Understanding the government debriefing process after a proposal loss can be very valuable to a company if you approach them from the right perspective. Most companies ask for a debriefing with two things in mind. First they hope to somehow magically persuade the contracting officer through a face-to-face meeting that they chose the wrong company and second; they want to fish for information to determine if they should protest. I’m here to tell you that BOTH of those, in most situations, are a bad idea. In fact, requesting a formal debriefing and then using that debriefing as ammunition to protest, can often times hurt your chances of doing business with an organization simply because you can be viewed as a pest. Instead, I suggest you focus on the following five goals:
1. Discover the significant weaknesses and deficiencies in your proposal. Companies often lose an opportunity because of their failure to clearly communicate the value of what they sell and more importantly, they don’t map their capabilities directly to what was asked for in the RFP. But that is just one aspect of what you should be looking for. A contracting officer can also discuss how you rank/rate against the other companies, where you appeared strong in the proposal and where they felt you were lacking clarity, past performance, and/or addressed their specific requirements properly.
2. Gather competitive information. One of the most important aspects of a debriefing and also often overlooked is that a debriefing gives you a great opportunity to discover competitive information such as price, product information, past performance, etc. of the winning company. The value of this information is being able to adjust your price and margins to be competitive NEXT time. This will give you valuable insights that will allow you to determine if you can truly be competitive the next time around or if it doesn’t make sense for you to pursue this type of work and thus stop wasting valuable time pursuing contracts you can’t win. For example, you may learn through the debriefing that your overhead costs are too high and that you have to resolve these issues in order to deliver competitive pricing.
3. Build a stronger relationship with the contracting officer. How you ask for a debrief is very important. Remember that contracting officers are over worked and don’t have time for their daily duties, much less handling your debrief. More importantly, whether it’s informal or formal, you are ALWAYS being evaluated. How you handle a win is one thing and you will be rated on that, but how you handle a loss is also important. A bad attitude and quoting the FAR will ultimately get the debriefing you asked for, but it may cost you in the long run. Instead, use this time to build a friendly and respectable relationship with the contracting officer.
4. Ask questions. You want to ask reasonable and relevant questions. It’s OK to play dumb a bit and fish around like Colombo, but be courteous and respectful and keep it related to this specific opportunity. One simple technique is to start out by saying something along the lines of: “Pardon me if this is dumb question, but… ” or “I’m sorry if this question seems obvious, but I’m doing my best to learn from every loss and could use a better understanding about… ” Using simple opening phrases like that will give you the opportunity to ask additional questions and build rapport with the contracting officer. Also be sure to use my personal favorite keywords, “Please”, “Thank You”, and “Could You Help Me?” Those words will get you a lot more information than quoting the FAR ever could.
5. Learn from this loss. How do you capture lessons learned and how do you ensure you’re taking these lessons into account in the next proposal? You put a process in place, that’s how. Because after all, gathering the intelligence you need is only the first part of the battle. If you really want to win the next battle and ultimately the war, you MUST put concrete processes in place that allow you to roll these lessons learned into every future proposal process. Systems are repeatable and once you establish the right system, wins become repeatable.
A lot goes into understanding the debriefing process, when you can and can’t ask for one, how to prep for the debriefing, how to conduct yourself during the debriefing, how to gather lessons learned, and more importantly; how to implement lessons learned into a repeatable win system. Do yourself and your company a favor by understanding the nuances of the debriefing process so that you can take full advantage of them.