What is an RFP?

An RFP or Request for Proposal is a document in one page or multiple pages that businesses use to procure proposals, or bids from contractors and service providers.

What Makes a Weak RFP?

Perhaps the single biggest problem with RFP’s today is the abundance of rather opaque, disjointed, and vague RFP’s. Such RFP’s lead to proposals that vary wildly from one another as contractors and vendors are left to simply guess at what should be included in the proposal. Sifting through such varying proposals can be not only time-consuming but frustrating, wasting both your business and potential contractor’s time. Furthermore, any contract you do sign that originates from an unclear or undetailed RFP may ultimately fail to address the very issues you designed it to fix. There is a genuine need for businesses to better understand what must be included in a strong RFP as well as how to present that information in a detailed, clear and accurate manner.

What Makes a Strong RFP?

Beyond what you choose to include in it, there are some issues specifically related to form, or how you present the information within your request. To be specific, the form of your RFP must promote three things above all else:

  • Specificity :Whatever you include in your RFP, make sure to include specific details. You want to give potential contractors all the information they need to know about significant aspects that relate to the job you are asking of them. Don’t leave any details to guess work, but include what they need to know.
  • Clarity :Beyond insuring you’ve included all the key details, make sure you don’t confuse or mislead potential vendors or contractors by giving them superfluous or redundant information. Additionally, don’t confuse them by being indirect or unclear about your needs. If you do this contractors may mistakenly think some incidental information you include is as important as or more important than truly key details. Or worse yet, they may even miss key details all together if it’s presented in an unclear or indirect way.
  • Accuracy :Finally, you have to be as accurate as possible in your RFP. It doesn’t matter how detailed and clear you are if you are inaccurate in what you communicate. So in every way, you’ll want to ensure your RFP is as accurate as possible.

The key here is to eliminate all guesswork for your potential contractors. This limits the widely varied proposals a poorly written RFP solicits. Achieving a strong RFP that does this does not simply happen. It’s the result of careful, deliberate work. Understanding exactly how to write a proposal that achieves these three things as well as what specifically must be included are therefore the keys to a strong RFP.

Four Essential Steps to Writing an RFP

Knowing that you need a clear, detailed, and accurate RFP that eliminates guesswork for potential contractors in order to ensure the selection process as well as the resulting working relationship is as smooth and beneficial as possible is the first step to putting together a winning RFP.

The next step is understanding how to write such an RFP. Here is a four step process you can rely on to help you create the kind of RFP your business truly needs:

Step 1.  Perform a Self-Assessment

The first thing you need to do is thoroughly examine why you are putting out a call for proposals. Look at your needs and ask yourself several probing questions. Make them hard to answer. Here is a good list to get you started, but as you work through this, think of questions that address the unique and specific needs of your business or project.

  • What happened that led to this call for a proposal? Make sure you understand the root causes of your needs, not just the surface issues resulting from them.
  • Think about your business as if you are the potential vendor and ask yourself, what does such a vendor really and truly need to know about your business, market, and needs to deliver you an outstanding solution?
  • Think about what kind of solution you are looking for. What do you see as the ideal solution here? Does it really address the root causes? Think deeply on what the best possible solution might look like so you can formulate this into a goal to include in your RFP.
  • Think about your timeline and budget. When do you need this solution? When can you afford it?
  • Think about what makes your business unique from others. What do you need bidders to know about your processes, methodologies, or culture – about the things that make you who you are, the things you are not willing to compromise?

This list is in no way comprehensive. It’s merely intended to help you get your wheels churning on what you need to assess about your needs so that you have the correct information to include in your RFP. That means that you need to not only ask these questions, but do actual research until you can accurately answer them. That’s the important part:performing your due diligence in such a way that will provide strong information to include in your RFP.

Step 2.  Find a Strong Template and Customize It

For small businesses, contractors, and startups, hiring a team to build your RFP simply isn’t possible. Therefore, you need a way to have a compelling, strongly organized, and well-focused RFP without having to start from scratch. The best way to do this is to find a strong RFP template and fill out the template with the information from your self-assessment and research.

Be as detailed as possible where needed, but don’t include extra information that your potential contractor or vendor doesn’t need. Then, once it’s filled out, go back over it and read it again as you revise and polish.

A template is a time-saving tool. It is by no means a polished document. Even the best template in the world must be re-read and revised after filling it out. Never simply put your information into a template and call it good to go. This leads to disjointed, hard to follow, and clunky RFPs.

Once you’ve revised it, let it sit for a day and then come back to it and go over it again with fresh eyes. Don’t let your initial read be the last read you ever give it. This document is key to setting up a potentially tremendously beneficial relationship for your business. It is 100% worth the extra time this requires because you’re going to save that time and then some on the back end during the selection process and over the lifetime of the working relationship that results from it.

Consider reading over it a final time after you’ve revised it and this time pretend you are a potential contractor trying to understand what it is you’ll need to include in a proposal. If anything is unclear, lacks needed detail, or is unhelpful, change it to make sure that you’ve removed all the guess work for vendors and contractors who will be responding to it. Never leave anything important up to interpretation or you just won’t know what kind of response you are going to get.

Step 3.  Setup a Page or Website for Your Request for Proposal
When it comes time to actually sending out your RFP, setup a page on your website or even a new website to track your responses. There are a number of significant advantages this provides:

  • Gives you a great place to provide extra details to vendors.When it comes down to it, the vendor or contractor with the winning bid will likely do extra research to learn as much as they can about you. By creating this website, you actually can portray a single narrative about your needs instead of simply hoping that whatever member of your team they happen to interview understands your RFP. You can include information about who to contact, extra details on financial records, your market profile, or anything else that you know they’ll want to know more about when they begin to put together a proposal.
  • Makes it very easy for you to track submissions and contact potential vendors.Instead of spending time tracking down contractors through various channels, you can streamline the process by directing it all through a portal on your website. This also reduces the chances of a proposal somehow slipping through the cracks because the employee it was delivered to failed to deliver it to the right place.
  • It provides you a way to track responses and activity.By being able to monitor how much of a response your RFP gets as well as analyze demographic data about the vendors or contractors who do respond via web analytics, you gain valuable insight into the effectiveness of your RFP that traditional methods simply cannot offer.
  • You can instantly update your RFP and any pertinent information.If something comes up regarding your RFP, you can easily contact vendors who have submitted proposals via an automated interface on the website as well as instantly update the RFP or any information on the site so that future proposals have access to accurate and up-to-date information.

Step 4.  Ask Contractors to Adhere to a Proposal Format

This is something that both saves you time and helps you easily eliminate some bids almost instantly. By including a section in your RFP or on your RFP website that describes a specific format you’d like proposals to be received in, you make it much easier on yourself to read through the proposals you receive.

Instead of hunting over each proposal to find the pertinent information for a quick comparison with other bids, your eyes can instantly go to the parts of the proposal that are important. This saves you time and reduces fatigue making the overall evaluation and awarding process much easier on you and your team.

Additionally, this gives you the ability to simply disqualify vendors who fail to follow this form. If they can’t follow your request on the format of the proposal, you can likely assume that getting them to follow your requests after they’ve been awarded the bid will be even more difficult. So this is a small hoop you are asking contractors to jump through that says “Yes, we are willing to do what you ask and to make the kind of accommodations you need us to in order to make this relationship work.”

The Key Sections of a Strong RFP

Now that you understand the process of putting together an RFP and sending it out, it’s vitally important that you also understand the key sections you’ll need to include for your RFP to be as strong as possible. Now remember, an RFP is simply a catch-all phrase. So this list isn’t inclusive or mandatory by any stretch. Like the template you settle on, this list can and should be modified to accurately reflect the specific needs of your business or projects when it comes. If that means adding a new section to a template you like or removing one that simply isn’t applicable to your business, then that’s what you need to do.

Project Overview

Make sure that potential vendors have a good grasp of what you are looking for right from the beginning. Start with a project overview that covers the following:

  1. The key details about your needs that led to create the RFP
  2. The key goals of the project or service you are looking for.
  3. Key information about your business, its culture, and why you do what you do.

The goal of a RFP is to elicit a proposal from a vendor or contractor who truly “gets” you and what you really need, so that you have an ideal working relationship that produces the best results. Starting off here and giving information about you are as a company, why you exist, as well as the key needs and goals will give potential bidders a framework from which to understand the project, your business, and any future working relationship that may blossom.

Comprehensive Market Profile

Ultimately, you want a contractor or vendor who is as concerned about helping you meet your own customer’s needs as you are – that is, someone who will help you succeed instead of hold you back. To demonstrate that they are the type of contractor you are looking for, bidders will need to understand your specific market, competition, and target demographics. Be sure to include information concerning:

  • The strengths and vulnerabilities inherent in your industry or type of business.
  • The key demographic of customer you must appeal to in order to run a profitable business
  • The names of your largest competition.
  • A brief summary of the significant history of your business, market, or industry – especially if you are involved in emerging technologies that didn’t exist a decade ago.
  • Anything else unique to the market you operate in that affects the proposal. Ask yourself what they need to know and make sure to include this information.

Tentative Timeline

Don’t make vendors guess on this. You’ll get all kinds of responses. Instead, include a reasonable, tentative timeline of your expectations for the ensuing project or working relationship. This will save you and potential contractors both time and effort by limiting the responses you receive for your RFP to those that can meet your timeline needs.

Any Special Needs

Your business likely has something proprietary or industry specific that you may need expertise in from contractors in order to successfully address your needs. Make sure to include a description of any special sills, tools, technologies, or certifications you need potential bidders to have in order to win the bid.

For example, you may need help with a data solution and need someone who knows SQL. Additionally, you may need a bilingual expert to help transition to a new international market, or a team able to design a microchip to a specific size and quantity. Whatever specialization you may need, be sure to include it in your RFP.

Comprehensive Budget Information

Just like your timeline, potential bidders need to have some idea of your budgetary needs in order to know if bidding on your project is something that they should do. Be sure to include information about your budget constraints and needs. If your project is big, be as detailed as you need to be. You don’t want to get into a situation where you find out there is a hidden cost because you weren’t clear about a specific aspect of your budget or needs. Be as clear as possible on this up front to help filter your responses to only those bidders who are within your budget.

Your Desired Proposal Format

As already discussed, avoid getting tons of different types of proposals that make it hard to locate the key information. Instead save yourself time by including a section that details the format you’d like bidders to follow with their proposals.

Performance Standards / Standard Contract Information

Depending on the specific type and size of your project or need, include a list of targets, minimum performance standards, your desired process to correct issues or mistakes, and even a link to or copy of the standard contract you’d like to use. Bringing this up before agreeing to a working relationship can help set expectations in ways that ultimately lead to stronger results. It also helps to deter any contractors from bidding who would have problems agreeing to your terms.

Evaluation and Award Criteria

At all times you want to remove the guess work for your potential bidders. That’s why you need to include specific information about your evaluation and award process. Go over specifically what key factors will go into your final decision. Make it clear what you’ll be judging their proposals on. When good contractors don’t have to guess about what you’ll be evaluating them on, they’ll be sure to focus on these key criteria in their proposal which will help such proposals stand out. Including this in your RFP is the #1 thing you can do to simplify your evaluation and award process, so don’t leave it out.

Contact Information

Most strong proposals come from contractors who have followed up with your company to learn more about your needs in order to draw up a strong proposal. Briefly leave them the contact information of anyone or any resource you wish them to consult for this purpose. Then you just have to make sure such team members are aware and up-to-date on what to share with such bidders.

To Sum it all Up…

When it comes down to it, there simply is no other methodology to elicit proposals and establish strong working relationships than a well-researched and written request for proposal. Remember, make sure yours is clear, detailed, and accurate.

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