keep up with, but get ahead of the proposal game and your competitors. 

Step 3: Educate Your Team to Grow Stronger by Identifying Areas in Need of Improvement

Losing a large proposal opportunity can be tough and make you want to throw in the towel, especially if you feel you’d put your best foot forward. Don’t do it!

In speaking with many government evaluators, decision makers, procurements specialists, and business opportunity specialists, their message is clear—it takes time, effort, and yes—losing, in order to gain footing in the federal contracting world.

Do not let a lesson learned become a lesson wasted. It’s more common than you’d expect for teams to move on without taking action. Now that you’ve met as a team and reviewed important feedback from the client, take the time to search for resources and opportunities to help you to improve and refine what you’ve discovered.

Take Classes and Stay Connected. Consider signing members of your team up for in-person training or online webinars, host inter-department lunchtime learning sessions, and provide updates to members of your organization to keep them up-to-date on upcoming opportunities.

  • Take advantage of online training for vendors in search of government contracts.

  • Attend conferences offered by APMP and other professional associations, and reach out for support from fellow proposal writers on LinkedIn or other social networking sites. 

Communicate. Bring your marketing team into the proposal mix. Brew some coffee and chat to see what they can share as they develop relationships with potential and existing clients. Your marketing team is your eyes and ears into what clients are really looking for. What their challenges are (beyond the sentence or two provided in the RFP). What they really hope to gain from putting out an RFP and trusting you (or your competitor) to solve their problem. 

  • Do your marketing research on sites such as gsa.gov. No two industries or agencies are alike. Research what organizations buy the services you are selling. Share what you learn! 

Challenge Yourself. Adjusting your proposal process to work for you to resolve problems that may have occurred in the past may be the missing puzzle piece to writing a winning proposal. It’s okay to acknowledge that something has to change. 

  • Technology is critical, not only to creating a professional-looking, high-quality product, but to maintaining your sanity throughout the process. While you don’t have to lay down the dollars for proposal software, your equipment and software should work for you and not against you. 

  • Your Go/No Go evaluation process is important to make sure you only go for RFPs that you can win. This Go/No Go Decision-Making Example provides you with a foundation from which to create a matrix of your own. 

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” – Benjamin Franklin 

Step 4: Don’t be Afraid to Change and Adapt Your Proposal Process

While you can’t change the past, you can turn what you learn from a proposal debrief into a full-blown opportunity as you go after your next RFP response.

What you learn from a post-award proposal debrief may change the way you look at how you do things moving forward. It’s okay for your proposal process to evolve as you learn and grow. If you do not already have a defined process in place, take the time to create one. If you do have a process in place, be willing to modify it to improve everything from deciding whether or not to go after an opportunity to internal communication strategies to proposal execution.

Most importantly, share your proposal process with anyone and everyone within your organization. Proposals are often the gateway to new projects, which impacts everyone’s bottom line. A basic proposal process would be something like this: 

Steps of a Proposal

You’ll never hear anyone say, “Darn, we won that proposal.” You may, however, hear coworkers asking what proposals are and what they’re good for. Not only will your coworkers better understand where projects come from, but they may be sitting on valuable information to help you to improve how you approach future opportunities. It goes both ways.

Simple things you should do to improve your proposal process:

  • Make sure your knowledge base or boilerplate is well maintained. While it’s time consuming and may seem cumbersome, having accurate information to pull from at a moment’s notice may just prove to be a proposal life saver. Having the basics available allows you to focus on building your proposal and focusing on being more responsive. 

  • Keep an Active Proposals list. Whether you are working on two proposals or 10, create an active list showing critical information such as Client Name, RFP Response, Description, Proposal Team Members and Duties, Internal Deadlines, Client Deadline, and Contact Information. This information will help proposal team members to schedule and stay on track, especially when you’re dealing with multiple looming deadlines. 

  • Maintain a Proposal Matrix tracking your wins and losses. Knowing where you stand is important. Use this data to identify your strengths and weaknesses to help you to get where you need to be. It’s also an easy way to determine what agencies or scopes of work you may have a better shot at. The matrix is a great way to maintain important client contact information as well as jot down project team members and can serve as a springboard for you to begin writing project descriptions later on down the line. 

Getting Back on the Proposal Horse

If losing is new to you, you should take comfort knowing that most proposal writers have countless war stories of efforts gone awry despite best intentions. Everything from not enough information going into a bid, mismanagement, availability (or unavailability) of team members, computer crashes, power failures, the weather, last minute amendments, contractual or legal issues, punching and binding blunders, and the list goes on.

Taking the time to request a post-award proposal debrief provides you a great opportunity to learn directly from the client where your response – or your overall effort – may have fallen short. Having this important insight is key to assessing why you lost, what matters most to a specific client, and how you can approach things differently in order to score higher next time.

And while you can’t control the weather, by using what you’ve learned from your internal and external debriefs, implementing ongoing education and training, and tweaking your proposal process, you will become more aware and better prepared to pivot as needed the next time around.

Good luck on any future proposals you plan to submit and trust us when we say, a loss is hard, but a win built on lessons learned makes it all worth it! 

About the Author

Sue Kuligowski is a proposal manager at Kokopelli. She’s also a freelance writer/adoption advocate and part-time optimist who enjoys the finer things in life such as family, friends, and copious amounts of coffee.

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