Not all projects should kick off with a handshake agreement. Some are too complex and have far too much at stake. For the big projects, with many stakeholders at every step, you should vet contractors, seek out bids, and review your options before you get started.
And even then, you may find yourself crossing your fingers in the hopes you’ve made the right decision.
Before you turn that key project over to someone just because you heard they were the best, stop. Slow down. Take a breath, sit down with your team, and create one of the most important documents required to complete big projects: an RFP.
What does RFP stand for?
So, what is an RFP? An RFP (which stands for request for proposal) is a business document that outlines a new project. In an RFP, you’ll ask prospective contractors to submit their bids for completing that project. It’s common in businesses like construction, for example, when a business can’t build its own sites.
As Investopedia puts it, an RFP “is a project announcement posted publicly by an organization indicating that bids for contractors to complete the project are sought.”
In other words, when you create an RFP, you’re asking businesses to submit their best estimates for completing what you need to get done. But the RFP is more than just an “ask.” It should also provide enough details about the project so that the aspiring bidders can provide an accurate estimate of what it would take to finish it. The more accurate the RFP is, the more likely it is to solicit bids that line up with real-world results.
When are RFPs issued?
You might issue an RFP whenever you have a large, complicated project with a significant budget. This is particularly true in the public sector. Typically, government agencies issue RFPs to solicit private bids, opening up price competition between bidders and maximizing the quality of results for the price. For example, the National Association of Counties (NACo) includes its own instructions for governments creating RFPs.
This isn’t to say that RFPs are public-only documents. Any time a private company needs to consult outside help from bidders and contractors — who often enlist subcontractors themselves — an RFP could be an effective way to start.
RFP benefits go beyond inviting potential bidders to submit their estimates. These documents should also include details of the project. Critical details include project milestones, regulatory requirements, and any pressing calendar deadlines. The more clear the RFP is about these requirements, the more it will naturally filter out any bidders who can’t meet the project's scope.
What kind of organizations use RFPs?
RFPs are particularly adept at lining up potential contractors for complex, service-based projects. For small projects with one contractor and one deliverable, an RFP might not be necessary. However, professional services that require extensive project planning and the employment of different skills, equipment, and labor are much more complicated. This makes their pricing and planning more complex.
RFPs are common across a range of businesses, but they’re especially common in the following industries.
The project might have a simple goal: to build a site by a specific date. But anyone who’s worked in construction knows that even a project with a simple goal can be susceptible to scope creep. An RFP for construction companies should define key stakeholders, establish the expectations for the final result, explain cost and budget limitations, and establish realistic deadlines.
In turn, the construction company has plenty of information to include in its bid: estimated timelines for meeting milestones, equipment used, insurance and regulatory compliance needs, and subcontractor details.
A construction RFP should also include notices for any extra materials you’ll need to review. For example, a business building a new office compound may have no ideas about handling fire safety. But they can build a notice into the RFP asking each construction bid to highlight their fire safety plan for each floor.
A detailed marketing project can be a multimillion-dollar effort. Like construction, putting together a large marketing campaign requires skills across a range of disciplines — writing ads, editing TV and internet spots, data and research, and ad buying.
A government agency is often unable to offer all of the services it’s responsible for. But with the budget to do so, it can solicit private contractors to place bids on the required work.
Government agencies will often hire construction, consulting, educational, and marketing-based services to fulfill the government’s obligations to the public. The RFP is an essential tool here, allowing government agencies to review each bidder while securing the best possible rates.
Statement of work vs. proposal: What’s the difference?
An RFP asks specifically for a proposal. On the surface, this might sound like the RFP is asking for a simple outline of the labor, budget, and timeline details required to fulfill a project. But a proposal differs from a statement of work (SoW) in that an SoW might be a section of the proposal, but never vice versa:
- A proposal is an overall pitch for a company’s approach to the project. The statement of work might be one element of this proposal, but a proposal can include other elements like a background on the company itself. Think of the proposal as a marketing tool on behalf of the company doing the bidding. It might include the basic details necessary to submit the bid, but it’s also looking to differentiate the company from the competition.
- A statement of work is a straightforward listing of the project’s milestones, the timeline, and the pricing of each element. One page within a proposal might outline the statement of work. Unlike the proposal itself, this section is typically written to be clear and is often closer to a list of bullet points.
The RFP bidding process is typically the first stage in selecting a company. As G2 notes, it’s also an announcement of your upcoming project. For that reason, requesting a proposal means you’re inviting companies not only to outline their estimates, but essentially to make their best pitch. This puts you in the position to whittle down the best candidates.
What to include in an RFP
The purpose of an RFP is clear: not only to learn which companies can provide the services you’re looking for but to gauge what a realistic timeline and budget for your project might be. However, without adequate guidance on what to include in an RFP, you may find that businesses submit unclear proposals.
Your goal with an RFP should be to cut through the ambiguity and bring clarity to your project. To do that, you’re going to need to include several elements:
Relevant company and project history
Start by getting a background on what the company is, who leads the company, and whether they’ve completed any similar projects in the past.
It’s true that past performance isn’t necessarily indicative of future performance. But if your goal is to build a new downtown office high-rise and there’s only one company who can point to building a previous office high-rise who submits a proposal, you’ve probably got a fair idea that they’re going to be the best choice.
The key here is to focus on relevant company and project history. You don’t need details about a company’s founding that have nothing to do with your upcoming project or initiative.
Project scope and objectives
In a project’s scope, you should provide just as much information as you solicit. This is when you need to make your deliverables clear.
But what is a project’s “scope” exactly? It’s a brief document that includes the following details:
- Business case: This is the overall summary, detailing what the project is, why it’s necessary, and what the project hopes to achieve by the time it’s finished.
- Budget: Although it can sometimes be difficult to pin down a tight budget, many RFPs will include a basic budget “window” within which companies can submit their bids.
- Timeline: The overall timeline, especially the deadline, is critical. This is also a way to filter out companies that may be too busy to take on a significant amount of work in your timeline.
- Milestones: Milestones can be like mile-markers that signify the completion of individual portions of the project. Although not always necessary, it can be helpful to agree on project milestones ahead of time, particularly when subcontractor work is involved. Having milestones planned out in advance helps both sides assess what objectives to hit in order to keep the project on track.
- Deliverables: Finally, outline what deliverables you want completed by the end of the project. Include as many details necessary to consider the project to be completed, especially if there are any regulatory requirements at play.
Sometimes, project demands mean you’re working with constraints outside of your control. That may include budgetary constraints, government regulations, or NDAs you require bidders to sign.
Don’t hide these in hopes of securing better bids upfront. Include these essential details in your RFP. The sooner you make these requirements clear, the more sure you’ll be that you’re only working with qualified bidders as the process moves on.
Similarly, try not to limit the scope of requirements you include. Whether you have business requirements or technical requirements to be satisfied, it’s always better to include these on the RFP so there’s no mistaking them. You don’t want to get 2/3rds of the way to completing a new office building only to find out that the construction company you hired isn’t licensed to handle the windows and didn’t include that estimate in the bid.
Ever had a teacher who told you what sections of your textbook would be on the quiz? When you studied, you probably made sure that you reviewed those exact pages. In doing so, you remembered them all.
Stating your selection criteria in an RFP is a bit like that. Spell out the precise details that will make you select one bidder over another. Don’t make them guess. When you tell them what variables matter most to you — budget, scheduling, etc. — you make sure every bidder gives their best possible answer on these variables. This makes for better comparisons when it’s time to review the proposals and select the finalists.
Executing is important, but not if a project has so many overruns that it’s only completed years after the deadline.
State your project timeline in clear, specific terms. This is essential information that guides other priorities. Contractors can use project timelines to gauge their budget, whether they’ll have to hire subcontractors to supplement their team, or whether they’ll even have the bandwidth to take on this project in the first place.
An effective plan doesn’t just state what should happen. It also considers the risks involved. Take the time to brainstorm these potential roadblocks with your team, then list them in their own section.
Of all the RFP requirements, this may seem the most optional. Why perform this exercise? Isn’t it something that the contractors should consider instead? Simply put, you want to list the potential roadblocks because you still own this project. By making other companies aware of these roadblocks, you can solicit more accurate proposals. Rather than selecting a low-budget option when you aren’t sure if they meet your qualifications, getting the roadblocks out of the way will serve as another selection filter. You’re less likely to go wrong in the long term if you’re upfront about the challenges.
The budget is often the top concern for anyone crafting an RFP. That’s for obvious reasons. Budgets determine resources, investments, time, effort, and the amount of labor a contractor can allocate to your project.
Even if you’re not confident that your budget is high enough, make it clear when you don’t have any wiggle room. It’s better to receive an RFP response of “sorry — we can’t do it at that price” than to create unrealistic budget expectations in the hopes of generating more responses. Be realistic about how much budget you can allocate to this project so you can get accurate proposals and realistic bids.
The budget may also include payment terms, such as when each milestone’s invoice is due. About 63% of contractors say they “sometimes” get paid on time, so don’t be surprised if contracts include payment terms in this section of the proposal.
Finally, your RFP responses can use a little coaching. Tell these businesses what you want to hear from them and what you don’t. Make sure to include some other key details at the end, such as:
- Contact information: Who should businesses send their bids to? List the primary contact for the project and how to get in touch with them.
- Submission requirements and deadlines: Set a hard date, at which point you can gather all of the proposals and review them with your team. Give businesses enough cushion time to prepare an adequate proposal.
- Required elements: What are the must-have details you need to review in every proposal? Make note of the comparisons you want to make, such as the project’s budget — and let companies know that this information is required as part of their proposal.
An RFP example
Once complete, an RFP will mostly be an empty form — it’s up to the businesses to fill in the information. It may look something like this:
- Project overview: This is the part you do fill in. Here you’ll include the details we just reviewed, such as budget, timelines, project details, and any further guidance.
- Example: Imagine your project is a new website for your company. In this case, the project overview would include the types of pages you’d need for the website, the functionality you’d like to have, and when you’d like to launch the new site.
- Project goals: With the details in place, think of this section as a little bit like a time machine. Explain what you want the project to look like after everything is said and done.
- Example: Let’s stick with the website example. What do you want completed by the deadline? A fully-functioning website that’s capable of taking customer orders? Get specific about the deadlines and milestones your project needs to hit for you to consider it a success.
- Scope of work: Now it’s time to turn the work over to the people filling out the proposals. Explain the level of detail you need in the scope of work, then leave plenty of space for businesses to handle the rest.
- Example: In our website example, you might compare the scope of work from one project to another. Who is doing custom web development? Who is relying on pre-existing templates? “Scope of work” helps you understand each company’s approach.
- Roadblocks/barriers: In this section, either explain the roadblocks you foresee, allow the businesses to submit their own thoughts on the matter, or both.
- Example: Is there existing content that needs to be overwritten? Do you need to migrate to a new web hosting platform before the new company develops your website?
- Evaluation metrics: This is when you can include your own response guidance and selection criteria. List out the necessary details or extra materials you need to see for an effective bid. You might also include a submission requirements field here to further explain what every bid should look like before handing it in.
- Example: Tell the web developers what you need to see in each proposal. This will be up to you. Do you have a hard ceiling on the budget? Mention that. Is meeting the deadline your priority so you can have the website up by Black Friday? Mention that too.
What does the RFP bidding process involve?
You should have enough now to fill in the precise details of an RFP tailored to your upcoming project. Now what? You can’t wave a magic wand and expect the bids to start rolling in, after all.
It may seem difficult at first, but since you’re the one looking to hire, don’t expect it to stay difficult for long. You simply need the contact information for relevant businesses you want to invite to submit a bid. You might ask businesses or organizations similar to yours where they were able to ask for proposals. Or, for some smaller projects, you might visit online resources and project postings to publicize your RFP.
Once your RFP is in the hands of multiple businesses, your challenge shifts. No longer are you concerned with finding businesses, but dealing with the (potentially) overwhelming number of bids you’ve received.
Organize the proposals and, after the deadline, begin whittling down. Use your key metrics for this funnel. For example, if one bid came in at double your maximum budget, but you have five others at the budget, you can reasonably toss the high-budget proposal aside.
RFP response examples
The specific RFP response you receive may vary, depending on the RFP itself. But typically, you should expect a cover letter and an attachment of the proposal in full.
The cover letter is important and the first mark of a company with strong sales skills. It’s your first impression of the level of care and attention the company gave your proposal. For example, this…
To whom it may concern:
Attached is a standard project rate for XYZ Company. We very much look forward to serving your business needs.
…reads like a form letter. However, a company that has taken the time to vet and review your RFP will address more specific concerns.
To [Specific Contact’s Name]:
Thank you for the opportunity to submit a bid for your [specific project details]. ABC Company has completed three similar projects in the past, the details of which are attached in this email. You can also find PDF and Word attachments detailing our proposals, as well as the extra materials you requested.
It’s not hard to spot which cover letter sounds like it’s more likely to lead to a detailed, well-considered proposal. A good business has time to consider every aspect of their bid to increase their success — especially when companies that submit bids usually only win an average of 44% of them.
RFP response tips and tricks
What if you’re the one sending an RFP response? The RFP bidding process can feel like a minefield. Here are some time-tested tricks to get your proposal noticed:
Take time to understand the RFP
There’s no point in spending time on a proposal if you misunderstand the project in the first place. You’ll end up submitting a proposal that is either entirely off the mark or wasting your time with a project that wasn’t right for your business in the first place. However, if you take the time to understand the RFP, every point you include in the proposal will speak directly to your potential client’s needs, making it more likely they’ll accept yours.
Review all project requirements thoroughly
This is an off-shoot of the tip above. You don’t want to get too far in the project estimation process before you realize that the timeline is completely unrealistic for a company with your limited resources. Learn all of the requirements before you agree to a proposal.
Draft possible questions from stakeholders
A good RFP is open to feedback and questions. As you work through your proposal, maintain a list of questions that the RFP doesn’t answer. You’ll not only find this useful in researching the project, but the company requesting the information will likely appreciate the consideration you put into your proposal.
Create the first draft of your response
The first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. Create the first draft with the steps above in mind, but don’t hesitate over every detail. Remember you can always review and edit this response before you send it in.
Get it checked by your team
Don’t just have one person review the draft. Bring in the entire team. Make sure everyone is on board with the vision for the project — that you’re not writing checks that the company can’t cash, so to speak.
Present and submit your final proposal
Finally, create a cover letter (like the one above), polish up the proposal, and send it off. If you’re presenting it in person, prepare an overview presentation that includes the basic details. But if you’re presenting it via email only, make sure that everything is available via attachment and that you confirm your RFP is received.
Why use Wrike to plan your RFP documents?
The RFP is central to getting business done, on both ends. For the organization doing the hiring, it’s critical to get solid work on large projects with reasonable schedules and budgets. For a company submitting proposals, it’s the difference between a full schedule and wishing you had more work.
But you shouldn’t try to reinvent the wheel with RFP documents. Use Wrike templates to ensure the proper organization and workflows necessary to build out documents that are professional, comprehensive, and effective.
On both sides of an RFP, it’s critical to think of every key detail. It will help two different organizations not only connect, but thrive together.
Ready to simplify your RFP process? Get started with Wrike today.