Responding to an RFP

by Diane on 16/09/2012

I have recently been involved in reviewing responses to a government tender.

The RFP process in general has seen quite a bit of criticism lately, both nationally and internationally. But at this point in time it seems to be a process that achieves what it is intended to achieve. Currently we simply don’t have a well thought through alternative that is both fair and transparent, so I won’t get into the pros and cons of the method in this post.

What I’d like to do instead is to point out a couple of key thoughts every respondent to an RFP should have in mind when preparing a response.

Let’s assume you have made the decision to respond to a request for proposals. Your employer is offering a service or product that fits neatly with the requirements listed in the request. The tender document itself will list some clear instructions which information you need to provide about your company, questions about your product or service, and it will most likely ask for a brief profile of some of your staff who might potentially be working on the piece of work that has been called for. Here are some basic rules to follow if you respond to an RFP:

Your response will be evaluated by HUMANS

This is such an important part of the process that I’d like to repeat it: Your response will be evaluated by HUMANS. There will be a panel of several people, who will have been chosen to evaluate your response because of their expertise in the service/product you’re pitching for. It is highly unlikely that their main job is RFP-evaluator, which means that they have a full time job, which will require them to arrange their current workload around their RFP evaluation work. Which again means that there is a possibility that they’ll look at your documents after work or on the weekend – in their own time.

You should keep this in mind when preparing your response document, after all you’re trying to convince someone that your company/service/product meets or exceeds the requirements. This is no different from preparing your CV when you apply for a job.

Make sure you:

  • save your document in the requested file format (if there is one listed in the instructions) or as a PDF. If it’s not specifically requested, don’t send in a Word document. The evaluator might read it on a Windows machine at the office, but they could also want to read it on their Mac at home, or on a tablet. You want to provide a portable format that doesn’t bear the risk that someone accidentally changes some of your wording.
  • provide a separate document for costing or other information if you have been specifically asked to do that. The reason is that certain parts might be evaluated by a different person (e.g. a solicitor, an accountant) who won’t want to read through a thick document if they’re only required to check one or two pages.
  • make sure to optimise the file size of your document.
  • provide a well structured document with an index or bookmarks, so that the evaluator can jump to a certain section if required. Scrolling through a long document trying to find a specific heading is time consuming and not fun.
  • stick to the numbering if questions in the response form are numbered. If you don’t want to answer a question or if it’s not applicable, indicate this in the document. Otherwise the evaluator will have to go through your document various times to be absolutely sure you haven’t answered that question.
  • use correct grammar and spelling. People have pet peeves, and someone who is absolutely picky about grammar or spelling might read your response. Especially when you’re bidding for a service that requires some writing/reporting as part of your offering, a large number of typos or bad grammar in your response document are unacceptable.
  • make skim reading easy. Put key phrases in bold, use bullet lists and headings, write in plain English, and keep your text left aligned throughout the document.

The purpose is to make it easy for the evaluators to find their way through you document so they can focus on the content. Making it hard for the reader to navigate your document will distract them. After all, they’re HUMANS.

The look

Obviously the design of your document won’t play a great part in the evaluation, unless you’re responding to a call for visual designers. In that case you should have the most beautifully designed document on earth. That’s a no brainer.

But there are other components you need to keep in mind, especially for printing (yes, some evaluators may print out your document to add handwritten notes).

  • The real art of writing a response document lies in the ability to prove that you’re the right person/company to do the job without getting into too much blahblah. Too short isn’t good, because the evaluator won’t be able to judge if you can do the job if they aren’t given enough information. Too long isn’t good, because they might get bored while reading. If you have to produce a long document, make sure it is still readable when two pages are printed onto one.
  • Do not use white font colour on black background. It’ll make printing a nightmare and the evaluator won’t have any space to add notes.
  • Do not use light grey font colour on white background. It might look flash on screen (for people with 100% great eyesight), but will be hard to read on paper.
  • Add your logo to the top or bottom of each page.
  • Stay consistent with your design, e.g. don’t switch between font-faces within the text body, don’t change the font size between pages, keep your bullet points consistent, etc.

Responding to more than one call in one document

Let’s say your government is working on a citizen happiness initiative. They want people in the streets to be gleeful at all times, and plan to fill the streets with fire-eaters, face-painters, jugglers and tightrope artists. You happen to work for a company in the entertaining industry and could provide fire-eaters and jugglers. The RFP form will likely ask for all four services in one form. You can remove the questions for face-painters and tightrope artists from the form. This way your document will have less pages and it will help the evaluator to find the sections about the services you are able to provide much faster.

But. Yes, there’s a but. If there are some elements of your response that are valid for both your fire-eaters and jugglers, please repeat them in both sections. Let’s say you have a keen group of people that used to work for a small circus and were required to fill multiple roles as part of their contracts. You will mention in the fire-eaters section that this is the reason why your fire-eaters can also be jugglers in the streets. Please don’t just write “refer to page 13” in your details about the jugglers you can provide. It will only mean that the evaluator has to go back and skim through that page again to find the relevant information. Just provide it again. I know that this may seem contrary to keeping to a limited number of pages, but the whole process is about balancing required details with making it easy to read for the evaluator.

Staff profiles

If you have been asked to provide profiles of some of your staff who might be working on the piece that’s out for tender, make sure you carefully read the instructions and list staff with relevant experience.

The following things don’t provide a good look:

  • Full CV listing every training course they’ve ever attended in their life.
  • Irrelevant experience (e.g if the staff profile for your fire-eater from the example above doesn’t contain the term ‘fire-eating’ at all).
  • The staff member listed no longer works for you.
  • The staff member listed works for someone else and you’re not open about the fact that you would outsource that piece of work.
  • The staff member listed is also listed on someone else’s response, because they legitimately work for them and you didn’t tell them that you would include them in your response as a partner.
  • You were asked to provide three staff profiles but decided to only list one person without any further explanation.
  • You’re applying for several different categories and list the same staff member as absolute expert for all of them (see, it’s not likely that a fire-eater is also a great tightrope artist, juggler and face-painter – if he/she is, then you must make that pretty clear in the profile and provide some evidence).

Public sector examples

If you have been asked to provide an example of your work for the public sector, you should list examples of your work for the public sector. If you haven’t done any work for public sector clients before, you need to explain why you think that you or your company will be able to work with government clients. It’s absolutely ok not to have worked within the public sector before, but you need to show that you have an understanding of the differences between public and private sector. If you’re asked to list a public sector client and you only mention a private sector client, the evaluator won’t know if you do understand the differences, or if you simply didn’t comprehend the question.

Cheating

Wellington is small. They say it has only two degrees of separation. You’ll have experts in your area of expertise evaluating your RFP response. Some of these people have been around for a while. Do you see where this is leading…?

It is unlikely that you’ll get away with cheating.

If you say you did this large implementation of XYZ at the Ministry of ABC, it is very likely that one of the evaluators on the panel was around at the time and had some involvement in the project, or they know someone who did. Someone on the panel will know what part you’ve played in the project.

The same is valid for staff profiles you provide. Even if no one on the panel knows the staff you’ve listed personally, a quick look at their LinkedIn profile can verify if they’re still working for you. If they don’t, or if they list different qualifications than the ones you highlight in their profile, it will certainly lead to some discussions on the panel.

Conclusion: just don’t cheat.

On a related topic: if you use someone else’s diagrams or other means of visualisation to explain your methodologies, you really want to add the source. Otherwise the evaluators might think you’re trying to sell someone else’s work as your own.

Additional tip: keep controversial topics out of your response. Religion, your management’s thoughts on drink driving, or your personal stance on global warming does not qualify as an indicator for the trustworthiness of your staff. Just saying.

Some final ideas

  • Use spellcheck.
  • Let at least two people proofread your document. One person should be a subject matter expert to ensure you got all the facts right. The second one should be a grammar & spelling expert.
  • Read all instructions for filling out the form before you start writing. Read them again when you’re halfway through the document to verify you’re on the right track. Read them again once you’re finished and make sure you’ve provided all information requested.
  • You need to believe that you/your company can do the job better than anybody else. Otherwise you can’t be convincing, and might as well save yourself and the evaluators some time by not responding.

{ 3 comments }

Email from your Government

by Diane on 07/07/2012

Recently one of my colleagues attended a business writing course. On the following day we discussed some of the things he had been taught at that course, and there were a number of recommentations which I had to disagree with. Some may have been valid in the early days of email communication, but should certainly be seen in a different light today.

There were two main points I can recall from our discussion, to which I have a very different view than the presenter of that seminar:

  • Write as much content of the email into the subject line to make sure the receiver of the email knows what it is about.
  • Emails are an informal communications tool, if you want to send out formal content, attach a Word document.

Nowadays most people don’t even see the full subject line anymore. Regardless which email client you use on your desktop computer or laptop, most programmes only show a limited number of characters. It gets worse on mobile interfaces, where space is limited even more. So my recommendation would be the exact opposite: write a short, but straight to the point, subject line that will give the reader an idea about what’s coming. The email’s body is for the real information.

I also disagree with attaching letters (especially Word documents) to emails. The core information should be written into the email’s body, that’s what it’s there for. It allows for a quick scan for relevance before having to start another tool to open the attachment with, and will make searching and finding of the email much easier at a later stage.

It’s funny that only a few days after I had had this discussion with my colleague, I received an email from the German Federal Administration Office. It had the longest subject line I’ve ever seen in my whole life (including an internal project number, my husband’s and my name, our dates of birth, and the actual ‘subject’. The email’s body contained nothing but an attached Word document, named ‘Dok3.doc”. When I first saw the email on my mobile in the morning while still in bed, it only showed me the first couple of letters and numbers of the subject line, and an attachment with a meaningless name, which was really hard to read on the phone screen.

But sticking to the two ‘rules’ in the bullet points above doesn’t only make it more complicated and unnecessary hard for the recipient of the email, it will also bite back the sender if they expect a reply. You can see my response below – it must be very hard for the sender to recall what exactly that email was about, if they can’re refer to any text quoted in the email body. I guess they’ll be fine as long as I don’t change the subject line, or maybe they have a very sophisticated email client that helps them make sense out of incoming emails.

{ 0 comments }

Creative Camp

11 July 2011

Remember the Wellington Flash Platform Code Camp from last year and 2009? We’re doing it again! This time under a new name and with more tracks – catering for design oriented people as well (previously the focus was heavily on developers). Here are the details: Pre-camp workshops on Friday, 28 October: “Adobe InDesign CS 5.5 [...]

Read the full article →

ASB Virtual Branch on Facebook

26 November 2010

I do love talking about positive customer experience, have you noticed? And I just had a great experience, so I feel the urge to share it. Here it comes: A few days ago we got our renewal notice for our contents insurance. With the invoice for 2011 in our hands, we realised in panic: “oh-gosh-we’re-soooooo-under-insured”. [...]

Read the full article →

Adobe MAX 2010

6 November 2010

This year I wasn’t able to attend MAX, Adobe’s huge conference that attracts thousands of attendees each year. But luckily both keynotes and all sessions have been recorded and can be watched at http://2010.max.adobe.com/online/ – what a perfect thing to do on a grey and rainy weekend! :-)

Read the full article →

An email from Lush – Fail

29 September 2010

As a more or less loyal Lush customer I’ve recently joined their email  list to get informed about the latest products and occasional discounts. Today I got the first email from them, and it was a great fail in many ways. First of all, the sender of the email was “nzmailorder”, nothing that indicated it [...]

Read the full article →

Wellington Flash Platform Codecamp 2010

6 September 2010

Like last year I was part of the organising committee for Wellington’s Flashcamp this Saturday. It’s a community event from and for developers and designers, organised by the Wellington Chapter of the Flash Platform User Group and the Wellington Creative Suite User Group. Organising the event was great fun. Approaching sponsors, finding a venue, inviting [...]

Read the full article →

When it’s raining in Tokyo

12 August 2010

When it’s raining in Wellington, people just get wet. They usually don’t bother using an umbrella, the strong winds would probably destroy them within a short time anyway. In other parts of New Zealand and in Germany (well, probably in most countries of the world, but I know for NZ and Germany for sure) people [...]

Read the full article →