If you’re reading this, then chances are you're no stranger to the RFP process. However, if you find yourself being in the early stages of learning RFPs (request for proposal), it’s essentially a large contract listing the tasks a business needs from a vendor to complete a deal or project.

Whether you’re experienced or not, it’s no secret that RFPs are typically something both vendors and consumers try to avoid and seem to use only as a last resort since they are very time consuming. Luckily, there are a few tips on how you can get the most out of the procurement process. The steps below will walk through the major components of the RFP framework and some helpful Do’s and Don’ts to ensure you’re on the right track.

1. Start Off With a Strong Presence

First and foremost, your RFP should contain background information on the company or organization who is soliciting a response from the vendor(s). You don’t want your readers to walk into the RFP blindly. Make yourself known! Whether it be a brief or lengthy overview, include enough background information to answer any potential questions the vendor may have about your company and team values. Although some information may be extensive, stay away from repetition. This request holds a lot of content, so it’s a best practice to make your mission as bold yet distinct as possible.

2. Define the Reasons for the RFP

The overall goal of an RFP is to allow the solicitor and vendor to come to a mutual agreement. Thus, the largest takeaway of the RFP is transparency. Both parties should be clear on expectations, allowing roadblocks to be avoided. As the vendors are weighing their verdict on undertaking the deal, you should provide as many educational details as possible to provide an informed decision. 

However, far too often, RFPs can be unclear. This is an area where many companies make their first major mistake in the creation process. If your content is vague, then the response you receive will be vague. Avoid this by explaining what you hope to accomplish in thorough detail. State the key points about the project along with its proposed start date and due date. Bullet Point out the problems you want to address and if there is a need for automation, streamlining, or possibly innovation for a new solution.

Although it’s crucial to be detailed with your message, it’s easy to slip into the common mistake of being overly specific. Getting too specific can often drive readers away from the main key of the content. Unless you’re a Fortune 500 company with very specific requirements, generally getting overly specific in your requirements is overkill and will often stifle the responses you receive.

Imagine how you interact with your auto mechanic; you would likely be upfront and ask them to fix a specific problem with your vehicle. There’s no reason to be coy with your mechanic, even if you think your problem is something embarrassing or unique to you. Chances are, your problem is something your competitors or neighbors are dealing with as well. Often these are problems across the industry, and your vendors may already have solutions to help, so it’s important to be detailed, but clear and concise.
Nick Lane
GUARDIAN RFID Product Manager

3. Identifying Responses

The response portion of the RFP is often the largest piece of content. A very common problem in RFPs is that there isn’t a very obvious line between project requirements and vendor responses, and often those two can be intermingled. When combined, it’s unclear what you are stating and what you are asking. 

The questions you have for your vendors should be clearly defined in an entirely separate section alone. In fact, an impressive RFP will come in two documents, one document that is all about you and your problem(s) and the other document being about questions that vendors will fill out and return. Keep in mind that if you release the vendor questions as a PDF, that often means that someone will need to painstakingly try to retype or copy those back into a Word Doc before they can even begin to answer them. This cuts into valuable response time. Give the vendors your questions in an editable file format so that they can insert their responses into your formatted structure.

4. Evaluation Criteria

An RFP will almost always have a scoring rubric for how the winning bid will be selected. The scoring criteria are completely up to you, so it’s essential to be upfront about your priorities and preferred credentials. For example, if your decision is going to be made solely on price, then accentuate that. In fact, if you have budget limitations, it can often be praised to include it in your background section and simply state, “We have X problem and have Y money to solve it. Tell us a solution that solves our problem within our budget.” The more transparent you are inside the RFP, the more likely you are to receive honest responses who want to truly be a match for your business and make a difference.

5. Allow Realistic Timelines 

Laying out the specific timelines is vital to ensure all materials are received. Examples of key deadlines include: when you need their response submission by, when you will announce the final recipient, and when the project will start. Keep in mind to allow enough time for vendors to plan a response before the submission deadline. The more time you give your vendors to respond, the better quality of responses you will receive (generally, the average time to receive responses in the corrections industry is one to two months).

Highlighting these timelines helps vendors organize their schedules and set priorities. Oftentimes, the vendors will create several response drafts depending on the time allowed. At a minimum, they will have an answer to all your questions. Time permitting, it will be an acceptable answer, possibly an exceptional answer, and ideally a flawless answer with screenshots, use cases, and references.

6. The Final Touch

If you’ve already gone through this process a number of times, you can generally expect several submissions from vendor candidates. However, always remember to stay humble and unassuming. (It will feel better when you receive a higher number of responses than expected!) It’s a best practice to allow vendors to submit their responses electronically. Avoid printing physical copies unless it is specifically required. Submitting electronically is easier, faster, and more cost effective.

When selecting the final candidate, there is often a panel of board members that review the electronic submissions and a single physical copy. Unless the whole panel is going to huddle around the single three-ring binder, let's save a tree and choose the digital route.

Of course, always analyze your content and edit all grammatical errors before distributing the document, even collaborate with a team member to proofread. The more eyes reviewing, the more likely errors will be caught and corrected. If you want to receive the best possible responses from your vendors, follow these basic steps and avoid common mistakes. Give your vendors a clear depiction of your needs and enough time to respond. Allow them to propose a solution that they feel would work best, and then everything else should seamlessly fall into place.