How to Respond to a Request for Proposal (RFP)

So you've been tasked with responding to a request for proposal, or an RFP. How do you respond? This guide can help by diving into the specifics of what an RFP actually is, why you might need one, and how to get started with making one today.

To start, let's define it.

What is an RFP or request for proposal?

Companies issue a request for proposal, or an RFP, when they have a project in mind and are choosing a vendor or a service provider to work with. The document provides the company background, project scope and description, and other key details that will enable potential vendors to come back with a bid for the work. Multiple bids can be compared to determine the ideal choice.

Keep in mind that an RFP is not the same thing as an RFQ, or Request for Quote, which is just focused on the quoted price. When a company has a large, complex project, the RFP doc becomes a way to outline information and provide vendors with the information they need. You can think about this like a creative brief for a project, providing them with the details to put together a proposal and quote. The goal is for potential vendors to respond with a proposal, giving the company an opportunity to evaluate whether the team is qualified, competent, and able to deliver on the work without just price in mind. It's not necessarily true that the lowest price will win, they need to be confident as well that the work will be completed correctly.

The RFP Process

After a company issues an RFP, the RFP will generally outline the scope of work. In response, the vendors that are submitting proposals, also known as bids, will include the following items:

  • Background on the vendor and their competencies
  • An implementation plan of work to complete the project
  • A projected timeline
  • Estimated cost

After all proposals have been received, the company will compare them and determine which vendor is the best fit for the project. It's possible that the company will respond with further questions or follow-ups, or issue a subsequent RFP based on new information added. They will often narrow it to a shortlist for follow up, so getting additional responses at this point is a good sign. Some companies may also request additional offers or further negotiation after they've narrowed it down to their top choice.

Advice for Responding to a RFP

As you sit down to respond to an RFP, here are some of the key considerations.

Start with the customer - what are they looking for?

Rather than just focusing on the project details or the designed price, see if you can infer from the RFP on what they are looking for. It may be possible that they're very focused on certain goals such as hitting a specific deadline (time), getting the work done at a high level of output (quality), or completing the project with minimal involvement (talent). Having a prior relationship or connection with the potential customer can be a useful way to glean insights as well. If you can get a reasonable perspective on this, you can write your proposal with this in mind.

What is their experience level?

It's useful to write with your audience in mind, and try to gauge their level of experience with the project that you are responding to. One framework to think through this is whether they are looking for strategic help or tactical help. If they are looking for strategic help, it means that their own level of expertise in the project is low and they are looking for a partner who can come in and provide them with the expert advice and strategic help to make the right decisions.

If they are looking for tactical help, this project might simply be about a lack of manpower and they want help getting it executed in a specific way without a lot of additional insight. It turns out that strategic projects will often be less price sensitive, but also demand more strategic time from members within your team. If it's a tactical project, it may be a trade off of their own time and resources against your own. Keeping this in mind can be a helpful way to write your proposal and put together your team and pricing allocation when you put together the price estimate.

Structure a clear and organized response

Unless the RFP requires a specific format for response, you'll want to provide an easy to read and scannable proposal for the company. Often these proposals will include these components:

  • Cover letter providing context of who you are and what services and expertise you bring to the table
  • Executive summary personalized to the project with recommendations on how to proceed if they were to go with you
  • Deliverables providing a detailed outline of the various phases of how you'll execute their project if selected
  • Strategic considerations providing additional information on their project and some of the key decisions they will need to make if any
  • Pricing summary providing a summary of each deliverable and the quoted price estimate
  • Agreement or contract that the company can use if they decide to accept the proposal

Build a proposal library

Writing proposals can a a trade off between time spent executing on existing projects and looking for new businesses. That said, taking the time to craft personalized and high quality responses will help your ability to win and close new business. If you're an agency or consultant constantly providing proposals, a helpful way to streamline this process is by building a proposal library. Notejoy is a great tool to use for this. A proposal library is a searchable set of historical proposals that you've submitted to RFPs over time. It can be a helpful repository to reference, or even cut and paste, as you put together new proposals as you go about your work.

By having information like an up-to-date repository of the latest bios of members of your team, the most up-to-date description of your company's services, or even strategic advice that can be repurposed in another proposal, you'll be able to pull together proposals more effectively.

Don't just send the proposal to the client

Don't just mail it over and hope for a response. Proposals take time to write, and you shouldn't be spending the time to craft an in-depth document if they won't even give you the time of day to review it together. When a client requests a proposal, schedule a meeting to review the information. This will increase the likelihood that your proposal will get reviewed, much less accepted.

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