If you’re not familiar with AFP/P3 processes, please read the posts linked above.
The critical importance of alignment
Beyond technical competence, a consortium needs to create confidence that it will persist through the RFP stage and will function cohesively if it wins the contract.
This is critical to the issuer. A consortium that gets shortlisted and then falls apart due to disagreements, internal issues in one or more partners, financing difficulties, or for any other reason, reduces the competitiveness of the process. If two of three shortlisted proponents drop out, the issuer must abandon a multiyear procurement—a great waste of time and money.
Poor alignment during the execution phase can cause quality, budget and schedule issues—again wasting time and money.
It’s not enough to express confidence that things will go smoothly, based on mutual respect and good intentions. With high stakes and tight schedules ahead, issuers want solid evidence.
Evidence of ability to achieve and maintain alignment
As evidence your team will stay intact and aligned, issuers will look for:
Experience as SPV chair: Does the head of the consortium and the designated appointee as SPV chair have a track record of steering similar teams through multiyear projects?
Size and strength of SPV members: Are the individual ProjectCo members large, strong companies that can provide equity and guarantees sufficient to attract the needed debt financing? Do they have the resources (people and other) to overcome unexpected setbacks?
Corporate relationships: Are any team members related entities? Many P3 consortiums include, for example, a financing entity and one or more construction companies with common ownership. These relationships tend to produce natural alignment.
Previous collaboration: Have the same companies collaborated successfully on similar projects in the past?
Governance structure: Are the governance structure and processes submitted in the response robust and complete? Has the SPV used the same approach successfully in similar past projects?
Teaming agreements: Are agreements in place to clearly identify each member’s responsibilities and decision making authority? Does the response include well-defined dispute resolution mechanisms?
Risk management ability: Does the RFQ response anticipate all major risks and explain how they will be managed? Are comprehensive back-to-back contracts in place to allocate risk and minimize stranded risks?
A single voice response is also evidence
Consortium proposals are, by definition, drafted by people in several companies. How do you manage the process to present a single voice response? That’s the subject of next week’s post.
Last week’s post provided an overview of RFQs (requests for qualifications). This week we’ll look at the single most important thing an RFQ response needs to do—prove the team can submit a competitive bid (RFP response) and, if selected, perform successfully.
Scope complexity in large AFP projects
Alternative financing procurement (AFP) projects, such as public private partnerships (P3s), typically require the proponent to create a new corporation of joint venture (JV) partners, called a special purpose vehicle (SPV) or ProjectCo. The SPV, together with various subcontractors, will design, build, finance, operate and maintain (DBFOM) the asset (highway, bridge, hospital, etc.), and then hand it back in a specified condition at the end of the operating term. NOTE: Many competitions involve a subset of DBFOM activities.
Therefore, unlike straightforward design-build competitions, DBFOM projects require the proponent (SPV) to also prove a wider range of capabilities—and to demonstrate the likelihood of survival as an entity for the operating term of 20 or more years.
Here’s where the puzzle part comes in. Proof of capability involves linking team members (consortium partners) and key individuals to a common set of reference projects. Many issuers ask proponents to identify up to 10 recent projects (called reference projects) like the one on offer, and then to base their response on those projects only.
Identifying 10 representative projects completed in the past 5 or 10 years and with heavy overlap of SPV member companies and the proposed key individuals can be challenging—especially since they need to demonstrate expertise in creating and managing an SPV, as well as designing, building, financing, and operating and maintaining the asset.
Many projects have special characteristics that further limit the choice of reference projects. These include archeological and/or ecological sensitivity, First Nations and other stakeholder needs and extreme weather conditions, among others.
Finally, a strong local partner with a positive reputation and track record in the project jurisdiction is a must-have feature for consortiums hoping to get shortlisted.
Requests for qualifications (RFQs) are typically the first stage in large procurements—especially for alternative financing procurement (AFP), such as public private partnership (P3), projects.
The purpose of an RFQ is to narrow the field of potential proponents to those best qualified. This sets up a request for proposals (RFP) stage restricted to (usually) three proponents with whom the issuer can have structured discussions prior to submission. This process is designed to obtain equally acceptable proposals that compete mainly on their financial offers.
RFQs are appearing as part of smaller procurements
Until recently issuers used RFQs only for very large infrastructure projects. Today, in our home jurisdiction of Ontario Canada, issuers are turning to this model for smaller projects—including a current one for street lighting that is likely to result in a contract well below $100 million, including the cost of a 20-year operating term.
How RFQs and RFPs differ
An RFQ response describes how a proponent will approach a project, while the RFP response sets out in detail how it will organize, design and execute the project, including the cost. So—although often tightly structured—the RFQ narrative is largely qualitative and persuasive. An RFP response, on the other hand is a more quantitative, technical document that includes specific commitments intended to form the basis of a project agreement.
One client put it this way: “RFQs ask us to write billion-dollar best sellers. We don’t know how to do that. The RFP is a design and pricing game—that’s a game we understand.”
Challenges to RFQ success
Two aspects of RFQ competitions help explain our client’s frustration:
RFQ issuers are naturally risk-averse. Unsurprisingly, they want to shortlist proponents with proven ability to succeed. That means teams must not only have had success, as an example, building bridges—but nearly identical bridges in nearly identical circumstances (length, weather conditions, water depth, etc.). And issuers strongly prefer consortium members and key individuals who have successfully worked together on those multiple similar projects.
The RFQ scoring process is often opaque. Because responses are qualitative and unpriced, it’s difficult to challenge a low RFQ score. Debriefs are usually very general, and unsuccessful proponents are reluctant to press for fear of reducing their chances in future competitions. From the issuer’s perspective, one reason for keeping the process subjective may be the long operating terms of many AFP projects. The prospect of a 25- or 50-year relationship tends to make cultural fit nearly as important as technical competence.
This combination of a high bar and a subjective process makes it hard for newcomers to get shortlisted.
Want to improve your chances?
The next three posts cover key success factors for RFQs, beginning with demonstrating capability.
Challenged to get shortlisted in RFQ competitions?
Last week’s post explained the importance of using team selection to show understanding of the RFP requirements and the prospect’s strategic and hot button issues. Identifying the key individuals you will use provides evidence of your commitment.
Most RFPs request resumes for key individuals. Evaluators use them to confirm the proposed individuals are qualified and capable of fulfilling the contract.
This post explains how to tailor resumes so they improve your win rate.
Poor practices—what not to do
We’ve seen proposals containing resumes that:
Vary widely in length, format and fonts (even some with scans pasted onto the page)
Are formatted and written like job search resumes
Bury items important to the evaluator halfway down the page
These and other resume sins invite evaluators to move on to a more competent proposal.
Creating resumes that boost your chances
If an opportunity is worth bidding on, it’s worth the effort to edit your key people resumes. Begin by gathering the following information:
The requirements for each role (e.g. What must the site supervisor do on this project?)
For each requirement, the proposed individual's credentials and experience.
The candidate’s experience in similar roles on similar projects (ideally reference projects)
Additional relevant information, including years of service, recognition for performance and education.
Format resumes to highlight important information
Large issuers across North America are becoming increasingly prescriptive in the content required for resumes and project sheets. Be sure to comply with any RFP or RFQ request for specific information and organize it in the order provided.
We recommend formatting resumes a two-column table as follows:
CANDIDATE'S NAME, DESIGNATIONS (PEng, etc.)
Current title, employer and years in current role
Qualifications and profile
Begin with a lead-in, such as: "As ROLE, NAME will be responsible for:" followed by 4-6 bullet points citing key responsiblities
4-6 bullet points directly relating to the requirements for this project
2-3 sentences about the individual focusing on relevant strengths
Description of candidate's role, impact, relevance to current project, customer reference
Description of candidate's role, impact, relevance to current project, customer reference
Description of candidate's role, impact, relevance to current project, customer reference
Education and achievements
Degrees and certifications in bullet point form
Achievements and other
This approach—modified to suit your requirements—gives evaluators efficient access to the information they need. They’ll love you for it.
Include key person summaries in the narrative
Don’t rely on evaluators reading resumes in an appendix. Summarize key person qualifications and experience in the narrative. Many bidders use the first few rows of the table described above as their summary.
If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know this is standard advice for any information in proposal appendices.
Photos or no?
Photographs are OK in principle, but in practice often end up featuring people in different dress against different backgrounds in varying lighting. One or more photos are often out of focus. Photos are especially challenging when the proposal is a joint venture or where team members have been recruited from outside for the project.
The result is jarring. It detracts from, rather than reinforces, the idea of a team. So our recommendation is: no photographs.
Exception: You may want to include photos for strategic reasons, for example to show gender balance, diversity or maturity (or youthfulness!). If this is the case, go ahead—but consider investing in retouching (or take new photos) to create a uniform look and quality.
Knowing what you need to develop strong resumes, start now. Use the guidelines above to format the information for individuals likely to be put forward as project key people.
When the next opportunity arises, your resumes will require only minor edits to be proposal-ready.
In competitions for complex contracts, proposal evaluators pay close attention to each bidder’s key individuals. Whatever your experience with similar projects, in every case specific people have managed the work. Your roster of key individuals is central to your score.
In evaluating your team, evaluators will expect you to fulfill four criteria:
1. You understand the requirements
Ensure the project organizational structure and key people demonstrate you understand the RFQ or RFP. Pay attention to:
Organization: Does the team structure match the contractor's project responsibilities?
Key positions: Do the key individuals have the required qualifications, industry knowledge, experience and ability to manage specific risks?
Hot button issues: Does your team demonstrate strength in areas of special importance to this prospect? Hot button issues are often project-specific, such as—in the case of construction—structure type, challenging terrain, envioronmental issues, stakeholder management, public profile, etc.
2. You have identified and committed key individuals
Show you’re serious by identifying your key team members by name and committing to making them available. Clients understand you may need to request a change—particularly if the original start date is delayed, as often happens. Would you rather win and have to request a substitution—or lose because you failed to meet the standard requirement to identify team members by name?
Do not “bait and switch.” Proposing the same set of stars for every project and then changing them all after winning upsets clients and soon earns a negative reputation. In fact, if your main competitor uses this tactic, consider ghosting the practice to differentiate your offer.
3. Your key people have what it takes to succeed
If you’re fortunate to have a strong team, organize your key individuals’ resumes to make their qualifications clear. Instead of forcing evaluators to piece together qualifications from general-purpose resumes, organize and edit resumes for this specific project.
We’ll provide guidelines for doing this in next week’s post.
4. Your team meets all the requirements
The ideas in item 3 above will convince evaluators that individual members are qualified. But your prospect may need help—especially with large projects—ensuring that your team as a whole covers off all requirements.
Address this need with a matrix that plots team members against requirements. A “meatball chart” (presumably because the dots filling the grid look like meatballs), will make the evaluator’s job easier and earn you points.
Remember: Evaluators don’t always read closely
Many evaluators skim proposals for reasons to keep reading or to eliminate contenders. Use the ideas above to keep them reading yours—and to win more contracts.
One client calls them “nits.” Whatever your proposal team’s label, we’re talking about the nickel-and-dime errors that can diminish an evaluator’s confidence in your offer. Although the range of these niggling mistakes is endless, five are most common.
1. Spelling mistakes
Don’t put your faith in spell-checkers. Built-in checkers catch about 99% of errors (if we forgive their inability to choose between its and it’s). But a 50-page proposal can easily contain 12,000 to 15,000 words—which means 120 to 150 misspellings could slip through. A checker will happily accept pubic for public—as it famously did in the case of one C2C client.
2. Incorrect numbers
It’s easy to read past incorrect numbers, especially if they are embedded in tables, charts and graphs. Ensure someone familiar with the underlying information reviews numerical information separately from the surrounding narrative. Ensure your proofer checks internal references and paragraph numbering—especially if your authoring program isn’t set to auto-number.
These are proper names or other bid-specific words carried over in recycled copy. Don’t count on search-and-replace to catch these. Pay special attention to reused graphics. Check to ensure headers and footers have been updated and are consistent.
4. Unintended homonym substitutes
Homonyms are words that sound the same (or close) but have different meanings. Most (but not all) writers know the difference, but they still creep in—sometimes thanks to auto-correct. Some of our favourites: your/you’re, their/they’re, then/than, farther/further, through/threw/thorough, effect/affect, compliment/complement, sail/sale.
5. Contact information errors
It’s easy to transpose digits in an address or to mistype a URL or email address. We recommend copying and pasting this kind of information from a website or email server to reduce the chance of error. And then ask your proofer to re-check. For project references, call or otherwise confirm the information is still current.
Use fresh eyes to proof
Every writer knows the difficulty of seeing errors in copy he or she has recently written or edited. After you review the same page two or three times, it’s nearly impossible to find missing words and other similar defects. Our minds just fill in the blanks.
So find someone with a sharp eye and love of detail to comb through your final draft for credibility killers. We guarantee several will turn up every time.
When reviewing a new client’s past proposals, we often find they’re long on claims—but short on proof.
In many cases the proof exists. The company just isn’t organized around documenting and managing the supporting evidence to make it easy to find. So when bid opportunities arise, there’s never enough time to make a watertight case.
The result is vague “industry-leading” and “best practices” claims that pale against competing bids with actual performance stats and client testimonials.
Here’s how to address this issue of proof.
Shift your mindset
The first step is to understand that evaluators score based on what’s in your bid response. Even if the bid issuer knows you—even if you’re a current provider—make a commitment to respond as if you have no history.
Next, get in the habit of recognizing your strengths. Many companies take for granted things they do better than anyone else—often because they’ve been performing at that high level for so long. One early win for a bid consultant is bringing fresh eyes to helping you see and express your differentiators.
Keep current records
If you’re a small company, set up a log in Excel or other format. Use one axis for projects and the other for such information as start and finish dates, value, type, project partners, whether a renewal or won from an incumbent. Include performance measures, such as on time, on budget completion, safety record, regulatory compliance, bonuses won, etc. Choose items that fit the kind of work you do.
If yours is a big business, it may make more sense to keep records in several departments. The point is to keep them current and have them available to bid teams.
“What’s measured improves.” – Peter Drucker
Another reason to track performance and make results visible is that the performance itself will improve. That’s good both for the bottom line—and for your ability to win bid contracts.
The safety manager at one of our client companies can provide—as of the previous workday—the history of near misses, recordables and lost time incidents for each of dozens of sites across North America.
Another client—with fewer sites and people—struggles to assemble safety information every time a bid opportunity arrives.
Guess which company has the better safety record?
Do these four things to ensure you have bid-winning statistics available:
Use past bid requests and industry practice to select the data items you need to track
Develop formats for capturing and storing the information
Assign responsibility for keeping records up to date
Identify performance gaps and take steps to improve
Need help expressing your value in bid situations?
Many believers in visualization find they haven’t the time to make it happen. If even the ideas in our earlier post on no-budget proposal visualization seem too time consuming, here's another idea, courtesy of BBC News.
BBC News streams infographics on current news stories through social media. The examples above and below appeared on Twitter.
In every case, BBC News has combined a striking image with two facts organized into one or two sentences. Do the same by following these steps:
Think of a key benefit or differentiator you want to stress and express it a short sentence. For example:
In the past X years, we’ve implemented Y sites on time and on budget
Over X% of our service technicians have achieved NAME certification
X% of our clients have been with us for Y years or more
X of Canada’s Y largest financial institutions use our technology
Our X North American sites average Y years with no lost time accidents
X of our key individuals have worked together on X or more projects
Find a suitable photograph with a 2:1 width to height ratio. If you don’t have your own, search online for an image that connects to your message and that is licensed for commercial use. You can buy image rights for less than $20 or find a free one using Google advanced image search to filter by size (large) and license type (commercial use allowed). NOTE: The photo is not intended to illustrate a project—only to attract attention.
Size and crop the photo so the area of most interest is in the right half of the picture.
Using Photoshop or a less expensive alternative, such as Acorn or PowerPoint, place a complementary colour block set to 80% opacity over 40% of the image as in the examples above. Centre your message in contrasting text on the block and enlarge the key numbers/words.
Save the image in a graphics format (PDF, PNG, JPG) and you’re ready to drop it into your proposal.
Using this process, our team members have created proposal callouts in less than 20 minutes.
Consider a caption
Even though this kind of graphic carries its own message, you might want to expand on the limited information you can fit into the visual. In this case, add a selling caption that reinforces the image content.
Need help visualizing your strengths in proposals?
Many RFP and RFQ responses today are page limited. You can supplement a page-limited narrative with appendices—but it’s essential to include a summary in the narrative. That’s because most evaluators either don’t read appendices—or read them only when choosing among the last few contenders.
So your challenge is to find ways to summarize and showcase your strongest points while using as little precious narrative space as possible.
Enter the meatball chart
One solution is a matrix with symbols indicating values where rows and columns intersect. We’re guessing here, but “meatball” likely comes from the popularity of dots as the symbol of choice.
In fact, you’re not limited to one symbol. As in the example above, you can use various symbols to represent different results—but we recommend a limit of 4 to avoid confusing readers.
This chart type is ideal for summarizing proposed team competencies and relevant experience. But they have other uses too.
Proposed team: You may have an appendix of well-organized team member resumes, but a meatball chart lets you provide a compact summary. The choice of axis is up to you—one is to use rows for team members and columns for capabilities and credentials as in the example above. You can also use a meatball chart to show how many key individuals in a joint venture project have worked together in the past.
Relevant experience: Most bid requests ask for the bidder’s experience with similar projects. In this case put past projects on one axis and key success criteria on the other.
Other: We have seen meatball charts used to compare features when explaining solution tradeoffs or pricing models and to ghost other procurement options. Keep this format in mind whenever you need to make comparisons or show relationships among multiple data points.
Plan before building
It’s not easy to build a meatball chart that tells the story without confusing the reader. You need to consider compliance requirements, client issues and the content. It's easy to begin building a chart, only to find a different presentation is needed. We find a brainstorming session is a good place to start. Sketch out options until you find one everyone agrees is clear, and then flesh it out and circulate for feedback.
Include a selling caption
A meatball chart is like any other visual; it needs a selling caption to be complete. Give your caption a figure number, results-focused headline and a benefits-oriented statement that delivers the "What's in it for me?" message you want evaluators to take away.
Busy evaluators will thank you
Meatball chart construction isn’t easy. It takes a lot of thought—and often a few false starts—to find an elegant way to present your information. But both detail-oriented evaluators and senior reviewers will appreciate any effort you make to aggregate information.
And having evaluators appreciate you is always good.
Challenged to present your best case in a critical bid proposal?
In last week’s post we made the case for visualizing key elements of your solution. Here we describe how to use flowcharts to show processes that differentiate your solution and/or involve client participation.
Teams developing very large proposals often work with Adobe Creative Suite and similar high-end publishing platforms. They will want to use those tools to build their diagrams.
But the majority of proposal teams don’t use special publishing software. If you’re among those who work in MS Office, here's a how-to post you can bookmark and share with your team.
Remember the goal
The purpose of inserting a flowchart into your narrative is not to diagram every step in a long and complex process. It’s to express a differentiator, such as efficiency or client involvement, in your solution. The diagram needs to be accurate, but to communicate it also needs to be uncluttered and easy to follow.
The two examples below show the idea. We took these from a recent proposal and grayed out the text for client confidentiality.
Steps in building a flowchart diagram
NOTE: Flowcharts for some industries (e.g. IT) may have to follow well-defined conventions. The steps below assume no such restrictions exist.
Lay out your process flow so lines don’t need to cross. Horizontal diagrams work best in most single column proposals. Ensure multiple conditional steps are ordered correctly. To save space, show task ownership using colours instead of responsibility lanes.
Build diagrams in PowerPoint or Visio. We use PowerPoint and create flowcharts actual size (usually 6 or 6.5 inches wide) for reasons explained in the following section.
Use text boxes of centred 8-pt. text (we use Calibri) with line spacing set to Multiple > 0.9. Use shift + return to control line breaks. Fill the boxes with white (or use pale colours if showing responsibilities by task), uncheck the shadow option and apply a dark gray .25 pt. rule.
At your option, vary the shapes of the task boxes to show specific task types. We recommend using diamonds for decisions, but otherwise stick to rectangles. (But see the note at top of this section.)
Use dark gray arrows and select a 0.5 pt. line and small heads. Make as much use as possible of elbow connectors and hotspot connections, so your lines will stay connected when you make adjustments. For a set of sequential steps, use one line or arrow behind all the boxes.
Placing the diagram into the narrative
You can link or embed PowerPoint graphics in a Word document—but we advise against these practices. They allow you to easily edit the placed flowchart—but you have much less control than you get with static images. Since we believe looks matter, we use the following alternative.
Save or print the PowerPoint flowchart as a PDF
Select the area containing the flowchart and crop
Insert or paste the PDF image into the Word document
Select the image and go to Format Picture > Layout and select > Tight
Select the image and go to Format Picture > Line and select Solid > 0.5 and colour dark gray
Because the diagram was produced at or close to final size in the Word doc, the line weights and type size will be very close to those in the PowerPoint file.
NOTE: You could save the image in any of several image formats (JPEG, PNG, TIFF etc.), but we’ve found that none of these formats render as crisp an image as does PDF.
CAUTION: Because of the way PDF files render, computers displaying the Word document will need the fonts used in your flowchart. Calibri has been the standard MS Office font since 2007, but users running earlier Word versions may see artifacts in the diagram.
Add a caption
Be sure to add a selling caption that delivers the message you want to your diagram to convey.