Crafting an effective response to a formal request for proposals (RFP) can be an overwhelming experience, especially if it’s not something that you do on a regular basis. Confusing instructions, multiple deadlines within a single RFP, unfamiliar scope descriptions, and limited opportunities for client interaction can all lead to various levels of failure, up to and including outright rejection of the response by the recipient before it is even considered.
To deal with with a complex RFP, use a structured, step-by-step approach.
Seasoned RFP responders deal with these challenges by taking a structured, step-by-step approach to the response process. At some firms, this process is well documented, with a system of forms, checklists, and software tools that help them coordinate their efforts and manage deadlines. At smaller organizations the approach is often less formal, with an experienced individual using their own experience – rather than an institutionalized system – to manage the process.
Whether these systems are well documented – or exist only in the mind of the firm’s marketing director – they work by breaking the response process into a set of manageable components, and then tackling those components using a timeline that prevents last-minute scheduling crises. They also help spot unusual requests or technical requirements that might be hidden deep within a complex RFP.
If you’re new to the RFP process, or have been at it for a while but still find yourself struggling every time you begin working on a response, you can make some noticeable improvements just by creating a simple outline of steps to follow for every response.
The process will be a little different for every firm and every industry, but try using the steps below as a starting point for developing your own standard approach for RFP responses.
1. Review the RFP Document
Do this immediately. Do not wait two weeks. Comb through the document and pull out key requirements, dates, and other important elements. As part of this review, make sure to do the following:
Identify production and delivery issues that could impact the process.
This includes questions like whether the response will be delivered in hard-copy or electronic format. If it is hard-copy, how many copies are required? And is a delivery address clearly stated? Look for inconsistencies in these specific instructions so that you can resolve them during the early phases of the process, rather than having to scramble on the final due date.
Also, make note of items that will require outside assistance, like notarized documents, reference letters, or copies of signed financial records.
Establish the project scope.
In many RFPs, the full description of the scope may be spread across multiple sections. Even if there is a part of the document dedicated specifically to the scope, there may also be additional (even contradictory) information in other sections, such as the section specifying how the fees should be stated.
Keep a running list of questions.
While reviewing the RFP, note items that are unclear or contradictory so that you can include them in the questions you submit during the RFP’s Q&A window.
2. Identify Project Team Members
As soon as you have developed an understanding of the project scope, assemble the internal team for the project. By identifying these individuals early in the process, you can then use them to help develop an accurate project approach and fee, and also to help choose any outside partners or sub consultants.
In addition, quickly identifying project team members gives you more time to confirm that you have up-to-date resources (bios, photos, etc.) for each of them, and leaves plenty of time to generate any new materials that are required.
3. Identify and Make Initial Contact With Sub Consultants
Work with the internal project team to identify potential sub consultants for the assignment and contact them immediately. Don’t wait on this, or some of the best firms may agree to exclusive partnerships with your competitors. Tell them you will get back in touch in a few days with a detailed description of what you need from them for the response.
4. Create a Table of Contents for the Response
Sometimes RFPs request duplicate or contradictory information in various sections. They can also have very specific requirements for how they want the information organized, which doesn’t always match up perfectly with the information they have requested. Creating an actual TOC for the response early in the process can help you to get a handle on this. Don’t worry about the detailed content of each section yet. Focus on the big picture.
Creating the table of contents now also allows you to use it as a sort of “checklist” as you assemble the various components of the response.
5. Request Detailed Information From Sub Consultants
Now that you have your table of contents you can get back to each of the sub consultants with a detailed list of what you need from them in terms of firm overviews, project sheets, resumes, etc. Note that if you are going to get to the project approach soon, then you can wait and request these materials along with any information you will need from them regarding fees and work process. If the development of the detailed project approach is going to take more than a few days, however, it makes sense to go ahead and let people begin compiling this other information.
6. Check for RFP Updates or Responses to Questions
Before getting into the development of the project approach, make sure to check the requesting organization’s web site for any updates or addenda, or for responses to questions submitted about the RFP. Even if you didn’t submit any questions yourself, it is still very important to obtain and review the answers to other firms’ queries, since these answers are often the vehicle for revealing significant changes to the project scope or response process.
7. Define and Document the Project Approach
With some of the more general components of the response now underway, you can now begin work on the detailed project approach. The specifics of this approach will depend heavily on the project scope, schedule, and deliverables described in the RFP, and it should be developed with extensive input from both the internal project team and relevant sub consultants.
8. Address the Fee Proposal
Now use the completed project approach to formulate your proposed project fees. Since you’ve already adapted your standard approach to address the project phasing and deliverables requested in the RFP, the process of estimating fees should actually be relatively straightforward. If appropriate, you should also share relevant portions of the project approach with sub consultants for their use in generating fees.
9. Document the Project Team
Remember that you started assembling the information on the project team members right after receiving the proposal. That was in order to avoid any last-minute scrambling for head shots or employment histories. Now, however, is the time to complete the final team documentation.
Take advantage of every opportunity to tailor your response to the specifics of the RFP, rather than just using generic materials.
By waiting to finalize this until after the project approach is completed, you can tie the description of each team member’s role to specific elements of the approach, and also use their bios and project experience to reiterate how their expertise is relevant to their role in the project. Take advantage of every opportunity to tailor your response to the specifics of the RFP, rather than just using generic materials.
10. Document Firm Experience and Qualifications
Like the information for individual team members, this firm-wide information should have already been in the works, but now is the time to finalize this content. Make sure that projects that you show – and the order you show them – reflect the appropriate scope of services, project type, and industry. Also, make sure to include projects that the internal and external team members have worked on together, and make note of these previous collaborations.
11. Review the RFP Again
With all of the key content for response now completed, cross reference everything with the RFP again to make sure you have addressed all of its requirements. If you haven’t been checking for updates to the RFP throughout the process, now is also a good time to do that again.
12. Create Overview Materials
Resist the temptation to create overview materials – like an executive summary and/or cover letter – at the beginning of the process, even though they appear at the beginning of the response. Instead, wait until the end so that you can pull the high points from the broader response to create a truly effective summary.
13. Produce, Assemble, and Package the Response
After thoroughly proofing the response, create the PDF document and/or print and bind the physical books. Make sure to open and review the PDF and flip through each of the hard copy documents to confirm that all of the pages are there and in the correct order.
14. Review the RFP One More Time
With the response ready to deliver, review the RFP’s instructions regarding production, packaging, and delivery one more time. Pay special attention to the delivery address and labeling guidelines.
15. Deliver the Response
If the response has to be provided in hard-copy form, deliver it by hand if possible. And if the recipient is in another city, and you need to use FedEx, don’t just forget about the package once you hand it to the shipper. Track the package to make sure that it makes it to its destination, and follow up with the recipient via phone or email if there is any doubt.
In most cases you’ll now need to resist the urge to contact the RFP recipient for updates, since most issuers of formal RFPs have strict guidelines about communications with respondents. You should still watch the calendar and feel free to inquire via phone or email if milestone dates pass without any word from the organization.
Does your system for creating a proposal in response to an RFP look like this? Or have you developed a radically different approach? If you’re an experienced RFP responder, what’s your best advice for someone sinking into despair as they flip through their first RFP?
Share your thoughts in the comments.