Every request for proposal (RFP) is a potential new project and source of revenue, so it’s important to put your best foot forward any time you submit a proposal to a potential client. Knowing how to write a good RFP response can mean the difference between winning a project or losing it to a competitor.
What is an RFP?
When a company sends out an RFP, they are looking for a vendor to supply them with a new product or service. They want a business that can best meet their specific needs at a price they deem acceptable. Public sector RFPs are typically open to anyone but can be longer and more complex than private sector RFPs, which may be sent out only to a specific group of businesses. Regardless of the type of company requesting a proposal, an RFP should provide clear details on the business’s needs and the type of information they require in a response.
An RFP will often mean that the potential client likes the look of your company and is considering purchasing from you, but it isn’t a guaranteed sale. There will likely be at least a few other companies competing to win this client, so knowing how to write an RFP response is key to helping you stand out from the other candidates. You could have the best offering at the best price but still lose the deal if your RFP response is hard to read or lacking detail.
RFP deadlines are often tight, giving you only a few days in which to compose and send your response. It’s important to make the most of that time, rather than rushing through things — getting a response in quickly may make a good first impression, but that benefit will easily be lost if the proposal is poorly put together. A better strategy is to take advantage of the full amount of time available to you, so that you can consult with your subject matter experts (SMEs) and dedicate sufficient time to writing and editing your proposal to make it as strong as possible.
Here are some best practices for how to write a winning RFP response.
It takes time to write a good RFP response, which makes it important to determine whether any given RFP is worthwhile for your company to respond to in the first place. While passing up the opportunity to respond to an RFP may feel like leaving money on the table, it can actually improve your efficiency and success rate in the long run.
Consider the context in which you received the RFP. Did it arrive out of the blue from a company you haven’t been in contact with? The company probably already has a vendor in mind but wants to see other options, or has sent RFPs to many different companies. Either way, it will be difficult stand out from the competition in this situation. If you have the time, it may be worth pursuing something with long odds, but otherwise your effort will be better spent on opportunities that you know will be a good fit for you. Your company’s time is valuable: don’t throw it away on RFPs that you’re unlikely to win.
What makes an opportunity a good fit? Consider how much you know about the RFP and the company behind it, how serious the company appears to be about the deal, who your competition is likely to be, and how well positioned you are. How detailed is the RFP? How well does your offering fit the needs stated in the RFP? How well do you stack up against the competition? If the answers to these questions are satisfactory to you, the RFP is worth pursuing. And if it’s worth pursuing, it’s worth putting in as much time and effort as you can to make it the best it can be.
Understand the Client
A key element of writing an RFP response is understanding the company that sent it out:
- What size are they?
- What is their budget
- What are their pain points?
- What are their goals?
- Are they looking to replace an old product or service, or filling a need for the first time?
- If they’re replacing something, why? Did their needs change? Did they have a problem with the previous vendor?
It’s also important to understand your competition: how can you stand out from them? What can you give the client that they can’t?
There are several ways you can find this information. A simple search of the company’s website will tell you some of the basics, but it likely won’t tell you everything you need. For that you may want to have a call with the client to learn more about their situation, or ask questions via email. Some companies will have a conference or designated question period to discuss the RFP, and taking advantage of these can provide you with a lot of insight into the situation.
Understanding the client and their needs not only helps you shape the contents and price of your proposal, but also informs how you write that proposal. It is of course important to offer a solution that meets all of the client’s needs and — ideally — is a better fit than what your competitors are offering. But it’s also key to demonstrate to the client that you understand their business and are tailoring a solution to suit them. By acknowledging their needs and describing how your solution will meet those needs specifically, you make it easier for the client to see how your company will solve their problem.
Take Advantage of Your SMEs
Your company’s SMEs are the ones who provide the core of your RFP response. They’re the ones who know your products or services the best, including what they can provide to the client, how to do it, and how long it will likely take. When crafting your response, it’s essential to allow time for your SMEs to provide you with the needed information.
It can be difficult to coordinate between multiple SMEs with busy schedules and differing writing styles. There are a few things you can do to streamline the process and present a cohesive document to the client.
Check if you have this information already: Review any past RFP responses and other internal content to see if you’ve covered this in the past. If you have, send that content to the SME to review. Providing notes on existing copy should be faster and easier that writing a response from scratch.
Be specific: Lay out exactly what information you need, as well as the format you need it in. If you have a company style guide, provide that to the SME as well. This will make it easier for the SME to give you relevant information and can help mitigate the amount of editing needed to combine answers from multiple SMEs into a unified response.
Create a Content Library
Chances are, you’ve drafted proposals in the past and you will again in the future. Keeping a library of your responses as well as other relevant information and copy can streamline the process significantly and will help keep your content consistent.
Every RFP response you write should be unique to the client and their situation. However, there is some content that will remain the same between each one, such as the information you provide about your company. If you offer a small number of products or services, chances are that you will be giving similar explanations and offers to multiple clients. Using past responses as a template can save you time without sacrificing quality. Just remember to personalize the content of every proposal: you still need to address your client’s specific needs and answer their questions. Using the same generic template every time isn’t likely to win you many projects.
Make it Easy to Read
The people evaluating your proposal are likely reviewing many documents and have limited time to spend with yours. They may also be skimming for important information. Keep your document simple and clear so that it’s easy to find key pieces of information. Make your sentences and paragraphs relatively short. Use headings, sub-headings, and bullet points to make it easy to find things at a glance. Put the most relevant information at the top of each section and follow it up with the more detailed explanation.
It’s also a good idea to cut down on the jargon. The people reviewing your proposal may not be SMEs, so consider whether certain terms and acronyms are common knowledge in your industry or whether they would benefit from an explanation. Keep your tone formal, but your language simple.
When you’ve finished writing your RFP response, make sure to give it an edit, either by yourself or by another person in the company. You may have a well-thought-out, informative, competitive proposal, but if it’s filled with spelling, grammar, and formatting errors, the client may not read far enough to see any of that. A proposal full of errors can give the impression that you’re not professional or not committed to doing quality work, even if your actual performance is stellar. The person reading your proposal probably has several other good candidates to consider — don’t give them a reason to overlook you.
How to Write an RFP Response: Proposal Structure
What is the key to writing an effective proposal in response to an RFP? Every RFP response you write should have certain segments, each with their own purpose. Be careful not to overload the initial sections with details before introducing the top-level information, or the reader may not make it all the way through your proposal.
This is your opportunity to introduce your company and explain why you’re the best fit for the client’s needs. Tell them who you are and why you’re qualified for the job, as well as what benefits they can expect from working with you. Keep the cover letter concise — you want to pique their interest, not lay out your entire proposal.
This is where you give an overview of your proposal, but it’s also another opportunity to show the client what makes you a good candidate for the project. Address the client’s biggest concerns and explain how your proposal will solve them. This shows you’ve done your research and are tailoring your proposal to the company’s needs.
Remember that this is a summary — they should be able to read it in just a couple minutes, so don’t get too detailed yet. Demonstrate your expertise and make them want to keep reading.
Now it’s time to get detailed. Outline all the requirements and concerns the client has and explain how your company will address them. List out the deliverables and provide a timeline of milestones and delivery dates. Since this part of the proposal contains the bulk of the information, make sure to break it up into readable sections and include visualizations where relevant.
You can also specify what you need from the client in order to carry out the project, such as relevant documentation, contacts, administrative needs, and feedback. Finally, lay out the prices for the proposal. This can be an itemized list or a more basic explanation of the costs. Be clear about what is and isn’t covered by the scope and price of the project to avoid future confusion or arguments about deliverables.
Now that the client knows what you can do for them, you can tell them more about who you are. This can be standard “about us” copy that you typically use to describe your business. You may also want to use this section to provide customer references and case studies to show that you’re capable of providing the results that you’re promising.
Here you can present a contract to make it as frictionless as possible for the client to enter into an agreement once they approve your proposal. Make sure this document is easy to find and the signature lines are clearly visible.