Writing a Winning Response to an RFP

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How to Gain an Edge in the B2B Space

When it comes to doing business between companies, typically referred to as business-to-business, or B2B, most opportunities and contracts are generated through a process of bid solicitation.  Companies looking to contract services or support will often issue what is known as a Request for Proposal (RFP) to seek information from various companies and suppliers who they believe can do the job.  In order to be successful at responding to such opportunities, you will want to respond to a RFPs with an effective, well structured, and winning proposal.

There are three main types of contract documents that you will encounter as a business development or product manager:

Request for Information (RFI) – An RFI is typically issued ahead of the time when an organization is exploring supplier options, and plan to establish a contract at a later date.  An RFI will often be used to gather information about what can be offered by various firms, notional timing and costs for delivery of the project, as well as to establish an understanding of what prospective suppliers can offer.  RFI responses and feedback are often used to help a prospective client revise their requirements or make changes to the scope of work before issuing a more detailed RFP.

Statement of Work (SOW) – A Statement of Work is a document issued by the client that outlines the scope of activities, required deliverables and desired timing to prospective suppliers.  In general, a SOW differs from an RFI and RFP in that it will typically outline very specific requirements that must be satisfied by the supplier.

Request for Proposal (RFP) – An RFP is formal document that is issued to prospective suppliers and partners, seeking a formal proposal and pricing for a given project.  An RFP may be issued in conjunction with a SOW, or may be a stand alone document to which suppliers respond.

RFIs, SOWs and RFPs are the most common types of subcontracting documents used in B2B contracting.   And while each has its intended purpose, you might encounter any combination of them depending on your industry.  However, the overall intent of each of them is to understand capabilities of vendors and suppliers, such that the client can gain a comparison of each firm and make a selection.  Thus, you will want to put your best foot forward and put together a winning proposal when responding to an RFP.

Responding to an RFP

Now that we’ve highlighted some of the basic types of documents that you’ll encounter in B2B contracting, let’s turn our attention to generating a winning RFP (or a SOW, or an RFI) response.  First, be sure to craft your proposal carefully such that it goes above and beyond the basic expectations of the response.  You will want your proposal to showcase your company’s capabilities because in many instances, your response may be the only thing that the contracting organization will use to award a contract.

RELATED: Grow Your Business Through Strategic Partnerships

It should go without saying that a well-developed proposal should be organized in a coherent manner and free from typos and other writing errors.  Written proposals should carry a formal and professional tone to signify the level of care and thoroughness taken by your firm as a whole.  In the eyes of the supply chain or purchasing agent, the quality of the RFP response is indicative of the quality of work they can expect from your firm if given the contract.  Moreover, such things as formatting, labeling of tables and images, and overall accuracy of information are highly important as they are direct indications of your firm’s product quality and attention to detail.  To say it differently, even the best information packaged into a poorly drafted document will simply weaken your firm’s position when it comes to winning business opportunities.

A Sample Framework for Your RFP Response

In some cases, the SOW or RFP issued from the client will dictate a specific format or means by which the response should be submitted.  However, this is not usually the case, leaving it up to you.  In the absence of a pre-defined RFP response format, we recommend using the following outline to help get you started.

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Introductory Content:

The front matter of a proposal should include a Table of Contents, a list of figures and tables, a list of relevant and related documents, and a definition of the proposal’s scope.  Defining the scope of your response is critical, as it clearly states the bounds of your proposal.  Further, when writing an RFP response, include an overview of your company or organization, as well as examples of your firm’s pedigree and experience with similar projects.  Doing so assures new clients that your firm has the ideal skills, experience and resources to do the work, and are able to provide the value they seek.

Approach:

Following the introductory paragraphs, switch to providing a detailed outline of the approach your firm plans to take in delivering against the contract.  Outlining a detailed approach in an RFP response allows the prospective client to better understand how the firm plans to execute the project.  Doing so also ensures the client that you fully understand the requirements and objectives, and gives the client a chance to clarify anything that may have not be fully understand by your firm.

The Approach section allows your firm to showcase its expertise and skill. Depending on the size and scale of a project, you should consider including a proposed organizational chart as well as brief biographies (academic credentials, years of experience, types of projects worked in the past) of the employees who will be assigned to the project.  Including such information is particularly useful when working with foreign clients who may be less familiar with your firm, and often gives the client confidence in the firm’s ability to deliver a quality product.

RELATED: What Your Customers Really Want

Deliverables and Schedule:

Following the plan of action, the next part of your written RFP response should provide a clear statement of the deliverables and outputs to be provided to the client.  This will again serve as a mechanism by which the client and your firm can agree on the details of scope and expectations during ensuing discussions.

Depending on your industry, deliverables may include written documents, client-facing meetings and other milestones as appropriate for the opportunity.  As part of your RFP proposal, you may want to offer more than the client is asking for as a gesture of your willingness to partner with them.  For instance, you may want to offer free hardware for testing purposes, training to the client’s staff, or some other gesture of goodwill as it relates to the client’s needs and the project.

RELATED: Our Sample Outline for Writing A Proposal

Assumptions:

Perhaps the most important of any RFP response and written business proposal are the assumptions made, or exceptions you are taking to the RFP requirements.  Towards the end of the document, include a list of assumptions that highlight any open questions and concerns you may have.  The reason such a list is so important is because when prospective clients are unable to provide complete set of project details, assumptions help protect your firm from unknown conditions. For instance, if a client were unable to provide a clear timescale in which the work needed to be completed, you should provide an assumed completion date based on the resource plan you’ve stated earlier in the proposal.  You should also offer, however, that alternate completion dates are possible, as mutually agreed to by both parties to make sure you client sees you are flexible on your offering.

Recommendations:

Depending on the specific RFP, include a section for general recommendations in your RFP response to your client.  Again, when it comes to establishing a strong relationship with a potential client, willingness to provide recommendations and initial feedback indicates your firm has their interests in mind and is able to provide real, tangible value to them.  Further, the ability to provide some initial recommendations assures clients that your firm can help further define the client’s needs when they are is unsure.

On this point, some business development managers are unwilling or do not prefer to offer recommendations without a contract in place, as such ideas could be taken and passed onto your competitor.  While this is certainly true, in more modern B2B environments companies are looking more for strategic and long-term partners.  Offering some form of basic advice and feedback, therefore, can help differentiate your RFP response and offering beyond just the price.


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Pricing:

In many cases, pricing information is provided as a separate document, typically a cover letter, and serves as an attachment to the formal RFP response.  However, you may wish to embed such information in the written proposal itself.   The pricing information should provide the fees, both recurring and non-recurring as necessary, as well as payment terms and currency.   Depending on the work or the industry, it may also include things like escalation clauses and other assumptions related to pricing a given opportunity.

To summarize for you, winning RFP responses should be professionally written and showcase your firm’s abilities. Further, your written proposals should also indicate a level of flexibility and willingness to adapt to a given client’s needs and express an interest in partnering with them in the future.  An effective RFP response will clearly outline your approach, your assumptions and a summary of recommendations for further discussion.  Finally, RFP responses should be customized to each of your clients, and be written with the goal of getting to a negotiation table in mind.

So go out there and win some business!

14 comments

  • irene

    This is my first RFP and I need to submit a response.
    My questions is does the response go into the body of the RFP or should I write a separate document. If I write a separate document should I put the question from the RFP that I am answering, and number it according to the section/number of the RFP?
    Or should I submit my answer in space underneath the question?
    Does this make sense? Could really use the help.

    There is a pricing section added as an addendum- this section has highlighted areas for responses.

    • Hi Irene,

      Great question. I’d definitely recommend you write a separate proposal document (unless the RFP specifically states you do something else), containing all the basic info about your company/credentials, plans to support the project, how you plan to execute the work, like we talk about in the article. When it comes to the RFP questions you’re asked to address, I typically write up an additional appendix to my main proposal document (“Appendix A – Answers to Questions in RFP 12345”). Copy/Paste the questions, and answer each one, in order. It might sound like a lot of work, but in the future you will likely be able to reuse the basic proposal you write, and then just add an appendix to address any specific items required by the RFP.

      Let me know if you need more clarification!

      Tim G.
      Editor
      MRH

  • Girma

    Dear MRH Team,

    I like your response to an RFP format and i want you guys to help me on sorting out table of content for my proposal. here i copy past my document format. can you give me some hints i should follow

    1 Legal Establishment Document
    2 Company Profile
    2.1 Background
    2.2 Why Work With Us?
    2.3 Value Proposition
    2.4 Our Experiences
    2.5 Technologies
    2.6 Organizations structures
    2.7 Testimonials
    3. Understanding the TOR and Recommendations
    3.1 Understanding the Requirements
    3.2 Recommendations
    4.Approach and Methodology
    4.1 Management Approach
    4.2 Development Process
    4.3. Technical Approach
    5 Proposed Timeline/Schedule and Deliverables
    5.1 Work Plan
    5.2 Schedule Overview
    6 Website Features
    7 Project Team
    8 Corporate Experience
    9. Documentations
    10 Training and Knowledge Transferring

    • Hi Girma,

      Thanks for the question. I’ll email you directly with a more detailed response, but I wanted to put a few thoughts out here for the benefit of our other visitors. Overall it looks pretty good. Based on your descriptions, I assume that sections 3 and on are likely the most important and should constitute the major portion of your response. Section 8 would appear to be redundant to Section 2.4, so you might want to eliminate 8. One other point, you might want to move section 3.2 to the end, as it might better serve your proposal as ‘final thoughts’ for your customer.

      Thanks again for the comment!

      Tim G.
      Editor
      Manager’s Resource Handbook

  • Valerie

    Great post. Do you have any recommendations for formatting the response (i.e. font, spacing, indentations, etc.)? Is there a standard that should be followed or should it reflect your branding? Thanks

    • Hi Valerie!

      Great question. First, double check the RFP – sometimes there will be specific guidelines from your customer.

      That said, if there are no specific guidelines, I would suggest you make it clean and professional looking. Meaning: black text, a simple and consistent font throughout, line breaks between paragraphs to make it easier to read, etc. You can indent sub-paragraphs if it’s not too much, but I generally do not, because it always seems to make it visually awkward (at least for the proposals I’ve written).

      Certainly include your logo and any key branding touches but try to keep it more about the proposal.

      I hope this help!

      Tim G.
      Editor
      Manager’s Resource Handbook

  • Tunde Lawal

    this is great. thanks. I want to ask, is it good to hire a graphic designer to help you design your developed proposal in order to give it visual appeal?

    • Hi Tunde,

      In my opinion, a graphic designer is not necessary. Similar to my response to Valerie, you generally want to keep your proposal simple in terms of its format and visual appearance. Create a nice cover page, throw your logo on each page in the header or footer, use basic text document formatting styles for the text, and choose a professional format to use throughout.

      That said, pay attention to the details. Believe it or not, I’ve reviewed and received proposals where people forgot to capitalize paragraph headings, had spelling errors, switched fonts at random, etc. Those little things suggest that either the proposal was hastily put together and not well thought out, or the company may do poor work.

      Good Luck!

      Tim G.
      Editor
      Manager’s Resource Handbook

  • Paul Matang

    Hi MRH Team,
    I need help as I have to write RFT Response. I had no idea. Please guide me and provide some sample format of RFT Response for me to assist wind this Tender. Note that the client want me to submit using their format. How do I do It?

    • Hi Paul!
      Thanks for your comment and question. You might want to look at our latest post about an RFP response format (HERE) We give a basic outline of some sections you might want to include in an RFP/RFQ Response. Did the client give you a format to use? If they require you to use something specific, be sure to ask for it. Some clients will say they require something in their format, but may withdraw that statement when asked. If nothing else, try to write a proposal that flows and mirrors the RFT, and make sure you address everything they ask in some way in your proposal. Ultimately, the question your proposal should answer is “How will you address the requirements of the client’s requests?”

      I hope this helps!
      Tim G.
      Editor
      The Manager’s Resource Handbook

  • Adrian

    Should there be a Cover/Title page and page numbers in a response to an RFP?

    • Adrian,

      Yes, a cover or title page and page numbers are recommended. These little details will give your RFP response a nice, professional touch. (The only exception to this would be times when there are specific guidelines for the response format that state these should not be included.)

      Thanks!

      Tim G.
      Editor

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