How to Strategically Ask Questions to the Government

Submitting questions on a solicitation is an important step in the proposal process and should not be taken lightly. The customer uses the written Q&A process to give the bidders a chance to clarify the requirements of the solicitation. But by the time the final solicitation is released, the customer feels that they have published a finished product. Also, every question you submit causes the Government to do more work in order to respond. The submitted questions are your first opportunity to make an impression on the evaluation committee, so use caution when asking questions on the final solicitation.

There are a couple of legitimate reasons to submit questions on the solicitation: you may choose to ask a question to clarify a confusing or conflicting proposal requirement in the solicitation. In some cases, you may ask for more data to level the playing field—for example, when the incumbent has insider information on workloads, the operating environment, and so on.

There are lots of reasons not to ask a question:

1. Don’t ask a question to make up for bad capture.

If you haven’t figured out yet what the customer’s hot button issues are, or who the incumbent is, it’s too late to ask; plus, you demonstrate your unpreparedness to the customer.

2. Don’t ask ignorant questions.

Don’t ask a question that looks like you don’t understand the basics of contracting, or the basics of who the customer is; if you have to ask this type of question, you probably should not be bidding.

3. Don’t ask a question that’s answered in the RFP.

Some people only read parts of the solicitation and think you should ask a question because they didn’t see the answer in the part of the solicitation they read. This shows the customer a lack of attention to detail.

4. Don’t ask obvious questions.

If the customer included an obvious typo and you know without a doubt what they meant, don’t ask a question to get them to correct the typo; you’re just poking them in the eye and will create a bad impression of your company.

5. Don’t ask the customer to do your design.

The customer will never opine on the solution you’re thinking about during the Q&A process; write up your solution the best way you can, demonstrating the strengths of the solution.

6. Don’t slander the customer’s acquisition strategy.

For the most part, the customer can do what they want in the procurement and pointing out that their procurement strategy has flaws will not win you any points.

7. Don’t give away your approach.

Since all of your competition will see your questions, if you ask the customer about an element of your solution then everyone will know what at least one bidder is planning to propose; if you had a competitive advantage with that solution, you lose it by asking a question that gives it away.

8. Don’t ask for extra pages for something that won’t be scored.

The customer is probably already stressed about how many proposals they will have to evaluate; if you ask for additional pages for something they didn’t ask for (e.g., an executive summary) they will not be pleased.

Final Thoughts

When the solicitation is released and distributed to the proposal team, ask people to identify questions they think the team might want to ask. Set a deadline for the collection of those candidate questions, in advance of the deadline for questions the customer has provided, so that you have time to review, eliminate, and refine the list of questions.

When you ask for candidate questions from the proposal team, it’s a good idea to provide a template for the collection of those candidate questions. When someone uses the template to propose a question, they should include: the solicitation section and page number, the solicitation language, the proposed question, how the answer to the question will impact the proposal, and what answer you should assume for the question until the customer answers the questions. You don’t want to sit around waiting for answers to questions before you develop your proposal.

The collection of all that information for each candidate question will allow you to make quick decisions about which questions to submit.

To quote David Byrne in the movie “Stop Making Sense,” does anybody have any questions?