I have helped companies win a lot of RFPs over the years. None of the RFPs are easy to respond to. In fact, many RFPs have redundant and unclear requirements. And don’t get me started on the short response times. The result? Even the most sophisticated Fortune 500 firm has challenges putting together a response.
If that’s the case, how is a business with limited time and public sector experience supposed to respond effectively?
Why is it so hard?
Solicitations are government documents. Let me repeat – solicitations are written by the government and enforced by the government. By their nature, they are not an easy read.
Add to this the multiple stakeholders who develop the scope of work. Procurement officers perform the transactional function – packaging the scope of work into a standard format with the required instructions and terms. The agency or program is responsible for constructing a clear explanation of the scope of work. How well these two groups communicate with each other is another question.
Start Small – Section by Section
RFPs typically follow a standard format at the state and local levels. They’re comprised of a cover page, offer & acceptance form, scope of work, uniform instructions, special instructions, uniform terms and conditions, and special terms and conditions. Each section has a purpose and must be carefully reviewed.
However, if there were three sections that you should read first, they are the scope of work, special instructions and the special terms and conditions. The scope of work tells you what the government wants to purchase. The special instructions are going to let you know how to structure your response (i.e. page limits, tabs, etc.) and all of the important deadlines. And finally, the special terms and conditions will provide you information on the unique terms that apply to the opportunity. For instance, these terms usually include payment terms. These sections will give you an immediate answer as to whether this is a solicitation you can respond to.
Organize Your Response
Even though you’ve read the 100-page solicitation that probably left you cross-eyed, your response still has to be clear and concise. If an evaluator can’t understand your response and find the required information, you may be disqualified or lose points in the evaluation process.
To make your response “evaluator-proof,” precisely follow the formatting instructions. If response sections are given to you in the Special Instructions, follow those without deviation. If the solicitation is not clear with conflicting requirements, ask the procurement officer to tell you what the government wants. If you can’t do that, then address every requirement you find using the same numbering as the RFP.
Finally, make it look pretty. An evaluator has to read several responses – let yours be a visual pleasure. This means bolding the requirements, using a nice font, and adding color and graphics when appropriate.
Still Lost? Find a Winning Response
The good news about working with the government is that procurement files are public record. That means that you can take a peek at a winning RFP and learn some formatting tips. I do this all the time. If you are bidding against an incumbent, ask the procurement officer to show you the incumbent’s previous response that won them the contract. If you don’t have this, pick a popular contract and request a copy of the winner’s response. You can see how other winning companies have structured their proposals.
The Government Loses Too
At the federal level, a company new to government contracts can reach out to one of the Procurement Technical Assistance Centers (PTAC). PTACs are staffed with knowledgeable folks that can guide companies through the procurement process, deciphering terms and writing a response.
In Arizona specifically, this type of resource is non-existent. If Arizona wants to increase competition, it should take a close look at offering resources to the public. And, if this is not feasible due to the current budget climate, then perhaps there is an opportunity to partner with a third-party provider.
Otherwise, the government may be missing out on strategic partners that can provide it with better value.