12 Most Important Steps For Responding To A Request For Proposal (RFP)
Those who know me, know that I much prefer to work with private sector clients. I like building and sustaining relationships with business people and responding to needs we have uncovered together. There’s something very fulfilling about seeing a business through the owner’s or senior leader’s eyes and then finding ways to help them accomplish their goals.
Usually, my golden rules of responding to requests for proposal (RFPs) include “if this is the first time you have heard about this opportunity step away from the document, remove the dollar-tinted glasses from your eyes and use your time more productively on nurturing your existing accounts”. Responding effectively to an RFP requires you to think about the real potential for return on the time, energy and resources you invest in the submission. For additional thoughts on whether it might be worth your time pursuing an account, read Parissa Behnia’s post on 12 Most Likely Signs You Never Had The Sale and you might save yourself some effort by simply disqualifying yourself.
That said, in this age of forced objectivity, and public procurement directives, some industries have no choice but to prepare formal proposals for every new piece of work. And who can blame anyone for wanting to pitch their hat in the ring on potentially flagship opportunities to build their business (it would look super cool on your business bio to say you had a hand in whatever high profile venture the bid is for – think Pan-Am games, Toronto waterfront, Trump Towers etc.) So here goes with 12 most important steps for responding to a formal request for proposal.
1. Read the RFP documents
You would be amazed how many people miss this step. They see the title of the competition, skim the scope of work, decide immediately that this gig is theirs to lose, and forge in with a collection of interesting FAQs about their business (been in business since the year dot, have 50 locations, employ hundreds of staff blah blah blah….) Stop! Read all of the RFP documents, carefully, end to end. Make notes as you go. Pay careful attention to the requirements, requested format, weighted evaluation systems, submission schedule. Do nothing further until you have completed this step.
2. Determine if you have defensible expertise in the required areas
Be honest! By that I mean that doing something previously, just once, does not make you an expert! Do you have clients who would recommend your work in this area? Have you won any awards, been quoted in the press or been recognized by your peers and colleagues as an expert in this area through any of the ‘nomination led’ programs – Top widget maker in all of Outer Mongolia etc. The more defensible expertise you have, the better.
3. Select the key members of the team
You can always add more players from the bench later in the first period, but right now who should be on your starting line? The person who received the RFP and then took time to read it is not necessarily the right person to captain the team. Based on the needs described in the proposal, and the required client relationship, the key account lead should be purposefully selected for their skill and temperament. They don’t have to be the one project managing the proposal submission, but they do need to be actively engaged in the strategy, approach and final sign-off on how the organization is being presented. In a smaller organization, where the team is you plus however many multiple personalities you may have, you should still decide which character gets to play in front.
4. Read the RFP documents
No this is not a typo or a redundancy. Now that you have the team captain/s in place and selected someone to project manage the submission, whoever is orchestrating the proposal needs to read the entire package again. This time they should pay close attention to any ‘between the lines’ information. What are they really looking for? Which of the expressed needs is a ‘nice to have’ versus ‘essential to requirements’ (and does your experience match in the right places?). Decide which pieces can be worked on concurrently. It may be possible to divide and conquer, depending on your resources. If you have marketing or administrative staff they may be able to start sketching out a skeleton document, pulling together required information, assembling the biographies of the team members etc.
5. Background research
No matter how well you think you know the organization that has put out the RFP, and the circumstances surrounding their needs, it is important to understand the motives behind this particular competition, at this specific time. Has there been a recent shift in policies? A new leadership structure put in place? Are there any new legislative requirements that the organization are responding to? Has something changed in the political context in which this organization operates? Does the background research point to this being a genuine competition or an exercise in pencil sharpening? By which I mean, are the incumbents being asked to validate their re-appointment and everyone else is there to keep them honest? Does your research turn up any interesting facts about new appointments, recent reports, media attention, public relations? What do you know about the people making the decision? The more thorough your background research, the more potential for uncovering details that may help you carve out a few extra points during the evaluation process.
6. Develop your strategy
This is the point at which you decide how important this piece of work is for you to win. Would it help you win associated work (a credential account)? Are you going for highly differentiated value added services or lowest bid? How will you make your total pitch pack, including the team, services and pricing, stand out from other bidders? Remember, you must fulfill the mandatory requirements and then think about how you can add to them.
7. Identify your weaknesses
Not to be missed, you must be very aware of your weaknesses and find ways to mitigate them. See earlier, where I suggested a detailed read through of the RFP documents. Doing so will highlight the ‘nice to have’ versus the ‘essential to requirements’. If your weaknesses are in the optional areas they will be less of a hindrance. Down play your weaknesses but be honest and act with integrity. If you don’t have the expertise, don’t claim that you do.
This is always the hardest part of any formal proposal response. The blind nature of RFPs and the forced objectivity of an RFP process with heavy weighting typically placed on lowest price seems to place undue pressure on suppliers to offer deep discounts. What are the pricing debates affecting your industry? Are clients seeking value pricing, bundles, contingency rates, fixed fees etc. How can you balance competitive with profitable? See my post and the comments on 12 Most Costly Business Development Mistakes for more information about withstanding the pressure to deep discount.
9. Added value
Once you have addressed all the requirements of the RFP, how can you offer additional complimentary services and added value to your proposition? What will you do to help the purchasing team manage their budgetary constraints and ensure no surprises at the time of billing? Can you offer training, reporting and account transparency? How will you minimize hassle and switching costs, improve business processes etc.
10. Write, collate, curate, read, repeat
Now that you have your thinking in order, it’s time to start drafting the response. Start by collecting every relevant piece of content that you have, from any source. Pour it into a great big melting pot. Then armed with the RFP requirements start massaging content into the required format. Start with more than you need and cull profusely. Grab content that needs adapting and make it fit. Write fresh content as required. If you are cutting and pasting from other submissions (perfectly valid) please do so only because it’s relevant to this submission and not simply because it sounds good. Relevancy counts, fluff doesn’t.
11. Cross reference
As you draft the proposal response, make it easy for the reviewer to see how your content matches the requirements. Cross reference each piece of your proposal with the scope of work and format requirements listed in the RFP. Give them no reason to exclude your proposal from the next round of reviews. Address every item in the RFP and provide substantiated evidence. Make sure you have all the mandatory forms included in correct order. Ask someone who has not been working close to the proposal to act as proofreader and check you have covered everything.
12. Submit on time, and prepare for the next step!
It goes without say that you must submit before the stated close! Any proposals timestamped later than the required 11am, or 2pm, and without the correct number of hard and soft copy formats or sealed bid envelopes are automatically marked #fail. Once you have submitted, start preparing for the call back. Plan time in everyone’s calendars to do dry run rehearsals of your oral presentations and brainstorm possible questions and answers. Think about how you will bring the proposal to life and illustrate your expertise.
So there are my tips. This is not an exhaustive list and certainly not a guarantee for proposal success but your win/loss ratio will be enhanced by following these steps. At every stage, be prepared to step away from the document and cash your chips out if the return on investment equation starts to look iffy. Finally, be ready to seek feedback on the submission if you are not shortlisted. Many RFP processes now include a timeline for informing the proponents of the outcome and providing an opportunity for feedback. Take advantage of this offer to learn for next time.
What are your experiences of responding to RFPs do you love them or hate them? Got any other good tips?
Featured image courtesy of itroy licensed via creative commons.