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Winning Contracts and Building Backlog
How Alaska’s experts handle RFPs
By Brad Joyal

ecuring a design or construction contract can be a complicated, high-pressure process for any company, no matter its size or reputation. With many companies vying for the same project, and every one of them determined to separate itself from the crowd to be the winning bidder, competition is fierce. So, it’s vital to pay close attention to the project’s Request for Proposal (RFP), which a project owner or developer issues to provide criteria for companies to respond to when trying to secure a potential project.

Before the RFP Is Issued
There are various strategies construction companies can use throughout the RFP process to stand out from the competition. It’s important to recognize that RFP criteria differ for each client and project, and each proposal should be crafted to showcase a company’s ability to meet the client’s demands.

Before an RFP is released—or “hits the streets”—there are important steps a company can take to position itself to win a contract. Networking is a crucial component of business development, particularly for small or new companies trying to build their portfolios and bolster their firm experience to compete with larger, more-established companies that have resources devoted solely to responding to RFPs. Although every RFP varies, companies with experience securing contracts stress the importance of following similar methods for each proposal.

“We have an overall strategy that we try to use, and it really starts before the RFP is released,” says Skip Bourgeois, vice president of marketing at Coffman Engineers. “In the best-case scenario, we’ll know that a client is going to release an RFP around a general timeframe and we’ll know what they are going to be looking for in an RFP. We’ll look to position ourselves with the client so they know who we are, they know our capabilities, and they are expecting us to provide a proposal when the RFP comes out.”

Bourgeois notes that it’s essential to establish a relationship with the company or government agency prior to releasing the RFP because once the RFP is out, prospective companies are no longer able to reach out to the agency. “Once the RFP hits the streets, you can’t talk to anybody on the client’s side,” says Bourgeois. “You want to do all of that positioning before the RFP is released.”

Often companies are asked to respond to an RFP because of the relationship marketers have already established with the client, even if the company’s portfolio isn’t as impressive as the competition. That is why building an association with government clients is an important step in the RFP process.

“If you want to secure a project with a government client and you’re new or you don’t have any government experience, the best thing you can do is go out and network because Alaska is so small and everybody knows each other,” says Cornerstone General Contractors Business Development and Marketing Manager Pearl-Grace Pantaleone. “It’s all about relationship building. You might get invited to bid on a proposal if a general contractor knows you and puts you on their subcontractor list to send out on bid day. Let the clients know you’re there.”

While social media such as LinkedIn is impactful for companies to introduce themselves to government clients, Pantaleone says those channels are not the best way to communicate before an RFP is released.

“In Alaska, companies don’t really use social media,” says Pantaleone. “It’s all about face-to-face contact and letting them know that you’re there.”

Building a Strong Portfolio
Few aspects of the RFP process are as critical as creating an eye-catching portfolio. There are several factors government agencies weigh when they determine which company to award a project to, including the company’s reputation and how it will meet any financial obligations. However, for companies with fewer resources or less of a reputation, building a robust and attractive resume is one strategic area every organization hoping to secure a contract should focus on. When government agencies review proposals, they often ask for resumes of the professionals who will be involved with the project.

Marketing professionals can bolster their resumes and separate themselves from the pack by completing certifications, many of which are available through the state. Another is for firms to align themselves with other professionals that have experience completing similar projects.

Go or No-Go
When an RFP is released, companies must weigh the pros and cons of responding. This period is often referred to as a “go or no-go” period, as companies determine if this particular RFP calls for a go (responding to the RFP) or no-go (not responding to the RFP) decision. Industry professionals with an established reputation and track record of winning RFP proposals describe this as one of the most critical aspects of the RFP process. At the forefront of the internal debate is considering the likelihood a proposal will lead to securing a contract.

“When you’re deciding whether or not to write a proposal, make sure you have a good chance of winning a contract before you write it,” says Bourgeois. “Don’t waste your time writing longshot proposals. A lot of times, we’ll hear the technical staff say, ‘Well, we know we’re not going to win the pursuit, but we want to write a proposal to get in front of the client.’ That’s a huge waste of time in my opinion.”

“If you want to secure a project with a government client and you’re new or you don’t have any government experience, the best thing you can do is go out and network because Alaska is so small and everybody knows each other.”
Pearl-Grace Pantaleone
Business Development and Marketing Manager
Cornerstone General Contractors
Bourgeois points out there are better ways to let a client know your firm is interested in working with the client in the future.

“The time would be better served not writing the proposal and having that person get in front of the client and say something like, ‘Hey, we’d love to work with you. We know it’s a longshot to win this pursuit, but we’d love to work with you on future contracts. What can we do to start winning your trust so the next time you release an RFP, we can confidently propose?’ Engaging the client, I feel, is way more valuable than spending time writing a proposal you know you’re going to lose.”

One reason Bourgeois says it’s important to be selective about proposals is the financial commitment they require.

“Each proposal we do costs a ballpark of $10,000 to complete and some are significantly more than that,” he says. “If we don’t feel like we have an 80 percent chance of winning, a lot of times we’ll no-go them.”

Ahtna Environmental Inc. Business Development and Marketing Manager Lori Kropidlowski describes the process as a “go/no-go decision matrix” and says there are specific questions they look to answer before choosing to respond to an RFP. As part of the matrix, she says many companies use a scoring process to grade whether an RFP would be a good fit.

“We will go through different questions,” says Kropidlowski. “Ideally, we will know about projects well in advance before they hit the streets and are due in two weeks. So, did we know the RFP was coming out? Is the client familiar with us? Does the client like our team and our work? Do you have a good portfolio of past experience for this project?

“Some firms are very regimented on their scoring. Say you get a 1 through 5 on any one question and you have to score a 45 out of 60 to have it be a ‘go’—that’s in a perfect world. In reality, every company I’ve worked for has talked about doing that and, on occasion for big pursuits, looks at those parameters. Usually it’s less formal but still a realistic assessment on our ability to win a contract. Ideally, it’s management saying well ahead of time—months or even a year before a contract hits the street—‘Oh, this contract is coming up, it’s going to be due in 2020, and we’re positioning ourselves and assembling a winning team for this.’ This is called capture planning and increases your probability of winning.”

The Debrief – Knowing Where One Stands
Regardless of whether a firm wins, it can request a debriefing period to gain insight about how its proposal was scored and how it compared to the winning firm. This process can be tricky, however, because clients won’t award a debrief period until after the contract is signed. It could be as little as a week after a contract is awarded or months later. For companies that have less familiarity with the RFP process—and even for firms with extensive track records of winning proposals—the debrief period is a critical tool to evaluate what they are doing correctly and where they could improve future responses.

“The debrief is an essential part of the process whether you win or lose,” says Coffman Engineers Marketing Specialist Katy Kless.

Gaining an understanding of how a client scored a proposal not only provides companies with a better understanding of the proposal process but also affords them vital information that can be used during the go/no-go decision-making process.

“We like to use that debrief information on the next go or no-go decision we’re going to make to work with that client,” explains Bourgeois. “What did they tell us during that debrief period: did they tell us there were a bunch of other firms ahead of us as far as the pecking order of firms that client likes to work with? Or did they say that we were really close?”

Pantaleone says she views the debrief as another opportunity to network with potential clients and enters the debrief period with her own list of questions she says can be a valuable addition to the information a client will provide.

“You can look at their scoresheet to see where you scored in the proposal sections, and usually they have notes about it so you can learn why you scored that way,” says Pantaleone. “I have a list of questions I like to ask clients: Why did they score us that way? How can we improve? What were our strengths and weaknesses? Debriefs are very powerful and we do them even after proposals that we win, too. Debriefs, no matter whether you win or lose, are very important.”

Building Proposal Expertise
For companies that don’t have skilled proposal professionals who know how to navigate the requirements, there are many resources available. “Alaska has a chapter of the Society for Marketing Professional Services [SMPS] that’s a nationwide organization with tens of thousands of members,” says Kropidlowski.
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“SMPS offers a certification called the Certified Professional Services Marketer [CPSM], and it covers six domains, one of which is RFPs,” she says. “I’ve been CPSM certified since 2001, and that has been instrumental in helping me move up the ladder throughout my career. Since joining Ahtna, I also found the Association of Proposal Management Professionals [APMP] a great resource.” APMP is a worldwide authority dedicated to the process of winning business through proposals and bids. Kropidlowski notes that APMP has a Pacific Northwest Chapter in Seattle and offers three tiers of proposal certification.

Although marketing professionals often spearhead the RFP process, it’s not required for marketers to receive certification. But Kropidlowski says that it helped strengthen her understanding of the proposal and business development process.

“It helped me learn about budgeting, client management, proposal statistics, and what they mean,” Kropidlowski says. “It gave me an insight to move into a management role.”

According to its website, SMPS is a professional organization for marketing and business development professionals in architecture, engineering, and the construction industries. The SMPS Alaska Chapter provides its members with valuable knowledge and relationships by positioning their firms competitively in the marketplace, and the state’s chapter routinely holds events that bring industry professionals together. For smaller companies interested in building their business development expertise, the SMPS Alaska Chapter is widely regarded as an asset that provides networking between potential teaming partners and clients.