The objective of the question response process is to communicate the resolution to issues raised by customer questions clearly and concisely.
This process step is a fantastic opportunity for your company to demonstrate how your customer-centric culture delivers what the SEB wants. The process begins with the customer notifying your company that an Evaluation Notice (EN) or Questions are forthcoming, or the unannounced receipt of EN’s. The process then proceeds in an abbreviated proposal development cycle.
When your company submits EN responses, it is assumed that the customer will eventually forward a request for final proposal revision with submittal instructions. While the process is abbreviated, the magnitude of the work effort may be quite large. The key to success is rapid scoping of the work and resource mobilization.
In Federal Acquisition Regulations-based (U.S. Federal Government) procurements, receipt of ENs is considered a negotiation as described in FAR 15.306(d).
Analysis and Response Planning
Your company performs an initial analysis to determine:
- Who is needed to develop the answers?
- What is the potential magnitude of response effort?
The answers to these questions establish the basis for the response plan. To answer these questions, the Capture Manager quickly distributes the ENs to the proposal team members, particularly the Proposal Manager, affected SMEs and management team. When not collocated, a teleconference may be convened to discuss the types and quantity of resources required to meet the customer’s delivery requirements. At this point, it is not necessary to answer the questions posed by the customer. The objective is to develop an approach to determine the answers and draft responses. The Capture and Proposal Managers must also consider and address the “ripple effect” a response may have throughout the proposal.
The Capture Manager, working with the Proposal Manager and the Executive in Charge, develops the resource and execution plan for the response. There are a wide variety of response execution approaches that may be employed to meet the needs of the response. The proposal management team may chose to mobilize and collocate a response team, use a virtual response team, or a combination of these approaches. Often, an EN explicitly or implicitly affects pricing. The Cost/Price Volume Lead should be forwarded the ENs for input into the response plan.
Proposal directives are revised or added as needed to execute the plan (schedule, author assignments, reviews and delivery plan).
Regardless of the logistics, the Proposal Manager develops the author assignments and response schedule in much the same manner as the original proposal schedule. SMEs are assigned to support the author in developing the answer if needed. Here is the main section of the Federal Acquisition Regulations that deal with exchanges after proposal submittal:
FAR Subpart 15.3 – Source Selection
15.306 Exchanges with offerors after receipt of proposals
(d) Exchanges with offerors after establishment of the competitive range. Negotiations are exchanges…that are undertaken with the intent of allowing the offeror to revise its proposal… When negotiations are conducted in a competitive acquisition, they take place after establishment of the competitive range and are called discussions.
(1) Discussions are tailored to each offeror’s proposal, and must be conducted by the contracting officer with each offeror within the competitive range.
(2) The primary objective of discussions is to maximize the Government’s ability to obtain best value, based on the requirement and the evaluation factors set forth in the solicitation.
(3) At a minimum, the contracting officer must… indicate to, or discuss with, each offeror still being considered for award, deficiencies, significant weaknesses, and adverse past performance information …The contracting officer also is encouraged to discuss other aspects of the offeror’s proposal that could, in the opinion of the contracting officer, be altered or explained to enhance materially the proposal’s potential for award.
Before drafting the response, the proposal team performs additional analyses to determine the customer’s intent for each individual EN and the EN’s as a whole. When the intent is unclear, the Capture Manager may contact the customer for clarification. Note that in FAR-based procurements, the Government is limited in the types of information it may provide (Figure 3-3).
Analysis is crucial because customers often ask questions where the implied issue is not obvious, and improper interpretation can negatively impact win potential. For example, when the customer EN reads: “Please explain further why the proposed Program Manager is qualified for the position,” the capture team must assess whether the issue is with the resume or with the actual proposed Proposal Manager. These types of questions place the proposal team back into educated-guess mode. In these cases, the Capture Manager must decide the proper course of action. The Capture Manager may choose to draft two solutions:
- Solution 1 – fix the resume
- Solution 2 – replace the Program Manager
Final solution selection may then be delayed as late as the color team review. Authors, working with SMEs and the Proposal Manager, develop the initial EN solutions. Ambiguities, like the example above, are forwarded to the Capture Manager for resolution. In most cases, the customer issue is unambiguous. When in doubt, use a very literal interpretation. That is, assume the customer meant what he said. Do not look for hidden agendas or meanings — these almost never exist.
The author presents an outline for the solution approach to the Capture Manager, including a rough estimate of the cost/pricing impact. This can be a short briefing, particularly for yes /no type ENs. The author presents the Capture and Proposal Manager the:
- Issue — the EN and the interpretation
- Recommended solution, justification, and alternatives
- Solution Approach — EN response outline and impacted proposal sections, including price
The Proposal Manager is responsible for ensuring that all areas of the proposal impacted by each EN are identified for eventual modification in the Final Proposal Revision (FPR) (Step 16).
The author is released to draft the response once the Capture Manager approves the solution approach.
The FAR also defines the following limits on government to contractor communication during the proposal evaluation period:
FAR Subpart 15.3 – Source Selection
15.306 Exchanges with Offerors after receipt of proposals
(e) Limits on exchanges. Government personnel involved in the acquisition shall not engage in conduct that-
(1) Favors one offeror over another;
(2) Reveals an offeror’s technical solution, including unique technology, innovative and unique uses of commercial items, or any information that would compromise an offeror’s intellectual property to another offeror;
(3) Reveals an offeror’s price without that offeror’s permission. However, the contracting officer may inform an offeror that its price is considered by the Government to be too high, or too low…
(4) Reveals the names of individuals providing reference information about an offeror’s past performance; or
(5) Knowingly furnishes source selection information in violation of 3.104…
Authors now implement their approved solution approach. When the response is long and complex, the author may perform an expedited, annotated mock-up process. In all cases, the answer or clarification of the issue should be communicated early in the text — the first sentence is best. Continuing with the above example, our response the customer’s stated issue — “Please explain further why the proposed Program Manager is qualified for the position?” — could be immediately addressed as follows:
- “Our PM’s qualifications for the position include:
- Experience — xxx years managing like programs, leading xxx staff
- Education – B.S. and M.S. in relevant fields
- Certifications /training — PMI Project manager, HAZWOPER
- Clearances — Top Secret
The following discussion details why our PM’s experience, education, certifications, and clearances qualify him for this important position…” or
“We enhance our offer to the Government by replacing Mr. Better with Mr. Best as your company’s proposed leader of our management team. The following is a summary of Mr. Best’s qualifications, which are presented in detail in the attached resume …”
In both of these examples, the answer or resolution is communicated in the first two sentences. Even though the answer is not completed, the evaluators are already aware we are trying to give them what they want as soon as possible. In both cases, the complete answer should include a mapping of position requirements to the PM qualifications. Note that the first response is to a literal interpretation of the question.
The draft responses undergo internal process review (IPR) to allow for mid-course refinement of the solution approach.
Once the solution is drafted, proof statements may be needed to justify our answer. Proofs are particularly important when the customer has issues with approaches that have associated risk and bases of estimates that impact the cost realism or proposal risk evaluation.
Response Completion and Submittal
After the initial draft, each response goes through a review, revise, and publish cycle.
The Capture Manager selects the reviewers and the review format. Independent reviewers, not previously associated with the proposal, are not a good choice at this point except when your company is proposing a radical change to the original management or technical approach. Responses are reviewed for:
- Completeness — Did we resolve the customer’s issue?
- Communication — Is the resolution easily understood?
- Convincing — Did we justify our response?
- Technical correctness and accuracy
- Continuity with the original submittal
- Compliance: Give them what they want … now
In the original proposal you were, in fact, guessing at the customer’s issues; albeit an educated guess, based on:
- RFP requirements
- Customer interaction
- Market intelligence
- Corporate experience
- Expert opinion
Now the customer has explicitly stated the issues your company must address. Some of their issues may be with our submittal, some may be issues stimulated by our competitors, some may be oversights in the original RFP, some issues may be new to your customer (such as a scope or funding change).
Regardless of the driver, at this point in the procurement the customer wants answers, not more issues. So your company gives them what they want — a contactor that:
- Understands the issue
- Resolves the issue
- Communicates the above quickly, clearly and concisely
Revised ENs follow the same general company proposal publishing process. EN submittal QC processes include a read-aloud session and ENs instruction compliance check. ENs should be packaged and submitted as instructed by the customer.
– Melanie Baker & Mike Lisagor