How to Bulletproof Your NEPA Consulting Proposal

Thomas Mullen
March 3, 2016

The RFP — or ever-important request for proposal — remains the lifeblood of any environmental consulting business. It’s the means by which an agency advertises a project to contractors who have the skills, education and experience to pull it off. And, as such, the process is specifically designed to include a few catches so that only the best, most detail-oriented candidates apply. Below, SmartComment gives its tips for navigating this crucial system and landing your RFP proposal on the top of the pile.

Only Go For the Right Jobs

You don’t get anywhere throwing a box of business cards around ninja-style at a cocktail party. Why, then, would you blast proposals out in answer to every RFP in a ten-state radius? Not only is it a waste of your staff’s valuable time and brainpower, it can position you pretty clearly as “that guy” at the project bidding table. After all, winning an RFP isn’t a numbers game. Like most worthwhile endeavors, it requires honesty, focus, and a distinctly human touch. Don’t just cut-and-paste your proposal template in pursuit of any job that crosses your screen on that government bidding website you’re paying for. Instead, focus on the clients with whom you have a solid working relationship and on projects for which you have a proven track record. That way, when you do take the occasional shot on a project that may be a little out of the box, it will come across as a genuine effort to grow your business rather than a desperate attempt to stay afloat.

Set a Realistic Budget and Stick to It

It’s the age-old RFP conundrum. Overbid a project, and your proposal could be eliminated right out of the gate. Underbid it to make sure you get the gig, and you could be paying for your mistake throughout the life of the contract, costing your firm valuable resources and erasing the very revenue your proposal set out to generate in the first place. So how do you avoid this no-win budgetary guessing game? It’s simple: don’t play it. Make your bid based on a true estimate of your costs, figure in a reasonable profit margin, and don’t waver. Don’t let a sizeable project budget tempt you into trying to make your whole year on a single deal. And don’t get tripped up trying to limbo under somebody else’s shoestring budget. Be transparent, be realistic, and let the agency weed out the shameless profit-gougers and unrealistic low-ballers.

Use a Comment Management System

It can sometimes be difficult for top environmental firms to truly differentiate themselves in a NEPA consulting proposal. Experience will be a given, budgets will be comparable, scopes will be exactly the same. One simple way to gain a competitive advantage in the process, however, is by making room in your bid for the use of comment management software. Not only will it underscore your reputation for cutting-edge innovation, it will transform the way your staff is able to organize and respond to public comments related to an EIS. Working in a real-time cloud-based environment alongside agency staff, you’ll be able to accept electronic comments, digitally bracket them, provide instant progress reports, and literally build the final document as comments are processed. And to ensure that the agency recognizes the benefit of having public comment software in your bid, the software’s makers themselves can assist you by providing a demo of its capabilities to agency staff in advance of a proposal decision. Result: guaranteed efficiency and transparency for the agency and a pretty substantial deal sweetener for your proposal.

Be On Time

We’ve all heard the horror story about the firm whose proposal missed an RFP deadline by three minutes and was eliminated from consideration, costing it half its existing business. And it’s no urban legend. Indeed, agencies have a legal obligation to enforce RFP deadlines to the exact specifications of the RFP — no exceptions. And while getting a proposal in under the deadline may seem obvious, it still trips up vendors regularly enough to warrant a hearty reminder. After all, we all procrastinate. Just don’t let your hard-wired weaknesses as a human get in the way of your proposal deadline. Look at the date and the time your proposal is due and leave yourself ample time to submit.

Take a Final Pass

With several weeks of prep work behind you and a finished proposal document burning a hole in your desktop files, the temptation to hit the “send” button and officially close the book on your RFP process can be tempting indeed. Don’t do it. Take a breath. Print it out. Break out the red pen and reading glasses and do one more reading pass before your proposal hits the inbox of the hiring agency. Watch not just for typos, but for repetitive or confusing phrasing, over-used industry jargon, boilerplate that needs updating, and other overlooked details that might call into question your firm’s thoroughness or attention to detail. After all, a clean, mistake-free proposal will score a lasting impression over one that is sloppy, wordy, hard to understand or marred by mistakes. Also be sure to double-check the submission rules on your RFP. Some require you to submit your costs and qualifications in separate envelope. Some want you to submit them together in the same one. Failing to follow the rules could mean your RFP proposal is disqualified on the final hurdle. And that’s never fun.