Request for Proposal (RFP)
What is a Request for Proposal or RFP?
A request for proposal (RFP) is a document that provides details and requirements for goods and/or services that a company or government body wants to buy.
Some companies – and especially the government – will only buy goods and services by issuing RFPs, because well written RFPs tend to even the playing field and allow for greater transparency in the tendering process. This also makes for a more competitive RFP process.
RFPs are often large, cumbersome documents with many appendices and attachments. Generally, the higher the dollar value of what is being sought, the larger an RFP is. This is because complex RFPs need to contain definitions, descriptions of roles for a project, and tables of mandatory and rated requirements needed to meet the organization's business needs.
RFPs often detail exactly how you need to lay out your response, but this doesn't mean your job is done. Even if the RFP provides a sample table of contents and describes what should be in each section, your RFP response still needs to be tailored to meet the mandatory requirements and score highly on the rated elements.
Sample Structure for a RFP Response
Create a Storyboard
What is a storyboard? A storyboard is detailed description of what will go into the RFP response for each and every section, including figures and diagrams. Think of it as being like cue cards. You don't write every word in your storyboard; that comes later. But you do have enough detail that the flow and content starts to come together.
The storyboard is usually created by the proposal team right after the RFP arrives and everyone has had a chance to read it. Storyboarding is usually very interactive, with proposal team members using white boards, flip charts and sticky notes to generate and share ideas.
Creating a storyboard before you start writing allows you get a mental picture of how the response will be laid out. Use the RFP as a guide and follow the directions to the letter for the layout of your RFP response. Very often, there will be explicit instructions as to what should go into the various sections. Typically, government proposals have three individual parts; the technical response, the financial response, and certifications:
- The technical response is the main proposal and where you will spend the bulk of your time.
- The financial response is often requested as a separate document to be sealed in its own envelope. This allows evaluation teams to assess the strength of your technical proposal first without being influenced by your price.
- The certifications are statements that you must sign (certify) to be eligible for the business. They may include items like certifying that the resources you are proposing for the work will be available at the contract start date. Another example of a certification pertaining to resources may involve you certifying that all of the resources proposed have provided you with written consent to propose them for this specific job.
Too many people leave this important piece until the end, thinking that it should just be a few paragraphs slapped together to sum up what the proposal is about. This is the wrong approach and the Executive Summary will suffer if it is left to the end. It needs to be started right at the beginning of the RFP response process, and should be a living, breathing document.
The Executive Summary should include the major win themes, and the win themes should be very client-specific. Don’t simply pick one off a website. If you have a bulleted list that tells the client they should pick you because “Our product is world-class” or “Our prices are the lowest in the marketplace”, you may have lost the bid before you start.
Create compelling win themes by starting with what you know about the client’s business problems, and how you and your product/service specifically can provide what they need. What is keeping the customer up at night? If you know the answer, you can create very strong win themes. You also need to make sure that your win themes are unique to you and what you offer, and that the same thing couldn't be said by taking your name out and inserting that of a competitor.
Finally, try to make the win themes quantifiable. Examples include “Our product will allow ABC Company to achieve your budget targets by reducing IT costs by 12%” or “Our targeted maintenance plan will translate into 8% fewer calls to ABC’s Help Desk”.
Writing the Proposal
Using the great storyboard you created, your proposal can now begin to take shape.
Be sure to assign each proposal section to resources that are qualified to write the individual sections, are available for the duration of the RFP process and can get the job done. Set goals – you may want to create a project plan for larger or more complex bids – and schedule checkpoint meetings to be sure everyone is writing to the deadlines you set for the iterative versions of your RFP response.
Don't forget Quality Assessment (QA) of the proposal. Following the Shipley Associates proposal review process, at a minimum you should hold a “Green” and then a “Red” proposal review. A Green Team review means that members of the proposal team will read each other's sections. This can be very important for technical bids in particular, ensuring that explanations of how something works jive from one section to the next. Red Team reviews usually involve a couple of key Executives or Subject Matter Experts (SME) to make certain that the key messages are captured correctly.