Relevant Past Performance

Past performance/reference descriptions show customers that you have relevant management and technical experience—a good indicator that you can effectively meet their requests and perform to their expectations.


You wouldn’t put much trust in a surgeon who had never performed the operation you needed, nor one who had made multiple attempts and failed at each. Similarly, customers prefer organizations that can demonstrate both experience that is relevant to the management and technical work they need done (relevant experience) and a track record of success (past performance).

In the business development context, relevant experience is comparable in goals, size, scope, magnitude, and complexity to the contract being bid upon. Evaluators may be technical types who want to know about your technical abilities and skills. Successful past performance refers to a favorable impact, results, or solution to a similar customer’s issues. The emphasis is on cost, schedule adherence, plus the basic question: “Did you do what the contract required?”

Some customers may place greater importance on past performance than others. But no matter what the setting, clear descriptions of past performance can help build confidence in your solution and ability to perform.

When evaluating your past performance, customers will likely distinguish between proposal risk and performance risk.

  • Proposal risk is the risk associated with an offeror’s proposed approach in meeting the customer’s requirements. It is a “future risk” and is assessed and evaluated as part of the technical/management proposal volume(s) by those types of evaluators.
  • Performance risk is the risk associated with the probability that an offeror will successfully perform on the contract they’re bidding on based on their record of past performance on similar contracts. Performance risk is typically assessed by contracts professionals who assess requirements of a bidder’s previous relevant contracts and their performance in meeting those requirements.

Best Practices

1. Review the RFP to identify all past performance-related requirements.

Before writing begins, review the RFP in its entirety to identify all RFP requirements related to past performance.

Take time to understand the customer and the RFP, and gain knowledge of:

  • The purpose of the contract
  • The scope of work to be performed
  • Whether it’s a new or existing contract
  • The customer’s satisfaction level with the current contractor (if it’s an existing contract); you can learn this through customer interactions
  • Whether the RFP instructions call for a separate past performance volume focused on relevant performance risk, or whether you must supply a capabilities section of the technical/management volume
  • Whether past performance contract information or capability descriptions are required from your teammates and/or subcontractors

Past performance descriptions will need to speak directly to what the customer sees as critical success factors.

Identify all past performance-related requirements. Although the past performance instructions and evaluation criteria are a good starting point for identifying requirements, they aren’t the only portion of an RFP that contains requirements. Review the customer’s detailed description in the RFP of the work to be performed, typically called the statement of work (SOW) or performance work statement (PWS). Use relevant key words from the SOW or PWS in your past performance descriptions.

Determine how many past performance descriptions need to be written. Many RFPs specify the minimum or maximum number of past performance descriptions required. Use the RFP as your guide for subsection headings within the past performance descriptions. As part of this step, assess whether the past performance writing workload is achievable in light of the master proposal schedule. If additional past performance writers are needed, pull them into the project early. Consult with the Bid or Proposal Manager to ensure that the workload, writing resources, and proposal budget are aligned.

Even if the RFP instructions call for past performance in a specified section, be sure to support your claims throughout the proposal by including proof points based on relevant (and successful) past performance at appropriate places. Use introductory phrases to signal past performance examples, such as “This approach was successful when …” or “A customer saved XXX by … ’”.

2. Choose past performance description candidates based on relevance, quality, and recency.

You’ll likely have to choose the projects to write as past performance descriptions from among many projects you’ve performed. Help the proposal team weigh the pros and cons of each candidate contract for inclusion in the proposal.

The first criterion for all other contracts under consideration as past performance descriptions is relevance. Relevance is defined as past performance contracts specific to the stated requirements or projects that are connected with the customer’s conditions, standards, and processes. Relevance has several components:

  • Scope. How closely does the candidate contract compare to the technical work of the contract for which a proposal is being submitted? (Many large organizations bidding on contracts with federal agencies consider themselves compliant as long as every section of the RFP’s SOW/PWS is performed on at least one of the contracts submitted as past performance descriptions.)
  • Size and complexity. How closely does the candidate contract compare in terms of its duration, dollar value, number of personnel, number of tasks, and accomplishments? Did the contract support an organization and user community similar to that specified in the proposal, or was it much smaller? Does the contract have similar duration to the one being bid on?
  • Goals and results. Does the candidate contract share comparable goals with other contracts from the past?
  • Business unit bidding the effort. Some organizations fall into the trap of cherry-picking past performance and relevant experience from across business units, irrespective of whether those business units will participate in the work being bid. Many customers, especially government agencies, limit past performance to only those business units that will actually be performing the work.

Ideally, one of the contracts to be included as a past performance description is the predecessor to the contract being bid on. By definition, this is the single most directly relevant contract possible. Other highly relevant contracts will involve essentially the same magnitude of effort and complexities that the subject solicitation requires.

The second important factor to consider in selecting contracts as past performance descriptions is the quality of the reference. Verify the expected quality of the reference on every candidate contract. Keep in mind that on an ongoing contract, management issues or performance problems may have developed since the contract was most recently used as a past performance reference.

Some government RFPs include a formal past performance questionnaire that must be completed by each past performance contract’s customer. Other RFPs do not include a formal questionnaire but require bidders to provide each past performance contract’s points of contact (names and titles), phone numbers, and email addresses. Even when the reference check is informal (i.e., not required via a questionnaire), expect that the referenced customer will receive an inquiry by phone or email.

If you’re bidding on a government contract, the customer usually will have access to any contractor’s past performance assessments they deem relevant. If you’ve performed badly on a relevant contract, include discussions of these past performances in your proposal. Explain to your potential customer what you’re doing or have done to fix the issue so the negative performance won’t happen again.

Once you’ve verified references for relevance and quality, build and complete a chart that lists the candidate contracts and checks off the applicable SOW/PWS areas. Following the selection of which contracts will be included as past performance descriptions in the proposal, this matrix can be the basis of the past performance introduction.

The third criterion for selecting a past performance candidate project is its recency. The candidate contract should be either an ongoing contract or one that was recently completed. Many RFPs prohibit the inclusion of contracts that were completed beyond a certain timeframe (typically, no more than three years).

3. Develop coherent, visually appealing descriptions of your past performance.

Dense, lengthy past performance descriptions are time consuming and frustrating for evaluators. Do not assume that customers will read a past performance description. Instead, expect that if the past performance descriptions are delivered in hardcopy, the person evaluating them will just skim the first page of each description. If they’re delivered electronically, the evaluator will likely perform a search for the keywords of the solicitation and verify the quality of the customer reference. Make your past performance descriptions easy to read, so evaluators can get to key information as quickly as possible.

Set up the template to focus on the major technical headings listed in the RFP. Use the customer’s exact naming conventions and format. This demonstrates the relevance in terms of scope in a detailed manner. The responses to these headings should focus on measurable accomplishments (rather than simply listing the types of work performed). They should be brief statements with impact that answer how the work benefits or benefitted the customer.

Gather the facts and figures about each past project listed, including the customer name, contract number (if applicable) and total value, period of performance, and place(s) of performance. The facts and figures are typically listed at the top of the past performance description in tabular format.

Start the narrative with a one-paragraph, half-page overview of the project. Explicitly state why it is relevant in terms of size, scope, and complexity. State the most impressive accomplishments you achieved, and rigorously document any facts supporting the contracts’ relevance. This may be the only paragraph that a proposal evaluator reads in its entirety.

Create a section to identify measures of quality, timeliness, and customer service. Respond to each of these headings with clear supporting examples. There are many types of support you can use as proof points. These could include:

  • Bonuses or awards earned
  • Formal performance ratings
  • Positive feedback from customers in email or letter form
  • Quantifiable benefits of your solution

Graphics can also help you tell the story of your past performance. They can add emotional impact and visually convey the impact of a complex solution.

Finally, secure the Bid or Proposal Manager’s approval of the past performance template. To minimize revisions and maximize the efficiency of the past performance writing process, secure this approval before writing past performance content.

4. Follow a controlled process for executing past performance descriptions.

Inform Program or Contract Managers.

Contact the internal Program or Contract Managers again to let them know that the proposal team has solidified the plan to use their contract as a past performance reference. Outline the schedule for past performance description development and completion. Remember that the internal manager may not be available during standard business hours. Ask if the manager has a designee for past performance descriptions with whom you should work. If past performance questionnaires are involved, the Program Manager should deliver the questionnaire to the customer. To do this, he or she will need to know the schedule for questionnaire submission to the procuring agency.

Some customers require pre-approval of their contract’s use in any past performance volume. This may require you to send a completed past performance contract write-up to one of your existing customers so that they can see the exact language and context of its use. Often, they will ask for revisions prior to approving its release in your proposal. Check with each Program Manager to ascertain this requirement. If needed, build several weeks of review and approval time into your past performance volume preparation time.

Write the past performance description.

Use the approved template to write a first draft. Include queries to the internal manager for missing keywords and compliance-related information. Add queries to make the content compelling, ensuring that every bullet or paragraph has a customer-focused, measurable benefit.

Conduct reviews.

Have the internal manager review the draft past performance descriptions prior to final document review. Incorporate review comments as appropriate. This may involve coordinating with the internal manager. After addressing the review team’s suggestions and completing any final editing and formatting, provide the internal manager with the final version of the past performance description for review and approval. There may be substantive changes at this late stage. Keep a record of the manager’s approval of the final version.

5. Establish a corporate past performance description database.

Every bidding organization needs a corporate past performance database. Past performance writers can search the database to identify recently completed and ongoing contracts and candidate past performance descriptions that are similar in size, scope, magnitude, and complexity to the contract being bid on.

One way to keep the corporate past performance database up to date is to request that each Program or Contract Manager (or designee) annually update a standard, complete description of the work. As proposal-specific past performance descriptions are created, those descriptions should either be added to the corporate past performance database or to a separate database for past performance reuse material.

You can also use a database to manage all aspects of in-progress past performance descriptions: template development and approval, template management, storage of resource material not in the corporate database, and past performance description writing and approval.

However, your database shouldn’t permit cherry-picking of past performance from one business area to another. Don’t use past performance from business areas that aren’t part of the work being bid on.

Application in Diverse Environments

Constraints in smaller organizations.

Many small organizations have a sole writer assigned to write past performance sections and maintain a corporate past performance database. Organizations in these settings should strive to maintain key facts about the engagement or program, such as:

  • Contract name and customer
  • Dollar value/contract type
  • Period of performance
  • Contract program objectives and key deliverables
  • Performance against the above items

Then, when needed, writers can use the above to write a strong summary of the contract that demonstrates relevance, features keywords and metrics, and is compliant with any past performance description format requirements in the RFP.

Regardless of the environment or limitations of the bidding organization, have every past performance description reviewed in detail by another person on the proposal team who understands the RFP. This will enhance the quality of the past performance descriptions.

Special considerations in U.S. federal settings.

Past performance is especially critical for U.S. federal government procurements. Federal agencies often assign the past performance volume of a proposal a large percentage of the RFP Section M evaluation criteria.

Because past performance descriptions have become so lengthy, however, much of their evaluation is automated. Some federal procurements, including many from the U.S. Air Force, use automated software to score past performance descriptions, meaning that no person ever reads them. Whether a person skims past performance descriptions or a tool assigns them a score, the best past performance descriptions are the ones that use the greatest number of keywords. Expect that a major factor in this score will be the quality of the references from past customers, even when there’s no formal past performance questionnaire associated with the procurement.

Other regulations particular to U.S. federal environments concern the number and format of past performance descriptions that can be submitted. Some federal RFPs specify how many past performance descriptions may be from the prime contractor versus subcontractors.

If you don’t have current, relevant past performance, you might need to reconsider bidding or consider adding teammates to fill in your past performance gaps.

Many federal RFPs include a specific per-past performance reference or per-volume page count, font size, font setting, and margins. If the RFP doesn’t establish these parameters, work with the Bid or Proposal Manager to establish common expectations. If the RFP doesn’t specify a per-description page limit, an appropriate length is typically five pages, single-spaced, 12-point font.

The federal government reserves the right to obtain additional, documented past performance information from other sources (i.e., CPARS/PPIRS).

Common Pitfalls and Misconceptions

Temptation to sweep poor performance under the rug.

Many organizations have made some type of error on a past effort. Evaluators understand this. They’re not necessarily looking for a spotless record but for contractors who can show systemic improvements. They want to know how you fixed a problem, and what evidence there is to show that it won’t happen again (especially on their contract). Address the issues head on by showing how you’ve improved processes, changed personnel, and so on.

Failure to devote enough time to past performance description development.

Unlike a technical or management approach volume, the development of past performance descriptions requires working with internal managers who have limited availability, in an iterative manner. Working from the master proposal schedule, establish a schedule for past performance description development, review, approval, and completion. Schedule additional time during the writing process to connect with these managers and to ensure the detailed past performance content is complete, correct, and has their approval.

Set up a consolidated tracking list for your notes on the status of each past performance description. Expect to be called on for a status report or to identify problems in need of escalation at any time.


  • Past performance descriptions show the customer that you have the relevant experience needed to perform the work requested in an RFP
  • Before you start to write, scan an RFP for all past performance-related requirements
  • Many past performance evaluations are automated, so use the customer’s keywords in your past performance descriptions
  • Choose projects to highlight in past performance descriptions based on their relevance and quality of the reference
  • Present past performance descriptions in an attractive, easy-to-understand way, using graphics and proof points as appropriate
  • Allow sufficient time for development and approval of past performance descriptions

Terms to Know

Tools and Templates

See Also