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Understanding the Requirements: How to Earn a Winning Edge

It may seem rather obvious that the first step in competing for a federal contract would be to try to understand what the customer is actually asking for. Isn’t that just common sense? And yet a surprising number of companies make the mistake—consciously or subconsciously—of underemphasizing this fundamental principle. Consequently, the resultant proposals are either too self-centered, or worse, non-compliant.

Failing to (a) understand what the customer actually needs and (b) address those needs thoroughly in a proposal is often the reason companies fail in their attempts to secure contracts in the federal marketplace.

How does this happen? It happens when a company focuses too much on convincing the customer to buy what they’re selling rather than first taking the time to understand what exactly the customer needs and then striving to satisfy those needs. This may seem subtle, but there is a vast philosophical difference here that can truly make all the difference between winning and losing.

It’s important to note that every RFP contains explicit and implicit requirements. The explicit requirements are those requirements that are articulated by the customer to all bidders, so that all are equally aware of them. These explicit requirements are the foundation—they are the key components that a contractor MUST address in order to qualify for a given opportunity.

Just because they are explicitly stated does not mean they are clear. Sometimes (okay let’s be honest, much of the time), the customer doesn’t actually know what they want. Sometimes (if you’re lucky), the customer will be conscious of their limitations, and will seek input from industry (via RFI, sources sought, Draft RFP, etc.) to help them understand what is possible, but not always. Unfortunately, there are many times where the customer has no clue what they want, but thinks they do, and moves forward at ramming speed.

Behind the explicit requirements, there is typically a hidden list of unspoken—or implicit—requirements that represent the customer’s true definition of value. These are what we call “customer hot buttons,” and every customer has them. A customer’s hot buttons will motivate them, inspire them, or perhaps even keep them up at night. Identifying and addressing these implicit requirements is where a winning strategy beings—it is how a company differentiates themselves from their peers and gains a competitive edge.

You may ask, how does one go about identifying a customer’s implicit requirements? The answer is … (you guessed it!) … good old fashioned customer intimacy. Know your customer. Study your customer. LISTEN to your customer! Talk to others in the industry about your customer. The ultimate source of your customer’s hot buttons is always your customer.

Once you have come to understand explicit and implicit requirements of an opportunity, THEN you can begin matching them against your internal capabilities. Your strengths and weaknesses will emerge quickly, enabling you to develop strategies for leveraging and enhancing your strengths and mitigating your weaknesses (e.g., teaming).

The better you understand your customer’s explicit and implicit requirements, the better positioned you will be to enhance your proposal in ways that your customer appreciates and values. Don’t assume you know the answer, don’t be afraid to ask “dumb questions,” and don’t try to sell what you have before you understand what your customer wants.