The Perfect Past Performance Beating the competition's perfect past performance section by showing your flaws - a lesson from 37Signals and Basecamp

Nov 26, 2018 | 0 comments

Beating the competition’s perfect past performance section by showing your flaws – a lesson from 37Signals and Basecamp

Basecamp, a wildly popular tool for teamwork and collaboration in the cloud, went down for six hours this week. Quite a few businesses rely on their simple, straightforward communication and collaboration environment internally and to collaborate with customers. I cannot imagine the hellfire that rained down on them from users.

The way they responded was nothing short of incredible. Here’s a bit of their message to users:

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Basecamp 3 was in read-only mode for several hours today. Everything has been restored to normal service now, but we’re still working on a full postmortem of what happened. There may also still be slight delays or blips as we work through our backlog. We’ve let you down on an avoidable issue that we should have been on top of. We will work hard to regain your trust, and to get back to our normal, boring schedule of 99.998% uptime.

This sets the tone. This is what customers want to hear every time. You’re going to lose some users regardless, but this is going to capture your base and keep them loyal. You don’t need a crisis PR firm for this, you need honesty.

There’s a good chance people are going to be mentioning this incident every time they’re asked about whether or not they should switch to a 37Signals product for a good time to come.

The government has a report card – the Contractor Performance Assessment Reporting System (CPARS). Every time you submit a proposal for a government contract, they look you up. They know when you screwed up.

Further, most good contracting officers call the people who reported on your contract. You know what’s on your report card, do you know what they’ll say on the phone about you?

This message from 37Signals about their “past performance” should be your master template for past performance references.

Good solicitations ask detailed questions about challenges you faced and how you resolved them. Even when they don’t you should tell them.

Honesty instills trust. Trust reduces risk. This is not B2B marketing, this is the real world of GovCon. They know that something always goes wrong.

Step 1: Document Incidents as they Occur

I would recommend the approach used below to any project manager describing a critical incident. However, most teams don’t write these things down and store them in the project knowledge repository – at least not in a place where the proposal team can see it.

Here are some key steps to follow to make sure your past performance database is up to date and effective:

  1. Ensure your project team documents risks, issues, mitigation plans, and communication plans in a central project repository
  2. Consistently update your BD, capture, and proposal arms on both positive events and negative events
  3. Ensure your executed communication plan matches your documented plan – document when you deviate and how well the deviation worked
  4. Trust your capture and proposal teams to tailor and message any issue in a way that advances your proposal efforts

Note: this is part of an upcoming white paper about linking your QMS to your proposal knowledge repository!

Step 2: Set The Right Tone for Your Future Customers

A lot of regular updates followed, showing technical details about the problem as they were uncovered. The last was this:

At 12:41pm CST, Basecamp came back online after we switched over to our backup caching servers. Everything is working as of this moment, but we’re obviously not entirely out of the woods yet. We remain on red alert.

Remember, the people who review your proposals can reach out directly to your existing customers. You must assume any issues are going to be shared. It’s easy to mitigate any risk from that.Make sure your capture effort includes ongoing communication with your past performance references reminding them of how well you solve issues – Project Managers are part of the capture process!

  1. Constantly gauge customer satisfaction through a variety of methods.
  2. Document the issue in the past performance section of any proposal, even if they don’t ask for it. Nobody thinks any project runs perfectly.
  3. Tell them how you solved the issue – show them exactly how you implemented your risk management, issue management, and communications plans.
  4. Tell them that you have taken organization-level action to monitor for similar issues, have improved processes to avoid future occurrences, and are still on “red alert” across your project teams.
  5. Show them the benefit to them selecting your management plans above your competitors

Contracting officers love this. They want to know how to minimize and mitigate risk. You can’t give them a detailed plan without substantiating your claims. The blog from 37Signals communicating the Basecamp issue was written by the CEO of the company on his personal Medium account. Show your corporate commitment to quality improvement. More importantly, have a corporate commitment to quality improvement.

Step 3: Be Honest

Further insight on the technical problem: It’s embarrassing to admit, but the root cause of this issue with running out of integers has been a known problem in our technical community. We use the development framework Rails (which we created!), and the default setting for that framework move from integer to big integer two years ago.

We should have known better. We should have done our due diligence when this improvement was made to the framework two years ago. I accept full responsibility for failing to heed that warning, and by extension for causing the multi-hour outage today. I’m really, really sorry 😢

I have seen far too many proposals touch on issues (when required) and place the blame on a subcontractor, another contractor-owned system, or the customer. This may be true, but your only focus is on what your company did to participate in the issue and how you took the lead in solving the problem. Nothing else matters. Anything else is just an excuse.

Be ruthlessly, relentlessly honest. If you are, you’ll find out a lot about your company. You might find that improvement happens when the brightest lights are shined on your projects during a Red Team review.

Step 4: Watch the Evaluation Factors Change

If two proposals have perfect management plans, both receive the highest rating. However, your proposal is the only one with detailed descriptions of issues you faced and how you solved them.

When evaluating on a “Best Value” scale, Risk Adjustments are the most powerful tool Contracting Officers have. In many cases, they can increase a competitor’s price based on the risk present in their technical proposal.

Demonstrating accountability, honesty, improvement, and a corporate focus in quality reduces risk. The perfect past performance will increase your win probability.

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