We believe strongly in Requests for Proposals (RFPs) as a tool for companies to find the best products and services at competitive prices, but also as an evaluation method for finding that elusive “best fit”. However, too often the RFP process is run by people who have never experienced the process before, either from the issuer or vendor side, and essentially don’t know what to say or what to ask. So we’ve broken it down into 6 steps to writing a better RFP.

How to write a good RFP:

Our goal in this article is give you the basics that you might need to create your own RFP and run a RFP process without too much frustration. As an example we’re going to use a small website redesign project (because that’s what we do), but we hope you’ll be able to extract the concepts you need for your own project. You can find lots of sample RFPs to use as research, perhaps even as a starter template, by going to the RFP Database.

(P.S. if you meant to find an article on writing proposals instead of writing a Request for Proposals, please go here. If you’d prefer to not drive your respondents to drinking, please visit our RFP Drinking Game)

Contact us for RFP consulting help!

Step 1: do your research and define what you are seeking

Don’t jump into writing the RFP without doing your own internal homework. After receiving your RFP vendors will be beating down your door with dozens of questions; you’re not going to want to be scrambling to find out answers which could then derail your timeline (more on that later). Defining your project as best you can will enable you to pass that information on to potential vendors, but also receive proposals that are tailored to your needs (pricing and project plans) by vendors who understand the project they are bidding on.

Example: you want a website redesign

Do you have existing brand material that will be used in the design or does that need to be created? Do you have the content for your new site written, or will that need to be created by the vendor or through a collaborative process? Do you envision this as a 5 page website or a large, 100+ page website? Who will be handling upkeep of the site, hosting, etc.? Do you need a Content Management System for maintaining the site and keeping it up to date or do you think it’s going to stay fairly static? Are there any interactive pieces you need in the site or specific functionalities that will need to be implemented? Does the website need to interact with any database or 3rd party software?

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the types of questions that vendors will be asking you. The more you know about your project, the better the answers you’ll be able to give to guide the vendors into great proposals. Yes, vendors will also be asking you questions you’ve never considered (which is a good thing), so be prepared to do additional definition work once you’ve received the questions from them.

Doing this research is part of the Requirements Gathering phase, and will help in the future when moving along to the Contract and Statement of Work part of the process.

Step 2: decide your distribution strategy and information publication

How will you be distributing your RFP, how will you be collecting information from potential vendors, and where will you be providing project updates?

Our first recommendation is to create a project page or project site that will house your project overview, contact information, timeline, the RFP for download, and all other project documentation that you need to share with vendors. Include a link to this page in your RFP and direct people to it as a central repository for the project.

Our second recommendation is to think long and hard on whom you’d like to be bidding on this project. For example, are you only going to entertain proposals from companies local to you, or does location not matter so much? Do you only want to receive proposals from a specific number of vendors that you invite to participate, or do you want to open the process up to receive qualified proposals from anywhere? Regardless of your decision, be upfront about this decision so that vendors aren’t wasting their time by creating a proposal when you’re not interested in them because of location. Try to be helpful and considerate in your RFP process.

Step 3: provide the information necessary to a vendor

This might seem a bit obvious, but provide the above information to potential vendors by organizing it in the RFP. Spend time giving them information about your organization, culture, marketing/branding efforts, any deadlines that you need to hit, a narrative of the project that you wish to implement… anything that will enable the best proposals to be written. If there are specifics make sure to list them out. If you don’t mention them most vendors won’t know to include them.

Step 4: create a reasonable timeline

There are a number of dates that you should include in your RFP timeline. For example, take the following schedule:

  • June 1, 2009 – Release and distribution of RFP
  • June 15, 2009 – Deadline for vendors to submit written questions and/or non-mandatory notice of intent
  • June 17, 2009 – Questions with written answers provided to all interested vendors
  • June 30, 2009, 9:00 am EST – deadline for submitting proposals
  • July 10, 2009 – Finalists notified
  • July 13, 2009 to July 17, 2009 – Finalist interviews
  • July 22, 2009 – Vendor selected
  • July 31, 2009 – Vendor signed

This is a fairly optimistic schedule, but it provides time in the various stages for work to be performed. We highly recommend varying this schedule based on your specific needs. For example, if you’re running a complex software development project and are receiving technically complex questions, you’re likely to need more than 2 days to answer all of the questions and provide them to vendors. You might also notice that we provide time both before and after the Q&A deadlines for vendors to both pose the the questions, but also take the provided information and create their final proposal.

Step 5: identify the information you need from the vendor and proposal format

If you don’t specify the information you need from the vendor you’ll end up getting a hodge-podge of information, some of which might be useful to you, most of which will be boilerplate. Using the website redesign example, the following includes some of the questions and information you might ask and request:

Proposals should include the information outlined in this section; our ability to interpret and apply your proposal to these questions will factor into our decisions.

  1. Describe in detail the firm’s proposal to address the requirements outlined in this RFP, including details such as technologies to be used.
  2. Provide a timeline for the completion of this proposal; if the project involves a multi-phase approach please provide approximate timeframes.
  3. Describe the fee structure and how the organization will be charged. The costs involved may be categorized separately as redesign, implementation costs, maintenance costs, and software licensing costs. Also include the firm’s plan for post-deployment maintenance, support and upgrades including hourly rates for services.
  4. Provide a brief history and profile of the firm and its experience providing services for organizations similar to ours. Provide a list of the firm’s clients comparable to our organization; include contact name, telephone number, website location, services provided and length of service.
  5. Describe the project process and methodology including sample deliverables from past projects of similar size and scope. Document examples of the firm’s experience in designing/developing each of the project requirements.
  6. List the project team (including programmers and designers) and short biographies of each team member. If using freelancers or outside resources please indicate them as such; we reserve the right to approve/disapprove of selected resources. Indicate how many full time staff does your firm employ.
  7. All proposals must include a hosting solution, whether that solution is provided by the company or a 3rd party service provider. Please detail the cost structure, hosting platform, uptime statistics, location of the server, data backup and integrity plan, etc. Clearly identify additional costs incurred with a change in hosting site.
  8. Please provide an unsigned copy of your standard service contract for our review and any additional stipulations of which we should be aware.

Please be sure to document experience illustrating expertise in:

  • working with non-profit organizations and providing design services
  • building websites that engage the users and encourage them to register

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Determine the information that you need to make your decision and what information will enable you to select the vendor that is the best fit for your organization and your project.

Step 6: determine your evaluation criteria

Is pricing your only evaluation criteria or are you looking for the best fit and the best project for your budget? And if all of the companies give you proposals for roughly the same price, how will you choose your finalists?

Some possible evaluation criteria for you to consider:

  • Is the company good at communicating with us, for both our needs and for their needs during the project?
  • Is it important to us to have someone that can come in for occasional face to face meetings or is over the phone ok?
  • Do we like the project examples we’ve been shown and can we easily see our project reflected in those examples?
  • Do they seem to “get” us?
  • Is their pricing and timeline reasonable and within our parameters?
  • Did they educate us on how they will complete our project, the team that will be working on it, and the deliverables that will be provided?
  • Is their contract something that we can agree to or will that be cause for concern? (for more on this please read “How not to destroy a project during the contract phase“)
  • Have they adequately detailed the costs and payment plan so we know how we will be charged?

These are just a few examples of evaluation questions beyond the “is their pricing the most competitive”, but they’ll hopefully lead you to a vendor that is more than just a supplier, but a partner in your project.

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