THE ART AND SCIENCE OF RFP WRITING
We’ve written quite a few blogs about how to craft a thoughtful, well-organized response to a request for proposal (RFP).
If you’ve ever been tasked with responding to an RFP, you know that proposal writing takes a staggering amount of work, and just the right balance of art (writing and communication are definitely arts) and science (developing best practices, adhering to all rules and guidelines, etc.)
We’ve also been on the other side of the process – and we’ve learned that writing the actual RFP can require just as much work – and the same balance of creativity and attention to detail.
And we’ve identified some common sets of best practices that will help guide you through the process, whether you’re writing an RFP for a government organization, a private company, or a non-profit organization.
Prep work and writing
Grab your color palette and your microscope: Prior to putting the RFP “out on the street” you’ll need to use art and science to define the deliverables; develop a budget; and create project-specific evaluation criteria that will determine award of contract.
Task: Scope of work
- Art- Communication is an art – and as project manager/lead writer, you’ll need to communicate and coordinate with all stakeholders on your team to figure out exactly what services and/or products you’re looking for and how long you’ll need them.
- Science- You’ll need to create a detailed Scope of Work (SOW) that details of the products, services, and deliverables you expect from a potential vendor. This is the time to think (and write) like a scientist – stick to facts and be as specific as possible about what you need.
- Art- You’ve no doubt heard of the art of negotiation – but budgeting is an art, too. To avoid setting your budget too high or too low you’ll need to come up with numbers that strike just the right balance.
- Science- Good, old-fashioned scientific inquiry is key to this step. Some key questions you’ll need to answer include:
- How much can your organization afford?
- How much do you actually want to spend?
- How much do the services and/or products outlined in your SOW typically cost?
- Art- Can planning be an art? Absolutely – especially when you’re dealing with a complex project with lots of moving parts. Ideally, you should to give vendors enough time to review your RFP, submit questions, and craft a well-thought-out proposal; you’ll also want to give yourself and your team enough time to review each proposal and select a winner.
- Science- Create a detailed calendar that outlines each milestone for the RFP process, including:
- The date your organization plans to release the RFP
- The deadline for vendor questions
- The dates and times of any interviews, meetings or Q&A sessions related to your RFP
- The date finalists will be notified
- The date you’ll announce the winning bid
Task: Evaluation Criteria
- Art- It’s brainstorming time. Get your team together, get creative, and make a list of your “ideal” candidate. What would make a vendor stand out from the crowd? What are your “must-haves” and what are your “nice-to-haves”? Are there any deal-breakers?
- Science- Now that you know what you want, you’ll need to find a way to make your criteria measurable. You could do this by developing a points system or a rating scale. The goal should be to create a system that will allow you to do an apples-to-apples comparison of all proposals.
Task: Writing, Editing, and Proofreading
- Art- At this point, you should have everything you need to write a draft of your RFP. Writing is truly an art, and a well-written RFP should communicate your needs clearly and succinctly. The more specific you can be with your instructions and expectations, the better your chances of receiving useful and thorough proposals.
- Science– Break out the microscope, because you’ll want to review your RFP draft very carefully: Check your facts, re-read your instructions and look for inconsistencies; review facts, dates, and contact information. And don’t forget to do a thorough proofreading to ensure that your final draft doesn’t contain any spelling and grammar errors.
Congratulations! If you’ve reached this point, you’ve successfully navigated the art and science of crafting an RFP, and you’re ready to send the draft out into the world.
But don’t hang up your easel and microscope just yet – you’ll need them.
Responses, revisions, and compliance
Now that the RFP has been published you can just sit back and wait for proposals to start rolling in, right? Well, not quite.
This phase of the process requires you to actively track responses, answer questions, amend or revise the RFP as needed.
Task: Tracking Inquiries
- Art- You’ll need to know who submitted proposals and when. The “art” part of this task is coming up with a simple, easy-to-update system for tracking responses. This could be anything from a spreadsheet to a living list housed on Google docs to a hand-written note.
- Science- Whether you’re new to the RFP process or you’re simply trying to find a better way to keep track of proposals, treat this part of the process like a science experiment: Take notes on what works (and what doesn’t), and adjust, adjust, adjust until you’ve got a system that works for you.
Task: Answering Questions and Amending RFPs
- Art- As we mentioned in the “Prep work” section, writing is an art – and you’ll need to bust out your best editorial skills as you review vendor questions and update, revise, or amend your RFP in response.
- Science- Amending an RFP is a highly-structured process. As you amend your RFP, you’ll need to follow the rules and regulations to the letter, with a laser-like focus and a microscope’s-eye-view of every last requirement.
Task: Determining Compliance
- Art- Your first step toward choosing a winner is a review of all the proposals submitted. At this point, you should be thinking “big picture” — you’ll have plenty of time to get into the weeds during the evaluation phase. Of course, Even with a government RFP, there’s a bit of art and balance involved in deciding whether a proposal is considered “compliant.” For example, if a proposal follows the important rules regarding content, you and your team may decide to overlook the occasional typo or funky formatting error (after all, everyone makes mistakes).
- Science- Human error and typos are one thing – but rules are rules. While your inner creative may be willing to forgive the occasional misplaced comma, the logical, left-brain part of you should be on high alert for deal-breakers, such as:
- Proposals turned in late
- Proposals that are missing required/requested information
- Proposals that don’t follow your requested structure or formatting
- Proposals that do not include required documentation, such as information about insurance, finances, and processes.
Evaluation and choosing a winner
As the old saying goes, “All that glitters ain’t gold, and all that’s gold don’t glitter.”
And, in the world of government RFPs, you’ll need to separate the gold from the glitter to choose finalists or a winning vendor.
Simple compliance isn’t quite enough, and attractive design can only go so far (we’ve seen our share of “pretty” proposals with surprisingly little substance).
Your team will have to use a combination of creativity, communication, and objective “just-the-facts” judgment to evaluate each proposal that makes it past the initial “compliant or not” screening.
Task: Evaluating Proposals
- Art- You’ll need to artfully manage and facilitate team communications to ensure every member of the evaluation team is given equal consideration.
- Science- You’ll also need to make sure that the team sticks to your agreed-upon scoring system as they evaluate each proposal. This isn’t a situation where gut feelings should take over.
Task: Negotiations and Award
- Art- You’ve selected a winner – and now it’s time to talk terms. At this point in the process, everything is on the table. This is the “emotional” side of the process: Your artful communication skills will help you work with your team to determine deal-breakers and non-negotiables – and help you work with your selected vendor to come to an agreement that makes everyone happy.
- Science- There’s more to negotiation than making sure everyone gets what they want (or that they’re at least satisfied with the compromise). As you negotiate, you’ll need to get everything in writing and take detailed notes that you can use when you move on to the drafting phase: Purchase orders must be generated and approved per generally accepted accounting principles; and you’ll need to keep an eye out for any scope changes.
Task: Contract Writing
- Art- After the negotiations, it’s time to write up the official contract. Put on your writer/editor hat, and remember to seek feedback from your team members as you write a draft.
- Science- Documentation of the offer, acceptance, and consideration must be enforceable – and you’ll need to make sure that the contract adheres to any regulations or requirements.
The great thing about writing RFPs is that each one is an opportunity to improve, streamline, and develop a set of creative and scientific best practices that will make things go more smoothly next time around.
We can’t promise that writing an RFP will ever be easy, exactly – but just like any other artistic endeavor, practice makes perfect. Tweet this
And, just like a team of scientists working on an experiment, your RFP team will find ways to improve the RFP writing process and develop a set of best practices that will ensure the best possible end product.