RFPs have an almost mythic aura in the Chesapeake region as the key to government contracting. Landing a government contract can be a lucrative deal. Frequently, taking one of those storied projects requires a competitive bid process centered around answering — in writing — a formal request for proposal, or RFP.
About 200 federal government organizations have independent purchasing power and most likely issue RFPs. Subsets of those agencies add to the crowd. Then, count in the state and local governments, also issuing RFPs.
The governmental shopping list alone can include everything from military aircraft to referees for kids’ softball leagues, with totals ranging from tens of thousands to billions of dollars. The RFP documents can range from three pages online to two-inch thick, hardcopy volumes, and responses also can vary in size and format. Even private companies may issue RFPs.
An RFP is often a services-based request, more complicated than buying a “widget.” The RFP must be very specific to elicit easily comparable responses. The winning response also often becomes a part of the contract.
Regardless of the size, format or issuing organizations, all RFPs have a similar function: to acquire specific goods or services for specific purposes. The vendors’ responses to the RFP enable the issuer to evaluate the possible suppliers on a relatively level field.
In that respect, the RFP response is both a technical presentation of vendor capabilities and a marketing opportunity. A well-planned, well-organized and well-prepared RFP response can help win contracts.
“Government agencies release RFPs when they are looking for innovative solutions and competitive pricing,” said Barbara Lovelace, president of Winning Solutions Inc., a proposal development consultant based in Northern Virginia. “They may be looking for ideas how to do it, or a wide range of options.”
“An RFQ — request for quote — is usually short, looking for a quote on pricing. Generally, the agency knows very specifically what they want. It’s a quote on a known item.
“With an RFI — request for information — the agency wants the service but does not have much information. They want to qualify potential vendors and how they go about their work. The agency may or may not have a specific item in mind.”
Locating Suitable RFPs
Sometimes, just finding a suitable RFP to bid on can be a daunting search “Build a relationship with the organization you want to do business with. Find out their needs,” said Lovelace, “or, hire a business development staff with those networks.”
“The best way to locate an RFP is through [the] Federal Business Opportunities [web site, ww.fbo.gov],” said Gloria Larkin, president of TargetGov, a Columbia-based specialist in contracting to the federal government. “About 60% of federal RFPs are listed there. The state of Maryland has EMaryland Marketplace. In the private sector, B-to-B [business-to-business] corporations follow the same process, but generally on a ‘by invitation’ basis.”
Preparing a response to an RFP is essentially a five-part process consisting of pre-release intelligence gathering, RFP intake and bid/no bid decision, proposal preparation, proposal review and proposal production. The large scale RFPs — sometimes with teams of writers, subject matter experts and administrative staff — demand a very structured, formalized response process; the smaller invitations may require a less involved route.
Part Science, Part Craft
To facilitate their responses, companies that frequently go after RFPs build a standard proposal format that includes cover style and artwork, page layout, colors, heading and caption styles, figure and table styles, typeface and size, etc. (Some RFPs specify the typeface and size.) A library of “boilerplate” and reusable elements including figures, tables, charts, graphics and text blocks can speed up production, as can text descriptions of the company’s products and services and some résumés, project descriptions and process narratives such as training routines.
A standard intake and analysis routine can ensure that each new invitation receives timely consideration and disposition. “Read every word, the entire document, multiple times,” advised TargetGov’s Larkin. “Create a compliance matrix — a spreadsheet of every statement that must be answered. … ‘Shall’ in the RFP means ‘must.’ So, list all of the ‘shall’ statements.”
“Get buy-in up front from all stakeholders for themes, discriminators, ghosts, data sharing and strategy,” said Lovelace. “I like daily standup meetings. It keeps everyone on board.”
A good response complies with the RFP’s requirements and sells the company. It states and restates “win themes” and presents the company’s discriminators. It is accurate, complete, and all of the math checks. The graphics show what the text describes, and the document itself contains everything required but nothing uncalled for.
While RFP responses of a bygone era were noted for their weightiness, contemporary documents are frequently page-limited with restrictions on the amount and type of accompanying materials.
The documents may have changed, but the deadlines are still absolute. Most responses are deadlined to the minute and time stamped when received by the agency. Some agencies accept electronic submissions while other agencies want hardcopy or a combination of both. On big efforts, it isn’t unusual for bidders to send two complete sets of documents via two different routes to ensure safe arrival.
Preparing an RFP response has benefits other than the potential new business. “The whole exercise is potentially beneficial,” said Lovelace. “It’s a learning exercise; people become more skilled at the process. It’s an in-house education. You can get debriefed at the end of the process and learn a lot about areas where improvement is needed.”
“Even if you don’t win, you gain exposure to the target agency,” added Larkin.
Winning that mythic government contract is not easy; however, learning the process and going through it a couple of times can make it less onerous. The advantage to hiring a consultant to aid in the effort is that these professionals “hit the ground running,” immediately understanding the procedures and avoiding many of the problems.
For more information:
• Federal Business Opportunities, www.fbo.gov
• EMaryland Marketplace, ebidmarketplace.com
• Small Business Administration, Office of Government Contracting, www.sba.gov/about-offices-content/1/2986