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How to Write the Best RFP Ever

Scott Snowden
Scott Snowden
Business & Technology Strategy
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In our most recent cycle of proposal writing, we've come across a particularly diverse style of Requests For Proposals. These "RFP" documents are issued by companies after a painstaking writing effort with the goal of finding the perfect business partner for the project. Rarely does that work nicely.

Obviously RFPs are useless and you should just call us. *sigh*

Snap back to reality…

 

Client Challenges 

On the client side some of the common struggles with RFP writing are trying to:

  • Accurately distill what the company is asking for.
  • Compare different proposals even though they have all been told to follow the same format.
  • Figure out which vendor is going to provide the best value.
  • Find the time to prepare the RFP, read all the proposals, meet with all the vendors, meet with the internal team, make a selection and get the project started (oh yeah… and then do the project).

Vendor Challenges

The companies that are writing a proposal have some common struggles too:

  • Does the client actually need everything they're asking for?
  • Is this RFP process purely procedural (has the client already got a vendor in mind)?
  • Should we go "all in" and show our full potential (and price)?
  • Should we stick to the bare minimum and show that we're economical?
  • Happy medium?

The Best RFP Ever

Hands down, the best RFP we could possibly receive would be:

  • We have a business challenge / goal and it is _____.
  • We have a budget and it is _____.
  • Please take a moment to tell us about your capabilities, process, solution and costs.
  • We look forward to discussing the project further and getting into more details with those firms that have the potential to be a good fit for us.

That's it?

Yes, that's it.

And yes, there's lots more to figure out, but this approach will:

  • Dramatically simplify your internal effort and time to issue your RFP (time that can be better redeployed to the next step in the evaluation process).
  • Allow the responses to best reflect the insights and character of each vendor.

Wait, you want me to share my budget!?

Yes, that would a great help to both of us.

Most projects can be done with different levels of engagement and that has a dramatic impact on cost. We recently won some work with a new client who told us that the highest bid they saw for the work was 10 times higher than the lowest bid. How can that possibly happen!? In this case, the lowest bidder was going to use an existing template and complete the project without any strategy. The highest bidder was going to do intense research, prototyping, design and development.

When you share your budget, the proposals will all come back with the same cost and you now have an improved ability to compare value.

If you don't know how much you should spend on what you're asking for, do some research first. Get an idea of the typical price range for what you need (ask other business partners, friends and family). Even supplying a budget number that doesn't match what you expect to spend will result in proposals that you can compare. You're under no obligation to actually spend the budget you specify in your RFP.

When we know what your budget is we can craft a proposal that  maximizes the value that we can provide.

The Next Step: Evaluating "Fit"

Now you can take advantage of the time you saved when you issued a simpler RFP. Invest that time in conversation with the vendors that provided the best proposals.

The best way to evaluate whether business partners are a good fit for each other is through conversation. A written proposal is one thing, but the most informative part of the RFP process is the discussion about the project.

  • Are they dynamic problem solvers or focused on turnkey solutions?
  • Are they nimble or process oriented?
  • Are they results oriented or ambiguous?

Through the questions you hear and the conversations you have at this point you will learn more about what you need and what is possible. Most likely you will even come up with an innovative idea that otherwise would have never been part of the original RFP.

Finalize

After the conversations with the short list of vendors you should be able to pick a winner. Depending on the size of the project it is not uncommon to firm up the scope, expectations and budget by having some more in-depth meetings with the prospective vendor before you ink the deal.

A Few More Tips

  • Based on the importance of the project, make sure to dedicate an appropriate amount of time to your selection process. We've seen situations where clients try to pick a vendor in less than a month for a project that has a year-long implementation schedule.
  • Consider a "Request for Intent" (RFI).  In this case, you are even more brief about what you need and you just ask vendors to provide an outline of capabilities and experience. You then issue your RFP to vendors on that list you think have the best fit.
  • Be prescriptive about objectives, not features. A commenting feature may not be the best solution. As opposed to saying, "we need the capability to allow users to comment on our website" you should instead say, "we want a way to engage directly with our users." 
  • Outline technical constraints, but stay open minded. It is helpful to know what other systems are in place and what integrations are required. However, that doesn't necessarily mean the most cost effective solution is one built in the same language as the systems you already have.

I'd be interested to hear if anyone has other tips or perspectives on this too.

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