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Is An Incumbent “The Man Who Knew Too Much?”

Riddle me this. If knowledge is power, is it ever possible to know too much?

If you watch the 1956 blockbuster “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” you’ll find that Alfred Hitchcock apparently thought so, especially if that “man” was dabbling in the world of international espionage.

But what about the humble government contractor? Is it possible for them to know too much?

If you’re the incumbent who is rebidding in a government contracting scenario, you can absolutely find yourself in the position of knowing too much for your own good.

Let’s back up a bit…

Being an incumbent is a double-edged sword. On one hand, your experience with the customer has given you information that nobody else has. You know what they need, and what they really want whether those needs and desires are clearly spelled out in solicitation documents or not. As the incumbent, you have a level of understanding about what the customer really cares about in a way that your competition does not.

Now in some ways, this knowledge translates to a monstrous leg-up on those who are bidding against you. So what’s the bad news? If you don’t remember that the evaluation process is based on what the RFP actually says, you’re not going to win.

The winning bid will present a basic, reasonable, compliant, threshold solution that’s responsive to the requirements called out in the RFP. As the incumbent, you will need to confine your responses to those and resist submitting a gold-plated solution with a price to match. In this case, using your extra knowledge to provide a more complex solution, even when you are confident that what you’re offering is actually what the customer needs or wants, is a recipe for failure.

This is also time for a reality check. A lot of people believe that the incumbent always has an advantage over the rest of the field. Not surprisingly, incumbents tend to think the same thing. In reality, however, it’s just about 50/50 whether the incumbent wins or not.

It’s easy for an incumbent to fall into the trap of thinking, “My customer loves me. They won’t replace me” when the truth is your federal customer probably couldn’t care less about you. The agency needs a compliant threshold solution at the lowest possible price. It’s really that simple.

I’m reminded of an example from years ago. A special operations command put out a contract in search of a vendor who could customize and modify equipment on a really fast track. The winning contractor did an incredible job on the engineering and fabrication, but they dropped the ball completely on the administration of the contract. Although the contract specified that work would not commence without a task order, the contractor ignored those terms and conditions, causing a processing and billing nightmare for the higher-ups. The boots-on-the-ground folks were happy because they were getting their hands on the product fast, but the agency’s overall satisfaction with the vendor wasn’t great.

As the solicitation documents for this work were being prepared, another company learned about these issues through some savvy competitive analysis. They put together a proposal that promised not only timely, on-budget products but an administrative process that would keep the entire agency’s billing process on the rails. The winning contractor gave the government agency real-time access to their management system, allowing them to generate and authorize task orders immediately. This was innovative, responsive, and ultimately successful. The incumbent was unseated.

If you’re the incumbent, keep in mind the things you’ve learned about the agency’s “corporate personality” but forget value definitions. Answer the requirements. Nothing more. Providing a compliant threshold solution is far more likely to get you the win.