Nine tips for writing excellent RFPs for great results

How many times have you sent out a request for proposals and been disappointed with the responses you got back? Maybe they’re too long, too short, or just miss the mark. Or, if you’re a provider, how many times have you laboured over a proposal only to find – on rejection – that it all hinged on a vital piece of information you didn’t have?

I’ve worked on both sides of the fence: for an e-learning development company and now (admittedly for far less time) in an in-house capacity. Recently, I worked on my first project brief as a client and, with no rigid template to keep to, I decided to think back to my previous roles which involved responding to RFPs and produce the kind of thing that I would have liked to receive.

Obviously, everything that follows reflects my personal experience and preferences. I’m not suggesting that this is an RFP rulebook; it’s not even a list of recommendations. (Although I did get positive feedback from the suppliers I sent my first RFP to, and likewise was very pleased with the standard of proposals I received back.) Different situations, different companies, different people and different projects will demand different things, and there are plenty of people out there far more experienced than me in this area, but maybe my reflections will include the odd nugget for someone writing an RFP.

When preparing an RFP…

  • First of all, be fair with the deadline. Sometimes circumstances dictate that you need suppliers to respond within a few days but, if that’s the case, don’t ask for War and Peace squeezed into a tightly pre-formatted template. If suppliers have to not only provide reams of background information (as well as the more valuable solution-specific information) but also manipulate that information to your template, you risk receiving vast quantities of mediocre content. Wouldn’t you rather have smaller quantities of high quality content? If you really do need the e-learning proposal equivalent of War and Peace, provide a realistic deadline; it’s in your own interest.
  • Secondly, ask yourself how much detail you really do need. If you already have a preferred supplier list, the likelihood is that information about trading history, policies, diversity and so on have already been provided. Asking for it again in every RFP is a waste of their time (if you end up skipping over that part of the proposal) or your time (if you end up reading stuff you’ve already read before). If you don’t have this information already on record, ask yourself whether you really need it, whether you’ll actually read it and how it will help you make your decison, before asking for it.
  • Finally, avoid being too prescriptive about the format. If there are certain details (like pricing) that require like-for-like comparisons, then it might be useful to include a table or request a specific format. Other than that, do you really need to dictate the format and structure used in responses? I would rather specify what they should cover but let the suppliers decide how to achieve that. Their approach will tell you a lot about their personality and how they think – which is just as important in selecting a supplier as their formal responses to questions.

When asking for information…

  • Obviously, the questions in your RFP will depend on the specifics of your project. But I think it’s important to ask suppliers to set out three things: what they will do to meet your requirements; how they will do it; and why. The last one is important to me because I’d like to know their rationale, what they think is important, and their motivation in proposing a particular approach. I want to know why they think their approach is the right one for my requirements, not that they’re proposing an out-of-the-box model (tried and tested is one thing; pretending one size always fits all is another).
  • Those three things (what, how and why) apply not just to the deliverables, by the way, but also to their approach to project management and client engagement. How will they work with you to deliver results and how flexible will they be to take into account the constraints and considerations affecting your team and organisation?
  • I would also ask for details of relevant experience and similar projects that they’ve worked on in the past – something to provide a bit of reassurance that what they are proposing (while it may well be original) is achievable. However, I wouldn’t dictate that those examples need to be in the same industry or even necessarily on the same subject matter. For me, it’s the approach that’s important (and how they’ll execute that approach), and I wouldn’t want to miss out on seeing a great learning approach just because I’d specified that examples outside my own industry were irrelevant.

When providing information…

  • An RFP isn’t just about asking for information: in order to get high quality, relevant responses, you need to provide plenty of information as well. When I was responding to RFPs in my previous roles, I felt most able to produce something tailored and specific when I had information about the following: the learners (who are they, how many, where?); the business need and overarching objective; draft learning outcomes if possible; timescales and budgets; source material and subject matter experts; the context and other related learning resources or events; the expected duration or volume of learning; key technical issues such as no audio or low bandwidth; translation or localisation requirements; any major constraints or considerations (such as branding, incorporating existing assets and so on). Even if you don’t have concrete answers to all these questions, making an estimate around things such as duration, volume, timescales and budgets will ensure that all the suppliers you invite to tender will be working to the same brief – making it much easier for you to compare their responses. If you don’t make these assumptions, they will, but they won’t all make the same assumptions as each other.
  • If you can provide a sample of the source material – results from the TNA, a process guide or classroom training slides, for example – suppliers will be better placed to produce a treatment proposal which is very specifically tailored to your requirements. Mock-ups or demos will also be more meaningful, as opposed to generic unbranded slides with lorem ipsum text.
  • Finally, however much information you provide, make yourself available for a Q&A call a day or two after sending out the RFP. Aside from being a good opportunity to clarify any queries and ensure both parties are on the same page, I also think it’s good to have a quick conversation and get to know each other a little better. There are some things you just can’t get from emails and text documents!

What would you add to this list? If you’re someone who responds to RFPs, what else would you like to see included (or excluded) to help you respond to the best of your abilities? If you’re someone who writes RFPs, what’s worked in the past, resulting in high quality responses, and what hasn’t worked so well?

4 thoughts on “Nine tips for writing excellent RFPs for great results

  1. Sheryl

    I’m finding vendors want a preferred requirement checklist. A requirements list give me as the client opportunity to pinpoint exactly what I need for my workplace environment and provides the vendor with an easy-to-follow list of my priorities and takes the guesswork out of what I’m wanting.

  2. PM Hut

    Hi Stephanie,

    We have published so little article on RFPs, and we think RFPs are a very important topic for project managers, and that’s why we would like to ask your permission to republish this post on PM Hut.

    Please either email us or contact us through the “Contact us” form on the PM Hut website in case you’re OK with this.

    PS: You might be interested in reading this article we have published a long time ago on PM Hut: There Is No Such Thing as a Perfect RFP.

  3. Pingback: From Compliance Course to Campaign Part 3 – | Tayloring it...

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