How to write an RFP: 5 key tips, sample RFP templates and tools
How to write an RFP: 5 key tips, sample RFP templates and tools
So, you need to write an RFP. Not sure where to start? Well, you’ve come to the right place. Developing a request for proposal (RFP) is a key business practice that allows buyers to identify the right vendor to solve their biggest challenges. But creating an effective RFP is no easy task. Fortunately, there are best practices you can follow to quickly write an RFP that helps you accurately evaluate vendor capabilities.
In this blog post, I’ll give an overview of the RFP basics. Then, I’ll offer five tips for writing effective RFPs. Finally, you’ll get a helpful list of sample RFP templates, examples and tools to inspire and improve your next RFP.
Before we jump into how to write an effective RFP, let’s explore a few basics.
A request for proposal, abbreviated as an RFP, is a document created by a buyer and issued to vendors requesting information about a product or service. The RFP’s purpose is to allow a buyer to make an objective, informed and confident procurement decision. While an RFP can take many forms, generally some basic elements to help vendors understand the problem the buyer is trying to solve.
Of course, not everyone agrees on exactly what should be included in an RFP. In the video below, Mark Wolters, teaching associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, suggests including 12 steps.
The point is that there isn’t an ultimate RFP format. However, there are common elements. Regardless of which guide you follow when you write an RFP, you want to strike a balance between too little and too much information. If you offer vendors too little information with a few broad questions, you may get proposals that miss the mark from unqualified vendors. On the other hand, if you offer too much with too many highly-specific questions, vendors may be discouraged from answering your RFP. Remember, examine your specific needs and decide how much detail you need to make the right decision.
The RFP process
Unfortunately, successfully using an RFP isn’t as easy as finding a template online and sending it out. Writing an RFP document is just one step in the larger RFP process.
Why do some RFPs work and some don’t? It comes down to how they were created. An ineffective RFP is expensive and risky. At best, you waste time and resources. But at worst, you may find yourself stuck in a bad relationship with the wrong vendor. However, with these five tips, you can be sure to write an RFP that will deliver results.
1. Collaborate with stakeholders
Issuing RFPs is about solving problems for your business. Consequently, you need to define and understand the problem to find the best solution. Start by collaborating with the people that are most impacted by the purchase. Together, define the challenge, the tools they need and what success will look like. After all, to draw the right responses from vendors, you have to ask the right questions.
For example, imagine the sales team wants to invest in proposal software to automate their process. How do you know what questions to ask in the RFP? Typically, in procurement situations like this, there are team members who have independently researched and explored options. Brainstorm with them to categorize functionality as: must have, nice to have or outside of scope.
In addition, it’s wise to involve IT, finance, legal and any other teams who will be impacted by the procurement decision. Bring these stakeholders into the process early, before you begin to write the RFP. By doing this, you avoid unnecessary delays and cumbersome back and forth with vendors.
2. Create a library of standard questions, sections and templates
Every RFP will be a little different. However, many of the questions and sections included will be the same. For instance, details about the evaluation process, customer success questions and terms and conditions will likely be very similar from one RFP to the next.
By curating a library of questions, sections and RFP templates, you can accelerate your process. In addition, maintaining a knowledge library will improve consistency and reduce the risk of issuing an incomplete RFP. RFP management software makes this dynamic templating easy. However, you can also build your library manually in Excel or Google Sheets.
Standard RFP questions to include in your library:
Is there a trial period? If you can sample the solution before making a purchase, you have a much better chance of making the right decision.
Do you have a change management plan? The company should be invested in your long-term success. That means starting off on the right foot. Will they guide you through the process or throw you to the wolves?
Can I speak with a current customer? If a vendor doesn’t have references that are willing to speak with you, that’s a red flag. Happy customers are usually willing to voice their support and speak with you directly.
How do you handle issues? No matter how awesome the product or service a vendor offers, issues happen. Does the vendor have a strong customer success team ready to right any wrongs?
Who are your competitors? If your vendor isn’t willing to name their competitors, you may need to question their honesty or confidence.
What are your training options? The better you understand a solution, the more value you can extract from it.
Additional questions should reflect your unique circumstances. For example, you may want to ask questions about your industry challenges and regulations to determine if responders know enough to support your organization.
3. Consider a multi-step process
People often view RFPs as a catch-all, but they actually serve a very specific purpose. Depending on your needs, it may be better to use a multi-step process or to issue a different request altogether. That’s why it’s critical that you understand the difference between the most common RFx documents.
In a multi-step process, requests for information, requests for qualifications and vendor profiles all help narrow down the list of vendors. They are shorter documents, so vendors are typically happy to respond. Working from the results, you can create a shortlist for your RFP. Consequently, because you’ve already gathered basic information, your RFP is now more focused and direct. It’s a win-win.
In The future of RFPs ebook, David Kutcher, founder of Confluence Forms and the RFP Database discusses the benefits of a multi-tier process saying:
“I’ve been seeing organizations get really smart by using an advised, multi-tier RFP process. They use requests for qualifications and requests for information to create a shortlist of providers before it even goes to the RFP. That way you’re limiting the full RFP process to a final five or ten vendors. This enables the organization that initiated the RFP to actually review in depth. At the same time, it enables bidders to spend more time creating a quality proposal, because they know that they’re already on a shortlist, as opposed to a cattle call.”
4. Be as transparent as possible
One of the things that frustrates RFP respondents most is unclear expectations. When you write the RFP, strive for transparency whenever possible. As RFP expert and consultant, Robin Davis noted in The future of RFPs ebook:
“In terms of those procurement teams or consultants writing RFPs, providing clear and concise goals and instructions is appreciated … Provide the background and information on what you currently have in place and the problems you are trying to solve. Then, in your questions, ask the vendor what they would do differently or better and what result they will deliver. In short, transparency is the way to go if you want the same in return.”
For more insights and advice from experts on how to prepare for long-term success, download the ebook: The future of RFPs.
Areas where transparency makes a big difference
Background and context: Provide as much information as you can about why you are seeking a solution. The better a vendor understands your current state, the more specific they can be about how they will help.
Expected outcome and goals: While it’s important to be open to creativity, it’s also crucial to be clear about what you expect. With that in mind, provide clear expectations about your required timeline, deliverables and return on investment.
Evaluation and scoring: Preparing proposals is time consuming. Therefore, when you write the RFP, include who will evaluate the proposal and how. This helps vendors spend their time wisely. In addition, if you’re using weighted scoring, provide the section weights. Defining your priorities ensures respondents spend time creating thoughtful answers to the questions that are most important to your organization.
5. Customize and optimize your template
Don’t get too comfortable with your standard RFP template. Another frustration that RFP respondents often mention is the confusion created when responding to an RFP that hasn’t been updated. Sending a template without customization often results in questions that are irrelevant, contradictory or confusing. When faced with these challenges, many vendors will simply opt not to invest the time to respond.
As you receive proposals, evaluate responses and select RFP winners, examine what works. The more RFP data you can collect from your process, the better. Certainly it’s important to take time once or twice a year to optimize your process and templates. Examine how you write RFPs. Are your templates working? Are there questions that are now out of date? What questions do you often answer from vendors and can you proactively provide that information? As with any business process, success and efficiency come from reflection and continual optimization.
5 tips: How to write an RFP that works
Now, if you read the tips above and thought, ‘That’s great, but I still don’t know where to go from here,’ don’t fret. The internet is full of helpful sample RFP templates and examples that demonstrate how to write an RFP. These RFP samples will help get you started.
Institute for Supply Management (ISM) Offering certification and training, ISM is another great resource for professional development and procurement best practices. From blogs to conferences and everything in between, ISM has it all.