We regularly conduct Black Hat reviews, working with many different teams serving different federal customers in a wide variety of service areas. We’re sharing these pitfalls with you to help you be aware of these traps in your own competitor analysis. When in doubt, we encourage all to remember the below quote from the best-selling author Lee Child:
“Hope for the best, plan for the worst.”
Overstating the value of the customer relationship
Much is made about which competitors are on the inside and know the customer and which are on the outside, supposedly looking in. So what? How is that translated into a quantifiable benefit? Incumbency does not guarantee anything. Every incumbent was once a newcomer. This is a closeable gap given time, teaming, hiring key persons, etc.
Ability to write a good proposal
We hear this mentioned in almost every black hat session. How do you quantify this as meaningful? Even if the competitor isn’t known for writing Shakespearean level prose, they can close the gap through hiring a few capable writers and pairing them with technical experts to mitigate this “weakness.”
Will perform incumbent capture
All non-incumbent contractors will detail the percentage of incumbent personnel that they expect to retain from the losing incumbent after award. It is common for incumbent personnel to often be more inspired by the agency mission and less by the contractor. We are aware of instances in which a previous incumbent embraced a scorched Earth approach to take their super star staff with them after a loss, leaving the new awardee with an awkward transition. Incumbent capture is not guaranteed.
“Nobody else can do this work”
Don’t assume you are special. Nobody is irreplaceable. The reality is that each competitor in a Black Hat review (assuming you gave this careful thought) is under examination for a reason – they pose a viable competitive threat. A new contractor may face a learning curve to understand the reality of day-to-day operations, but they will very likely figure it out.
Any non-incumbent team poses a transition risk and yet contracts are still awarded to new contractors. Many contractors have a defined “low-risk” transition plan, many will have dedicated transition teams, and some even have a dedicated transition office. While some competitors may have stronger transition stories than others (and this may legitimately sway the award), painting all non-incumbents with the broad brush of a risky transition is a bit of hubris.
Lack of business development or bid and proposal resources
Another common refrain is a competitor’s lack of BD / capture personnel or lack of B&P resources. This trap tends to be a case of wishful thinking. There are consultants for hire who can lead or augment an effort if the internal staff is limited. Lack of B&P resources may be true, but verifying this is challenging. Do you really know that the competitor will not focus their remaining resources on your opportunity?
Assumptions of competitor’s ignorance
Too often we hear how a competitor does not know anything about an opportunity, system, or customer. Or we’ll hear how the competitor is not interested in pursuing a particular opportunity. Ignorant competitors can rapidly flip the script through a single key hire or a knowledgeable teammate; they go from (presumably) knowing nothing to knowing everything.
Merger and acquisition related turmoil
M&A creates opportunity and chaos. In the aftermath of an M&A transaction, the day-to-day result is loss of personnel, ever present re-organization, and sometimes just uncertainty in terms of what normal will become. Black Hat teams often point to this turmoil and turnover as a threat to a competitor. While it may all be true, we should assume that the competitor is pursuing all opportunities with the full strength and resources of the new, consolidated company.
The competitor has no relevant past performance
A common story, particularly when dealing with smaller competitors, is their lack of past performance with similar size, scope, and complexity. While some competitors may lack some key points in past performance, most are more than capable of compensating for that with strong technical and management solutions and key personnel and subject matter experts who are well-suited to the opportunity. Before you assume this “weakness” is the undoing of a competitor, consider how heavily past performance is scored in the evaluation criteria.
Pointing to a company’s ethics violation or publicized failure on a certain contract may be relevant to that specific customer for a period of time. When looking at the legitimacy of a reputational hit, we must consider when it happened, who was involved, and how it will impact this evaluation. The reality is that most large businesses have had some transgression at some point in time.
Recognizing a Problem is the First Step Towards Correcting It
If, in the course of your Black Hat review or competitor analysis, you find yourself drifting into one of these traps, think about the below.
- You are not a special little snowflake. You have competitors. They can and will beat you.
- We cannot afford to discount our competitors; they are all fully capable of winning.
- We cannot afford to assume they are operating at anything less than their best; if so, they will self-select out of the competition.
- If we assume the competitors are weak, operate under that assumption, and lose the contract, we have just paid an expensive tuition bill.
As always…stay focused. Do your capture homework. There are some great opportunities out there. Good hunting!
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