By Jim Romeo
"Computer analysis and programming services for development. All responsible offerors may submit an offer which will be considered."
That's how a recent solicitation for a government project read. You may have seen such verbiage and just cringed.
Large organizations often require that a proposal be submitted in a response to a solicitation, or request for proposal (RFP), for a project. While the proposal process can be intimidating and laborious, it's a necessary step to land some attractive contracts.
Refining the art of proposal writing and submission means learning about the buying organization, analyzing its RFP, composing the proposal, and following through on the evaluation process.
Before you even begin to analyze the RFP, look as far as you can inside the buying organization to determine what its strategic goals and objectives are. A great starting point is to visit the buyer's Web site to learn and understand what the organization is all about and what its needs are.
On the Web site, you may find an annual report or mission statement that not only outlines the organization's philosophy, but also uses the best buzzwords and phrases that the company lives by. Learn about its geographic locations, number of employees, and what types of operations the organization is engaged in.
Press releases and articles about the company may also be found on the Web site and may give great insight into recent strategic moves, acquisitions, and partnerships with other firms. The more you find out, the clearer picture you'll have of the company and where it's heading.
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With a clearer picture of the organization, a contractor should sift through the RFP and organize information. If it requires network certification, make a note of it. If it requires "knowledge of" versus being "well-versed in" a particular programming language, this should be noted and reflected in the proposal.
"Make sure you answer every question asked and respond to every information request, no matter how insignificant," says Dan Kemp, a principal at Delta Corp., an IT consulting firm that actively seeks RFPs and submits proposals. "If someone wants to eliminate you, the easiest way for them [to do so] is to point to information you did not supply."
A contractor should make a list of the buyer's requirements as specified in the RFP. This should be used as a checklist in putting together your proposal. In addition, make a list of questions and inquiries of items to clarify with the buyer. RFPs aren't always clear and all-inclusive.
"Although arduous, responding to an RFP can, however, help a contractor ensure that all parties are clear on the scope of work," adds Mark O'Brien, president and chief executive officer of eclaro, a New York-based IT staffing firm that submits proposals for IT services to be fulfilled by its contractors.
"This is particularly important if the contractor is selling something other than his time. For instance, project-based work often demands an RFP so that the deliverable is clearly defined."
Don't be afraid to make inquiries and clarify things. Few take the time to ask questions, and this can often eliminate a proposal.
While going through the RFP, highlight buzzwords, key phrases, and acronyms that the buyer uses. These may be used to describe networks, systems, processes, and languages. Be sure to feed these words and phrases back to the buyer in your proposal.
Speak the same language that the buyer speaks. Phrases and verbiage in the RFP also give clues as to how the buyer will make the selection.
"An RFP is the classic double-edged sword, cursed by those responding to them and heralded by those looking to them to frame decision-making criteria," says O'Brien. "For the buyer of services, the RFP can ensure reasonably consistent decision criteria across vendors and allow for group input and recognition of needs."
Making your message clear
You've researched the company and sifted through the RFP. Now it's time to compose your proposal.
A proposal should be written with clarity and brevity. Clarity means writing in plain English and arranging words and sentences for clear, concise communication. Clarity also means avoiding long-winded sentences, needless jargon, and an overload of acronyms. Brevity means writing in short sentences and phrases. Cut your words without losing your message.
"Proposal responses must be specific and address the business requirement or problem," says Mark Ruiters, chief executive officer at SolutionHub. "Responses must be discrete, articulating solution capabilities that will avoid 'scope creep' and/or implementation failure."
One of the best methods of employing clarity and brevity is to write in a bulleted format wherever possible. Bulleted phrases and sentences are an ideal format. In addition, use charts, matrices, and graphics when you can. Bullets, charts, graphics, and matrices are easier for a selection team to read than ordinary text.
Assume that the proposal will be perused, rather than read. Heavy paragraphs of text intimidate readers and will lose their attention.
Try to attain winning proposals to use as models. An excellent place to find these is at federal and government agencies. Inquire with the government agency or office about how to attain a copy of a winner's proposal. This information is normally in the public domain and is available for anyone to view.
Not yet out of the woods
Once you've built your proposal and submitted it to the buying organization, you're not yet out of the woods. Follow-up is critical.
A contractor should focus the follow-up processes with key decision-makers of the project or task. "It's more productive to ask about the process and keep close ties with those driving the process," says Mickey Bennett of eclaro.
Ferreting out the main decision-makers is key. Early in the process of making inquiries from the information provided in the RFP, a contractor should find out who is on the selection team.
Depending on the organization and its procurement policy, this information may be difficult or easy to attain. The buying organization should at least give the contractor a contact to send questions and inquiries to.
A savvy contractor will also develop a contact schedule and stick to it. This means marking your calendar for dates to contact key persons during the selection process and sticking to the schedule.
By phone, e-mail, or in person, a contractor should politely inquire about the proposal review process and offer the decision-maker an opportunity to ask questions or clear up any concerns. This strengthens the relationship between buyer and contractor and improves the odds of award.
No matter how much you've analyzed the RFP or refined your proposal, nothing beats the human factor. Good relationships will put any proposal into the right pile.
"There is no substitute for good relationship-building techniques," emphasizes Geoff Blanco of Doculabs, an e-commerce consulting firm. "They help ensure you make the short list and win the deal."
Jim Romeo is a freelance writer based in Chesapeake, VA.
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