For most consulting firms, systems integrators, and many independent IT consultants, a substantial part of new engagements is responding to a request for proposal—or RFP, as it’s more commonly known. What follow are some suggestions and caveats for submitting proposals.
The lesser-known facts of RFPs
There is a considerable process most organizations go through to issue an RFP, and it’s not unusual for a company or agency to hire a vendor to prepare and write an RFP for them. When this is the case, that vendor is generally, but not always, precluded from responding to the RFP for obvious reasons.
RFPs are also used by organizations that have no intention of actually awarding a contract to go "fishing" for information. While this does not happen very often, an organization may be looking for information, for example, to see if they can handle a project in-house, or if the work will have to be outsourced.
There are alternative routes an organization may take to issuing a standard RFP:
- In a request for quote (RFQ), the process is relatively simple. You offer the best pricing you can, based on the details and specifications outlined in the RFQ.
- Another acronym you may see is the RFA, or request for application. Although its use is not always the same, organizations that have funding or grant monies available for new projects may issue an RFA to solicit applications from interested parties.
- Sometimes, an organization will issue a request for information (RFI). This generally suggests that the organization is still researching their options and is requesting certain information, ideas, or unstructured proposals from potential vendors to help them in their decision-making. Cynics see the RFI as a way for an organization to get some free advice.
Why companies use RFPs
For most organizations, the RFP process is a "best practice" procedure. Since your job as a consultant is to add value and to make life easier for your client, it helps to understand why organizations use the RFP process, and it’s wise to keep this in mind when you write your proposal.
RFPs benefit the organizations that use them in these ways:
- Facilitate comparison of proposals.
- Add objectivity.
- Ensure very focused responses.
- Increase pricing competition among vendors.
- Reduce risks for all parties.
- Minimize complaints from vendors.
- Help a manager justify the cost of a project to corporate decision-makers.
- Protect both the company and vendor in a contract dispute or scope change.
Some organizations require you to attend a mandatory bidder's conference. If you do not attend, it would preclude you from submitting a proposal. Whether it's a mandatory or optional conference, it behooves you to pay attention to those in attendance so you know who your potential competition is likely to be. Often, the organization issuing the RFP will make a list of attendees and questions available to all interested parties, just to be open and unbiased about the process. You should also be aware that it’s not at all unusual for two or more vendors to pool their collective skill sets and submit a joint proposal. There are times when it is better to ensure that you get part of the work than to risk not being involved at all.
Preparing your proposal
Suppose your company has decided to submit a proposal in response to the RFP and has put you in charge, or you're a solo practitioner and want to submit a response to an RFP. Now what? Some large firms have detailed proposal manuals with everything from multiple templates to copying and binding instructions for packaging a proposal. If you aren't so lucky as to work for one of them, or you don’t have the commercially available software to help you manage the preparation of your proposals, here's a list of things you need to do.
- Decide whether you have the competencies to handle all of the work yourself, or if you need a strategic partner with the skill sets you don't have in-house. Then determine overall feasibility and proceed or withdraw from the proposal process.
- If you decide to proceed, identify a team or committee responsible for generating the proposal. Decide on the division of labor. Who does what? Who writes what portion of the proposal?
- Submit questions or needed clarifications to the issuer of the RFP.
- Extract a timeline from the RFP.
- Identify both the stated and implied project milestones, then cross-reference the milestones with the timeline you created.
- Prepare a mini-project or Gantt chart for the proposal with a completion date at least two days before the actual deadline to allow for last-minute changes or additions. I prefer to include even a basic project plan or Gantt chart as an appendix item. It doesn't have to be accurate, and everyone understands that it will need to be revised, but it shows how much forethought and planning you were willing to invest as part of the process.
- Determine whether a site visit is required to generate a more accurate proposal.
- Respond only to the specifics and guidelines in the RFP. Adhere strictly to the suggested table of contents for proposals. Provide only what is needed with reasonable supporting rationale. Write succinctly. Minimize unnecessary documentation and marketing material.
- Include a section or statement about you or your company's business and technology goals for the project.
- Carefully determine your pricing strategy. Rick Freedman’s excellent column—featured here in the IT Consultant Republic—offers an exceptional discussion of pricing strategies.
- Carefully identify the deliverables you know you can financially, ethically, and otherwise commit to. Never submit a proposal without having read the company's mission statement and making sure that your proposal does not conflict with the company's goals and values. If possible, find and use key words that may subconsciously link your proposal to the mission statement or corporate goals in the RFP reader's mind.
- Include an evaluation or review process to let the RFP reader know that you expect to demonstrate your value and expect your work to be monitored. It demonstrates confidence and will make them feel more secure with your proposal.
- Ask someone outside of the proposal preparation team to review the final work product and comment on its content and adherence to the original RFP specs.
- If an oral presentation or interview is required, make sure you are prepared for it. Modify your existing audio-visual presentation to the specifics of the project. (Make sure you print and bring hard copies of the slide presentation just in case something goes wrong with the equipment.)
Dealing with disappointment
Remember that I've dealt here with the process of responding to an RFP. The most important components are the specifics of your technical proposal for your products or services and your pricing. Don't be too disappointed if your proposal doesn't land you a new contract. Like so many things in life, it's a numbers game. Every sales call doesn't result in a sale, every resume submission doesn't result in a job offer, and every proposal you submit is not going to result in new work. The good news is that once you've submitted several proposals, you can develop text and spreadsheet templates, and you'll find that you already have a substantial portion of your next proposal ready to go when you need it.
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