How to Write a Winning RFP

May 20, 2024
Gaurav Nemade

Tips and insights into the request for proposal process


How to Write a Winning RFP

May 20, 2024

What is an RFP and why is it important?

What does “RFP” stand for exactly? An RFP, or request for proposal, is an invitation for contractors and vendors to bid for a specific project. An organization asks businesses to submit the details of the work they can provide and how much it will cost to complete the project. The RFP outlines the scope and parameters of what it would take to do the work. The more comprehensive the submitted RFP can be, the more likely it is to be considered. 

The organization who asks for the bids reviews all the submitted RFPs and compares them against each other to decide which contractor to hire. If your company is successful, you will negotiate a final amount and then sign a contract.

Requests for proposals are used by various organizations, such as government bodies and non-profits, both to find appropriate vendors for projects as well as to show transparency to the public. Construction RFPs are perhaps the most common although information technology RFPs are becoming more frequently used. By issuing public RFPs, organizations prove their accountability and honesty in their decision-making. Government procurement often needs to show they’ve done their due diligence in their selection process and RFPs are the proof.

RFPs are a great way for organizations to gauge how well each contractor or vendor fully understands the scope of the project and what it will take to complete. They also help to create benchmarks by which to measure the success of a project. The goal of an RFP is to accurately represent what can be delivered that will allow the customer to make the best choice to solve their problem. 

Some organizations put forth a request for a proposal for a project that is complex with a lot of moving parts as the organization can benefit from receiving various perspectives on how to solve a particular problem. For example, if a project requires you to first develop specific software before you can actually do the work to fulfill the request, that’s a whole extra layer of complexity to consider.

Receiving multiple bids for a project can also help increase competition and drive down the cost to the organization. Proposals are not always accepted based on the lowest bid but when there are several contractors vying for the same project, price can be a determining factor. 

When organizations receive completed RFPs the relative strengths and weaknesses of the bidder are quickly revealed. If the proposal is too vague or too brief, a bidder is at a disadvantage. Fully filled out responses that show clear thought and planning place contractors in a much stronger position.

How to write a request for proposal

Understanding the scope of the project for which you’re thinking of putting in a bid is paramount before you begin actually putting together a proposal. If you aren’t fully qualified for the particular project at hand you may want to skip it and look for more appropriate opportunities.

What to include in an RFP request for proposal

The purpose of an RFP is clear: organizations want to find contractors and vendors who can fulfill the services they need to have completed in a realistic timeline and budget. However, you may find that businesses like yours sometimes submit unclear proposals.

Your goal with writing an RFP should be clarity and relevance. Once you’ve determined that your company is a good fit for completing the proposed work, here’s what you need to think about before you begin to write:

  • A detailed plan of how you’re going to complete the work
  • A timeline of when you’re going to complete the work
  • Background information to prove that you are who can best complete the work 
  • How much money it’s going to cost to do the work

There are several main parts to an RFP. The request for proposal process will include all these sections:

1. Project overview

This section appears first in the proposal but you should write it last. After you’ve finished writing all the other sections, come back to the overview and give an introduction to your proposal. It’ll be much easier to write this at the end when you’ve figured out all the key details. 

Your proposal should always begin with an overview of how your company is going to fulfill the proposed work so the organization can quickly know that you are right for the job.  

Including a summary section within the overview can help readers quickly see the key elements of the proposal. Some important things to highlight are:

  • Key dates
  • Customer pain points
  • Solutions to those pain points
  • Contract terms and conditions (details that may need legal review)
  • Technical or specific requirements
  • Implementation plan
  • Non-negotiables (elements you can’t adjust)

2. Company background

Give the organization to which you’re submitting a proposal a thorough but not lengthy overview of your company. This section should provide a good idea of what you do as a business and what projects you’ve completed in the past. If, for example, a construction RFP is asking for five apartment buildings to be built and you’ve built apartment buildings in the past, be sure to include details about those structures. It’s important to focus on relevant project history here so if you’ve only built barns or other types of buildings either leave that out or point out the overlapping similarities.

3. Project scope

You may hear a lot about “scope” and wonder just what it means. Project scope defines the parameters of the project and what you’ll deliver. It should cover not just the deliverables but also the responsibilities, requirements, assumptions, obstacles, and goal posts that you need to meet in order to be successful. 
Clarifying your scope helps make sure that everyone is on the same page and that you won’t be overworked or, worse, fired. Spend plenty of time on this section so nothing comes back to bite you later on. Be as specific as you can with your details. 

4. Project requirements and constraints

In this section, it’s important to be transparent both about what you need to complete the project and the obstacles you foresee encountering. If the project is for a government body, there could be red tape or laws that you anticipate being roadblocks. If the organization has older software that you need to use that could also slow down a project. 

Be upfront about any challenges you know you’ll come up against — and then provide possible solutions to solve them. Showing your knowledge of potential constraints also proves you have experience with this type of project which the organization should recognize and appreciate. You’ll show that you can handle constraints and move beyond them. And if the organization disagrees, it’s better to know it now than halfway through a project. 

5. Deliverable schedule and timelines

Spell out the work you can do and in what timeframe in a clear and realistic way. Schedule details are a crucial factor (probably second after budget) in helping an organization decide if your company should win the bid or not. If your team doesn’t have enough employees to complete the project in a certain amount of time, note that you may need to hire subcontractors to get it done on time — but that this will impact the budget. Most companies want work done as quickly and as cheaply as possible but if a project is to be done well it can’t be all three. 

6. Budget considerations

Budget is often the primary factor for organizations accepting proposals. Everything flows down from a budget, including the resources, time, investments, and number of employees working on a project. 

If you’ve been in business for even a short while, you probably already know that there are often unwelcome surprises that crop up now and then that impact your budget. Try to think of every possible variable that could occur that would affect your budget. It’s often a good idea to build in some wiggle room for those unfortunate unforeseeables as well. 

Be clear in this section about your budget ceiling and the amount for which you absolutely can’t complete a project. Don’t create unrealistic budget expectations just to win the bid and then realize down the road that you can’t deliver for that price. 

It’s also a good practice to spell out that you’d like to be paid at each milestone instead of at the very end of the project. Getting paid on time will help keep the project flowing smoothly and cause much less stress for everyone involved.

Key tips for writing a great RFP proposal

Front-load your thinking. It’s imperative to take the time up front to truly understand the project for which you want to submit a proposal. There’s no point in writing a detailed proposal if the project isn’t appropriate for your business or if you misunderstand key details about it. The more carefully you read the requirements before you even begin to draft an RFP, the better off you’ll be in the long run. This is particularly true regarding the timeline of the project; if the organization wants it completed in six months but you know you can’t do it in less than a year, it may be unrealistic to apply.

Understanding compliance requirements. Carefully reading through an RFP to make sure you can be compliant is a key initial step. Having a full understanding of what’s being asked will make it easier down the road. Keep track of important requirements so you can have them readily at hand. Pay special attention to any unusual or extra guidelines or instructions.

Here are some ways you can make sure you achieve compliance:

  • Use a template so your process is structured and nothing gets missed
  • Ask other people on your team to read through the instructions 
  • Identify any areas in which you may not be fully compliant and be honest about whether you can achieve compliance or not
  • Follow the instructions laid out in the proposal 

Think of RFPs as negotiating a contract. Many people regard proposals as sales documents as they need to persuade organizations to hire their services but they are also a contract negotiation. A good proposal is one in which you are honest about the capabilities you have and that you aren’t committing to a type of implementation for which you aren’t prepared. Set your legal team up for success by not promising to deliver work you know you can’t actually do.

Use a project management tool. Collaborating with your team members will be made a lot easier if you use a project management tool (such as Asana). People need to have a good understanding of what the project looks like and what’s expected of them in the RFP process. There should be an easy way for them to look at their list of tasks. 

Taking an extremely structured, methodical approach to meeting tight timelines will benefit everyone in the long run. Break the RFP response process into milestones for requirement shredding, initial drafting, expert reviews, and final content freezing. Adhering to a disciplined workflow is critical to complete an RFP on time.

You’re allowed to ask questions. As you go through the process of writing your RFP, keep a running list of things to ask the organization that haven’t already been addressed. This will also help you put together a more comprehensive plan by noting key items that need more details. Remember that if an organization isn’t open to feedback and questions you may not want to work with them.

Your first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. Just start jotting down ideas in each section to get the ball rolling. You can come back and fill sections out in more detail as you go. Sometimes the hardest part is just starting an RFP request so the less you procrastinate the better off you’ll be.

Make it easy to digest. We all know that people tend to skim lengthy documents. Knowing this, it’s important to present your information in a way that makes it easy for readers to digest your main points. Some formatting tips you can use are:

  • Headers and subheaders
  • Bullet points, call–out boxes, and inset paragraphs
  • Images
  • Strategic use of white space

Remember, no giant blocks of text! A compelling proposal probably is not one that has block paragraphs like you’er reading a novel. 

Ask for feedback from your team. Make sure you have at least a couple of people you trust read your proposal so you get their input and feedback. Not only will they catch details that you overlook but it’s also important to make sure they’re aligned with what you’re suggesting as they're the ones who will have to do the actual work.

If you're writing something that's 40 pages long you may not catch everything so the more that you build in good review processes the better off you'll be. A few grammatical mistakes or a few spelling errors won't make a big difference but they'll subconsciously weigh on the person who's reading it. A lot of grammatical errors can kind of maybe leave them walking away with the impression that you're not as professional as the competition um and the only way to catch those things is to build in time for review

Maintain the same voice. When there are multiple people contributing to writing a single document, it may come across disjointed and written from different voices and perspectives. Focus on maintaining consistency in the voice, tone, and messaging across what can be disparate inputs from various subject matter experts. This is crucial for effectively conveying a unified value proposition.

Don’t forget a cover letter. After you’ve finalized your RFP make sure to write a cover letter to include with your submission. This letter should create a professional image of your company and show that you should be taken seriously. 

What to expect after you submit an RFP

Once you submit an RFP to an organization it goes into the evaluation process. Your proposal is reviewed for compliance to the submission guidelines and to see if it meets the requirements. If it does, your RFP is then given a score. After each submission receives a score, the organization usually compares vendors side by side. Your proposal will stand out if it checks all the boxes and provides clear details about the project. 

If you are in the top three or so high-scoring contractors you may receive an invitation to give further information. This may take several forms, such as a:

  • Questionnaire
  • Presentation
  • Demonstration
  • References

If you are successful and are chosen as the winning vendor, you will then need to negotiate your contract. You’ll need to come to an agreement on price, delivery, processes, payment terms, and start date. 

How to measure success

Many people will define success only as winning a specific bid. But it’s important to remember that the RFP is only a small part of the overall sales cycle and the proposal is not going to be the reason at the end of the day why someone chooses your product or doesn't. Perhaps a better metric of success is a “through rate” which means your proposal delivered what it set out to and it was considered and thought to have solved the problem at hand. 

As any organization who has ever put out an RFP before will tell you, there are good proposals and there are not-so-good proposals. Make sure yours falls into the “good” or “great” category by making it as thoughtful and as clear as you can. The key to writing a winning proposal is to offer tailored answers to the organization’s needs that shows you can do the work and get their project completed on time.

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