For many years, I wrote sales proposals in response to a request for proposal (RFP). As a vendor, I responded to both well written and poorly written RFPs and found that there was no consistency among them either in the structure or the quality of information. Several times I was stumped as to what the subject of the RFP was, and after several rounds of questions and answers, I determined that the company issuing the RFP was also stumped—they had neglected to do their homework properly and could not properly define their requirements.
After becoming a consultant, I began writing RFPs on behalf of my clients. As I wrote them, I tried not to make the same mistakes I had seen as a vendor and began to develop a structure and organization methodology for writing RFPs. I began to write and speak to customers and at conferences about writing RFPs and what makes a good RFP. Time after time I was approached by people in the audience who asked if I had additional material. Frequently, I was asked to recommend a book that would provide some guidance. But the literature is very slim on this subject, and I could find no “general” guide to writing RFPs.
This book aims to fill that gap, bringing order and stability to the process of writing RFPs for those who are new to it, as well as reaffirming effective practices for veterans. I have included ideas from the best RFPs and share what I have learned from poorly written RFPs. Three major themes run through this book: Quality of information is paramount to getting good proposal responses. Only if your requirements are well formed and complete will suppliers have enough information to write quality proposals.Presentation, structure, and organization are all necessary if suppliers are to understand how to read your RFP and respond to it in a productive manner. Without a structured and organized RFP, vendors will find it difficult to write proposals, and you will find it difficult to evaluate them.An RFP is much more than a request to buy a product; it is an offer from the supplier to form a team with you and to jointly solve a problem.As a team, both sides stand to benefit from the relationship, but the project itself is the real winner.
An RFP is not the end of the project, but rather the start of a new phase in the project. While the general requirements for a project have already been defined, quite often the real requirements are not understood until well after the RFP is released, a contract is awarded, and the project development begins. Sometimes it takes two or three iterations of the requirements development process before both companies fully understand the problem they are trying to solve or the products they hope to use to overcome these difficulties:We can only shape the path as we are cutting its course through the forest.Many requirements of a system become known only as the system develops. This is especially true for a system that makes use of multiple commercial products, since their interactions will have a substantial influence on the system's eventual design.
—David J. Carney.Quotations from Chairman David. Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University, 1998. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense.
While this book is directed toward the computer system project, the disciplines of gathering requirements, organizing and writing an RFP, and interacting with suppliers during and after the RFP has been issued can be applied in many other contexts. The material in this book can therefore be used, with some adjustments, to write RFPs for many industries. However, this book does not cover every type of application for every project; some parts may not apply to your specific needs.A Word of Encouragement
All of the following material, including the sample RFP paragraphs, should be considered as a starting point and guideline for your own RFP. While the book provides you with a general format and general language, it is up to you to build upon this base of information and these examples. In the commercial world there are no rulebooks or laws that force you to write an RFP in a certain manner, and the federal government's Federal Acquisition Regulations (FARs) still leave room to be creative.
So within reason, be creative and include the requirements in your RFP that will make your project successful for both you and the chosen supplier. A Word of Caution
Vendors do not have unlimited time and resources. When your RFP is complete, take a moment to look at it from a vendor's point of view and consider whether it is fair or if you are asking for too much. Remember that if you succeed in your bid, the vendor will become your partner. Successful business relationships are built on foundations of fairness and mutual respect. To bully or cajole a vendor into reducing pricing or including free services is to impair your relationship from the beginning. As Andrew Carnegie once said about J. P. Morgan, “Mr. Morgan buys his partners; I grow my own.”Columbia Dictionary of Quotations. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995. Who Should Read This Book?
In my experience writing RFPs, I have worked with all kinds of people from all types of companies and departments. I find that many companies do not have RFP writing guidelines, procedures, or support and rely on company history and previously written RFPs as source materials. If there is no previous history in writing RFPs, a company may turn to consultants for help or ask vendors for copies of RFPs that can be used. I have been asked many times if I could send someone a “good” RFP as an example.
People who have been assigned to write an RFP but have not written one before and, perhaps, have little history and support to draw upon will find this book invaluable. A suggested outline, a wealth of examples, and good solid advice will guide you from starting the project to signing the contract.
People who have previously written RFPs will find that this book adds to their existing knowledge by providing some fresh examples for developing technical and management requirements.
Request for Proposal has been written for people in many different commercial industries as well as federal, state, and local government workers who need guidance, procedures, and direction. People who should read this book include the following:information technology (IT) managers asked to write or manage an RFPbusiness unit managers who may not have dedicated IT support and find that they need to write an RFPpurchasing managers who provide RFP oversight for their companyfederal, state, and local government IT and business managers who need to supplement their internal guidelinesconsultants who are responsible for writing RFPs or helping their clients write RFPsuniversity and college professors looking for primary or supplemental course material
After reading this book, the reader will be able to do the following:organize the RFP project effortoutline each RFP sectiondevelop, write, and review requirements&8212;technical, management, and pricingpre-screen a vendor list selecting only the best vendors for the projectset up the evaluation criteria for evaluating vendor proposalsselect the best solution based on objective evaluation criteriaprepare for the post-RFP activities such as site visits and reference checks, plan and schedule implementation activities, and put in place project management plans
There is no prerequisite for reading this book&8212;you do not need to be a senior IT manager or a certified purchasing agent. The text provides a standard format for the recommended sections in an RFP and includes examples for each section, as well as examples of how to write the technical and nontechnical requirements for each section.
The text also provides guidelines for evaluating proposals and selecting a winning vendor once proposals have been received. Evaluation guidelines include evaluating technical and management content as well as pricing.Acknowledgments
As with any endeavor this large, many people have provided help, constructive criticism, encouragement, and support. I would like to thank all of the reviewers who took the time to review and comment on the manuscript. The finished book is much better as a result of their efforts.
Ralph Young has been especially helpful in providing detailed suggestions and encouragement and in graciously agreeing to write the foreword. Thank you, Ralph.
Special thanks go to Addison-Wesley for publishing this book and to my editor, Debbie Lafferty, for her professionalism, great suggestions and attitude, and lots of behind-the-scenes hard work that I will never know about.
Finally, my wife Anne and daughter Lizzie endured many early mornings, late nights, and missed weekends as I toiled away writing and revising the manuscript. Their support helped make this book possible.
Mill Valley, California
Praise for Request for Proposal
“Bud Porter-Roth is an expert in the field of preparing RFPs, and we could not have successfully completed our project without his skill and knowledge. This book is a clear guide to an otherwise complex and difficult process. If you can’t hire Bud Porter-Roth to write your RFP, then you should buy this book.”
, Manager, Library Services
“This book is priceless. It is a must for a novice writing an RFP.”
, Senior Systems Engineer, O-Cedar Brands, Inc.
“This book brings a structure to a process that is too often unstructured. There have been no standards (outside of government) that I know of that apply to RFP preparation. I also believe that vendors (sellers) would welcome a more uniform and consistent style of RFP.”
, API Systems Group
“This book provides overall coverage on a subject that deserves some real guidance. I like very much the sentiment concerning the RFP as the basis for a team and the idea that the RFP is the beginning, not the end. His emphasis on the need for clarity in the RFP and for measurable requirements needs to be heard and understood by many within the target audience. He takes an excellent position on ‘Why Write an RFP’.”
“This book is well written and insightful. It provides good information on what makes a good requirement, how proposals are evaluated, and what precautions to take to prevent early elimination.”
“Just a note to tell you thank you for providing some tips on how to structure an RFP. I work for a small company who does not have a specific template for this purpose and found your guidance a very useful starting point.”
Despite its importance as an initial step in the development of major technical projects, the Request for Proposal (RFP) process rarely receives the professional attention it deserves. Used by government agencies and by private corporations to solicit proposals from contractors and vendors, the RFP document is the foundation for a successful project. A clearly written and properly organized RFP clarifies technical goals, communicates administrative and financial expectations, and sets the tone for good communication and a trusting and productive relationship between customer and contractor.
This experience-based handbook offers a systematic, comprehensive, and professional approach to writing RFPs. It guides you step-by-step—from initial planning to selecting the winning proposal—through the RFP process, demonstrating the most effective ways of structuring the document and expressing technical, administrative, and financial requirements. Request for Proposal: A Guide to Effective RFP Development focuses on the major goals of the RFP process—to elicit high-quality responses from potential contractors and promote effective communication between the client and the chosen vendor.
You will be able to:Plan and organize the RFP effort Outline each RFP section Develop, write, and review all requirements, including those that are administrative, technical, and managerial Set realistic pricing requirements Pre-screen a vendor list to select appropriate vendors Set up objective evaluation criteria for selecting the best solution Prepare for post-RFP activities such as site visits, reference checks, and implementation activities
In addition, this book includes several templates you can adapt for your own organization’s RFP efforts. Request for Proposal gives numerous examples of both effective and poorly-written RFP requirements that illustrate the author’s points and provide solid advice to help you avoid common pitfalls and implement best practices.
For anyone with the responsibility of writing RFPs or responding to them, this book is are source you will want to keep close at hand.