A first-hand look at the value of oral proposals

Two years ago Steven Kelman raised one of his off-the-wall ideas for improving the acquisition process. He suggested to me that oral proposals would be a major part of future procurements and that I should get ready for it. I responded by explaining to him why that couldn't work in the indefinite-delivery indefinite-quantity world and I gave him every good logical reason why it wouldn't benefit the acquisition process. I was wrong. My company just completed its first oral proposal and there are major benefits when it is well-done. Those benefits have nothing to do with presenting the same proposal in a different way and everything to do with capitalizing on the desire we all have to improve communications between government and industry. Our future customer was conducting the agency's first oral proposal just as we were presenting our first. The occasion had the potential to be a disaster. It was not. The main reason it succeeded was that the government's attitude and ours were the same. We were both there to understand one another without being judgmental. A written five-page proposal had been sent in a week ahead of the meeting. This was an opportunity for the customer to ask questions and for us to get a sense of its needs. It is much easier to develop a feeling of empathy for your customer when you are face to face and you learn more than you would ever glean from CRs and DRs. As a vendor the "face time" allows you to really grasp the level of concern the customer has about your proposal. Since Kelman first made the suggestion I had been skeptical about oral proposals. I anticipated that the big companies would put on "Gone With the Wind"-style productions while the small companies would read Section C responses and pray for the best. There just did not seem to be any measurable value to presenting the same data in a different way. My first experience with the process taught me otherwise. From the government's perspective there has to be a benefit in hearing vendors present solutions directly and assessing the value and sincerity of that presentation. The government can challenge the offerors' approach in real time and evaluate how well the presenters understand - and believe in - the solution being proposed. No amount of written communication can assure the government that the offeror not only understands but believes in the solution being presented. Clearly this benefit presumes that a level of trust exists between the offeror and the customer. Such trust has not been prevalent in the past and we're all going to have to accept that a degree of subjectivity will be exercised by the government in evaluating oral proposals. On the other hand we're talking about entering into multiple-year multiple-hundred million-dollar relationships. If we don't have a level of trust in one another at the outset the relationship is going to fail anyway. So now I'm a believer. My first experience with the process changed my point of view completely. Like everything else there are boundaries to the successful use of oral proposals. They mandate a "best value" award philosophy which means heavy weighting on past performance as an award factor. It also means the use of functional specifications. A prescriptive technical spec would degrade the discussion to a level of detail that would be totally unproductive. Last and most important the whole team needs to "buy in" to the process. I have not been to a trail boss training session in a while. If there is not a module on oral proposals now I'd urge that one be developed. An oral proposal training session that included role playing with industry representatives from the Industry Advisory Council or the Information Technology Association of America would be a great approach. So two years late I'd like to say "Great idea Steve." I'm off to plan my next oral proposal.Guerra is executive vice president of Sysorex Information Systems Inc. and a longtime participant in the federal IDIQ wars.

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