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Coping with a bad RFP

Many proposal problems are the result of having to deal with a bad RFP. Bad RFPs come in a number of different forms:

  • Too much detail. While it is not as big a problem as it used to be, some RFP authors try to document every specification and sub-specification possible for even the most minute requirement. While on one hand, they need to ensure that nobody proposes something sub-standard to reduce the price, specifying the requirements at too granular of a level creates its own problems. RFPs that say “do not simply restate the requirement in the proposal” but then go on to specify in great pain-staking detail exactly what you are to propose are a particular nuisance.
  • Not enough detail. If customer doesn’t sufficiently describe what they want, it can be nearly impossible to write a proposal, let alone price it accurately.
  • Requirements that contradict each other. Large RFPs often have multiple authors. If the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing, they can insert requirements that are impossible to meet since they contradict each other. Usually the only way to resolve a contradictory requirement is to submit it as a question to the customer.
  • Poor organizational requirements. Service RFPs often specify that certain staffing is required. However, they often include just enough reporting detail to cause problems with creating a rational organization chart.
  • Poor correlation between staffing and activities. Position descriptions provided in an RFP often conflict with the activities required. Either the description has requirements that aren’t necessary for the activities, or they don’t specify who should perform certain required activities.
  • Inconsistent delivery schedules. The delivery schedules specified in the RFP often will not match up with the production requirements. Dependencies are often overlooked.
  • A lack of correspondence between the instructions, evaluation criteria, and statement of work. RFP instructions often specify the outline that you should follow in your response. The evaluation criteria tells you how you will be graded, and should indicate what is important to the customer. Unfortunately they can also introduce new requirements and/or fail to account for portions required in the instructions.
  • Missing or vague instructions, evaluation criteria, or statement of work. If the RFP does not include any instructions for how the proposal is to be formatted or organized, it makes it difficult to provide the information in a way that meets the customer’s expectations. If the evaluation criteria is missing or vague, you won’t know what is important to the customer (although that’s probably better than wrong or misleading evaluation criteria).

There are a couple of techniques that you can use to cope with bad RFPs:

  • Make assumptions. If there is not enough detail, create your own and document it as a list of assumptions.
  • Provide options. Providing options in your proposal lets them select how they want things to be interpreted.
  • Ask questions. Ask A LOT of questions. Ask questions you don’t even need the answer to. Ask the same question three different ways. Just ask a lot of questions. And then ask for an extension because there are so many answers and not enough time to incorporate them all.

It is a good idea to collect all of your questions for submission at one time, so that you don’t annoy the customer by calling every day with another question. If you have multiple authors, you should designate one person as the “stuck-ee” for consolidating the questions so that you don’t ask the same thing twice.

When asking questions, always reference the RFP page and paragraph number. Also, carefully consider how you want the question answered and format your question accordingly. Otherwise, you’ll get the answer they want to give and it won’t even address your question. They’re probably going to do that anyway (remember, they wrote the messed-up RFP to begin with), but at least you’ll have a chance of getting the information you need. Customers have an amazing ability to answer any question, no matter how it is worded, with “yes” or “no.” By carefully wording your question, you can prompt them to provide:

  • a yes/no answer,
  • a numerical answer,
  • a narrative clarification, or
  • a selection from among a list of alternatives that you provide,

The right way to cope with all of the above is to have a long-term customer relationship so that you have the information you need before the RFP is even released and know how the customer wants you to interpret what they have written. However, the purpose of this document is to help you do a proposal The Wrong Way, while preserving your chances of winning, as best as is possible.

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By Carl Dickson,
Founder of and PropLIBRARY

PropLIBRARY is our professional tool for people who want to win RFPs like their business depends on it.

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