Q&A Response Development

Question-and-answer solicitations present unique challenges. Proposal developers can overcome tight turnarounds and increase win probability by approaching these solicitations in a methodical way.

Introduction

Solicitations consisting of a series of questions can be especially challenging for Proposal Developers. Question-and-answer (Q&A) solicitations often require fast turnaround. These solicitations not only often ask many questions, but also ask open-ended questions. Different Q&A solicitations tend to have different information and presentation requirements, even compared to solicitations in the same industry.

Best Practices

1. Establish a definite win strategy.

One challenge of Q&A proposals is differentiating your organization’s proposal from others. To create separation, you need to formulate a win strategy based on:

  • The customer’s stated needs
  • Stated and implied hot buttons: any feature, characteristic, measurement, or objective the customer uses to identify desirable products, services, or companies
  • A SWOT or TOWS analysis of your company and product/service
  • Your company’s differentiators and discriminators

If your company responds often to Q&A solicitations, you should create an easy-access archive of strategy documents, templates, and reusable, generic, and approved content that you can use to model win strategies in new opportunities and enable ongoing refinement.

2. Outline your proposal.

a. Prepare the response by putting questions into your proposal template.

Take the questions from the RFP and drop them into your company’s proposal template. The template should include standard sections such as a cover page, cover letter, table of contents, executive summary, body, and attachments. The template should include document and character styles for easy and consistent formatting.

When pasting the questions into the body section of the proposal template, ensure the numbering of the questions is the same as those provided to you in the RFP. Create visual distinctions between sections such as headers, color, and/or theme statements. Use “save as” to save the document following your company’s policy on document naming.

b. Distinguish between easy and difficult questions.

An initial pass through the questions will reveal some that can be answered easily and directly, and others that will require more thought, research, and general effort.

After identifying the relatively easy questions, use bullets or keywords to indicate main ideas and their order for each easy question.

These indications should refer to content, not to earlier documents. For example, you should put in a particular fact, such as “20 consecutive profitable quarters,” rather than “use content from ABC proposal.”

This tactic allows you to match content to strategy, and it allows you to execute the strategy consistently throughout the proposal. You want to move quickly through the easy questions, but you also want a strategic unity across the entire proposal.

As a rule, the first bullet’s content should directly address the specific question and use its language and terms.

c. Distinguish between least and most important questions.

A more careful review of the questions should reveal which questions have the most impact on proposal scoring and evaluation. The more important questions directly relate to customer hot buttons and vendor discriminators. Focus first on the questions of lesser importance and indicate content through the bullet point/keyword method.

As in the first outlining step, aim to move quickly through questions of lesser importance. Understand what content will directly answer the question, indicate it specifically through bullets and keywords, and then move on.

d. Plan content for the difficult and important questions.

Questions may be difficult for several reasons. A question may be completely new, something you have never answered before. It may require official documentation or other proof to be submitted along with the proposal. It may ask you to conduct a calculation or other analysis.

Follow the logic of earlier practices by first distinguishing which questions are difficult yet less important. For these, determine what content will serve as the minimal compliant response, and then establish the tasking and turnaround time to obtain this content. Aim to get this content locked down and complete as early as possible.

Eighty percent of your proposal’s strategy should concern the important questions. If you have been following the process described so far, you now have easy-important questions and difficult-important questions. Start with the easy ones, but don’t be fooled by their relative easiness. These are questions for which your responses should emerge from your win strategy. Highlight your discriminators, use visuals, and, above all, demonstrate sound understanding of customer needs, objectives, and issues.

This leaves only the difficult-important questions, and here the process should focus first on determining levels of compliance: What must your response include to demonstrate compliance, and what could the response present that would set you apart from the field? These responses should include both must and could content, but for proposal planning and execution, you need to know what will allow you minimal compliance if could content becomes impossible to obtain.

As with easy-important questions, use your outline to identify visuals that will reinforce strategic messages and discriminators.

e. Confirm all content.

Because Q&A solicitations often require fast turnaround, the Proposal Developer’s outlining skill and speed become critical to an organized, successful effort. Build the outline as soon as possible, then make the outline with full layout of bullet points, notes, and visuals available for stakeholders and management to review, comment upon, and approve. As a result of this review, you should gain consensus on the strategy and raw content plan. Then, you should make content assignments—with deadlines—for every question.

3. Use lean and concise content.

Because Q&A solicitations do not often have page restrictions, you may be tempted to give long, wordy responses. However, in Q&A solicitations, evaluators may be more interested in “checking the box” than in assessing the technical merits and details in certain responses. For example, they may only care that you meet a particular quality standard. If you meet the standard and have documentation, then your company is viable for that question and the evaluator will move on. In such cases, extended prose on your quality team and processes may have little to no impact on your final ranking.

However, if quality processes are a differentiator for your company, you can aim to make them a discriminator by using a visual with a caption relaying your strategic message. Often in Q&A proposals, putting visuals and documentation first, supported by short, strong messaging, yields the most impactful presentations.

In visuals and text, aim for a streamlined approach—clear, direct, fact based, and concise. Your company’s compliance and expertise in key areas should be unmistakable throughout.

4. Immediately, directly answer the question.

The most important rule in Q&A proposals is to ensure that the first sentence of every response directly answers the question that has been asked. This rule is not always easy to follow, especially if compliance is not clear on certain items.

But with a strong strategy and an understanding of which questions are the most important, you should be able to score well on the critical questions and establish enough separation between your company and others to remain competitive.

An executive summary can be your best tool for delivering an overall argument and narrative in your favor. Visual, concise, and focused on the customer’s priorities, the executive summary will almost certainly be reviewed by the broadest audience of evaluators and decisionmakers. Make it count by answering the top implied question of the Q&A solicitation: “What company makes the best choice for my business?”

Application in Diverse Environments

Responding to different types of solicitations

In some organizations, the Proposal Manager may be required to develop virtually all of the proposal content. In other organizations, certain sections may be allocated to others.

Many Q&A solicitations are presented as a single series of questions. Others, particularly longer ones, break up questions into sections. For the latter, consider including a preface (e.g., theme statement) to each section of responses. These brief introductions are an opportunity to show evaluators and discriminators what distinguishes your offer and organization from the field.

Recent Trends

Understanding online portal submissions

More frequently, Q&A solicitations are being issued on website portals where responders must enter content online and upload attachments. Review all training material provided to familiarize yourself with the system before starting the response. Be sure to find out if there are word limitations or formatting restrictions so that you can plan your response accordingly.

Common Pitfalls and Misconceptions

Lack of strategy and planning

The most common misconception surrounding Q&A solicitations is that formulating a coherent strategy beforehand does not significantly influence one’s win probability.

However, it seems reasonable to assume that win probabilities within particular markets will increase as a company matures specific strategies for communicating with and supporting these markets. Improving win probability often requires a long-term view and monitoring of not just one proposal outcome, but many.

Summary

  • Examine the solicitation, the customer, and your organization to define a critical messaging plan before launching into responses.
  • Set up your proposal document and begin outlining activities by distinguishing between easy and difficult questions, and then between the least and most important questions.
  • Plan content carefully for the most difficult and important questions.
  • Review the most difficult and important questions with management.
  • In drafting responses, use lean and concise content, particularly visuals.
  • For each response, make a direct answer to the solicitation question in the very first sentences, and use executive summaries to your advantage.

Terms to Know

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