As a consultant, a large part of procuring government contracts will hinge on your ability to find and develop a strategy for responding to requests for proposals (RFPs). I’ll discuss RFPs as the key to contracts in both the public and private sector. I’ll also share tips I’ve learned for finding and responding to RFPs.

First in a series

This is the first installment in a series that will look at RFPs and how consultants should best approach them to gain business. Other articles will address when a consultant should submit a proposal, how consultants can protect their ideas, and what to include in formal and informal proposals.

RFPs: The secret to government contracts
Government contracts are worth investigating if you want to diversify beyond the still-flailing private IT market. All but the very smallest government contracts start with an RFP, which invites contractors to bid on the project and provides guidelines for doing so.

Government contracts often pay well and even have the potential to sustain a contractor’s entire business. However, these contracts come laden with bureaucracy and paperwork—including the bidding process. That process can last for several months or even years. Large government contracts may also be too much for one independent to handle, so you’ll need to evaluate the RFP carefully. If you can’t complete the project solo but you believe it’s a good fit for your skills, consider partnering with another consultant or consulting firm to compete for the project.

Components of an RFP
A formal RFP typically has four main components:

  • Introduction: This details when proposals are due, where to submit them, and whom to contact with questions.
  • Directions: This section explains what to include in the proposal and how it will be evaluated. It may detail required formats or provide forms.
  • Standard text: This gives information about the requestor, such as its purchasing policies, invoicing terms, and other administrative details.
  • Statement of work: This part provides the meat of the RFP: It describes the problem the client wants the proposer to solve. It may describe concrete objectives, vague symptoms, or both.

After you find and study an appropriate RFP, it’s time to craft a proposal, which outlines your qualifications, your understanding of the client’s needs, and how you intend to meet them. When creating your proposal, keep in mind that RFPs are often vague and you may want to pitch ideas or plans that go beyond what the RFP asked for. Therefore, identify the most critical needs and make sure you address those.

Finding government RFPs
Because it’s unlikely that NASA is going to come knocking at your door to invite you to update its IT infrastructure, you need to know where to look to find government RFPs. A good starting place is the U.S. government’s FirstGov site. Here are some search tips to try:

  • Use the search tool to look for an RFP that needs the type of services you offer.
  • You can search for federal contracts, or you can search by a specific state.
    (Search results often include RFPs from years past, so pay attention to the dates.)
  • If you know that your services are suited to a particular government branch, look on that agency’s Web site. (You can find links to several of these from the FirstGov site.)
  • Also look at the sites of your city, county, and state governments. Most agencies are required by law to make RFPs available to the public, and many of them do so by publishing the RFPs online.

Another site that is a source for federal contracts is FedBizOpps/Commerce Business Daily. It lists all federal procurement opportunities over $25,000, including both supply and service contracts. This site requires a subscription to the Commerce Business Daily. You’ll pay $300 for an individual or $1,500 for a small business. In my opinion, it’s money well spent. There’s no better tool if you’re serious about pursuing federal contracts—all federal agencies are required to post procurements here. Here are a few pointers to keep in mind when using this site:

  • It has a surprisingly user-friendly search page that can locate contracts that suit your skills.
  • The site provides an “alert service” to create custom searches that query the databases every business day. It will e-mail you when opportunities match your criteria.
  • The site also lists contract awards. This is an excellent source of leads for independents. If your skill dovetails with an awarded contract, you can offer your skills to the prime contractor. Even if they turn you down at first, those contractors may remember you when they’re swamped with work and know they can’t meet a deadline without help.

What’s an RFI?
You may occasionally encounter an RFI, a request for information, which is what agencies issue when they have a problem but not a clue what they need. An RFI outlines a very broad need and asks for similarly broad information. For example, it may ask about how to develop a statewide telecommunications infrastructure.

The agency subsequently issues an RFP, based on what it receives from its RFI. Responding to an RFI can give you an edge in the proposal process by producing an RFP tailor-made for the solution you suggested. But it also disseminates that information to your competitors, one of whom may build a more compelling case.

For the independent, responding to an RFI issued by a government agency may not be a good idea unless it’s in a niche where you already have a good foothold. In the public sector, it’s often better to sit back and wait for the RFP.

Private companies use RFPs and RFIs too
Private companies also issue RFPs and occasionally RFIs, although less often than government agencies. RFPs and RFIs from the private sector are likely to be less formal. Typically, the type of proposal they expect is less formal, too.

My recommendations for working with RFPs and RFIs from private companies include:

  • To learn which RFPs have been issued from private companies, it helps to follow the word of mouth in professional organizations or within the company’s industry. Companies often send out RFPs only to consultants they’ve worked with before or that they’ve heard about, so you usually need to have some sort of inside information to know the RFP is out there.
  • Unlike government RFIs, it’s vital to respond to RFIs issued in the private sector. Private companies are under no obligation to follow an RFI with an RFP, so if you don’t respond to an RFI, you may find yourself out of contention for the contract.
  • Private companies are also more motivated by profit and less bound by rules than government agencies. As a result, I believe this can mean that they’re more likely to steal ideas from your proposal, so it’s even more important to be careful about the information you reveal.

Meredith Little runs WriteWork, a documentation consulting business she started in 1998. Based in Colorado, the company provides procedural documentation, knowledge management expertise, and solutions, such as user manuals and online help, to IT companies nationwide.

What would you add to the list?

Share your tips for responding to RFPs. Post a comment or send us a letter.