Mastering the RFP

To develop a competitive proposal, you first need to master the RFP (or RFQ). This seems self-evident—but we repeatedly run into situations where clients still haven’t fully grasped one or more requirements, just weeks before the due date.

One of our team talks about “owning the RFP.” He means getting your head around—and then managing—three kinds of requirements: compliance, structure and strategy.

Most teams responding to very large opportunities have structured their processes to do this. But others—including some pursuing contracts in the tens of millions of dollars— jeopardize their chances by letting important pieces fall through the cracks.

We’ll briefly describe the main elements of mastery in this post, and then look at ways to accomplish it in the coming weeks.

Establishing the proposal structure

RFPs vary widely in how closely they specify the contents of your response. Ideally the bid issuer will provide a specific set of questions and sub-questions, essentially building the table of contents for your response.

Others are less straightforward. In one recent example, the issuer repeated the statement of work twice in slightly different formats, making it frustratingly difficult to decide which to follow. Another RFP contained a set of pass/fail “mandatory criteria” and a separate set of scored “technical criteria.”

Follow this rule: When in doubt, organize your response to align with how the evaluation criteria are structured.

Ensuring compliance

Every RFP contains compliance items. These are things bidders must address, or risk a poor score, or even getting thrown out of the competition. They consist of two broad categories:

  • Content compliance: This involves answering all the RFP questions. Sounds simple—but in fact teams often get off track, because the RFP is confusing, or because their technical training or company culture leads them to make assumptions not supported by the RFP language.
  • Administrative compliance: Examples include the submission deadline and the form and packaging of deliverables. Most RFPs also include font size, page formatting requirements, page limits, and various forms and certifications for completion and/or submission.

Ownership includes identifying all compliance items and following up to ensure they are met.

Managing content development

Once you’ve mastered the RFP structure and requirements and assigned content to writers, don’t make the mistake of managing too loosely. Loose management runs the risk of writers heading off in the wrong direction or—as more often happens—waiting until just before the deadline to begin writing. Either outcome results in incomplete and/or non-compliant content and those all too familiar pre-deadline writing marathons.

Managing strategy (win themes)

Every successful proposal—even those on short deadlines—needs to start with a win strategy. (“Answer all the questions” is not a strategy.) This rule has two parts:

  • Developing and documenting a winning strategy for each main section of the response and then;
  • Ensuring every proposal section supports that strategy. Many bidders spend time upfront on strategy—but fail to see it carry through into the proposal.

How strong is your ownership?

Based on our research, most bidders (about three quarters) do a good job of identifying and managing compliance requirements—but less than half consistently master structure and strategy. Where does your team rank?

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