How to Respond to a Request for Proposal (RFP)

How to Respond to a Request for Proposal (RFP)

By Diane M. Calabrese / Published April 2019

Photo by iStockphoto.com/filmfoto

Compute the time it takes to provide a customer with an estimate. Multiply it by a factor of 10 or more. That’s easily the time it takes to respond to the most basic request for proposal (RFP).

Although 20 estimates may yield only half as many jobs, responding to a single RFP represents a big investment of time that may yield no contract. Still, the size of projects that require a response to an RFP makes them enticing.

Before ever getting started in preparing a response, a contractor should pause for a self-assessment. “I think the most important question a contractor should ask himself is, ‘Is this scope of work something I am familiar with, have experience with, and have the proper equipment for?’” says Doug Rucker, owner of Clean and Green Solutions in Porter, TX.

Then, follow that question with another one, says Rucker. “‘Basically, can I complete the scope of the work that the RFP is requesting within the time range it requests and adhere to the safety standards requested?’”

Before deciding to respond to an RFP, read carefully. Does the contractor qualify?

The response to an RFP is the opportunity for the respondent to demonstrate competence to complete the project. Fill out forms correctly and attach all documents, certifications, insurance, etc., as requested, explains Rucker.

“Do not include anything not requested,” says Rucker, emphasizing every word of that advice. He explains that “furnishing information that was not requested” is a good way to be eliminated from contention.

A contractor may have completed many impressive projects, but trying to embellish a response by describing them will not boost one’s chances of being selected. The extra information just bogs down the evaluator(s) of the proposal.

There are many ways to get assistance in preparing an RFP. “I have attended seminars at UAMCC regional training events as well as at their national convention,” says Rucker. He notes that the same organization also has Facebook groups and a forum where contractors can get information from other contractors who have experience with responding.

What about paying for assistance with a response? “In my opinion, I think it is worth it to pay someone for assistance, but only for making sure the ‘i’s are dotted and ‘t’s are crossed—making sure all of the RFP is filled out correctly,” says Rucker. “If you are paying someone to tell you how to do the work the RFP is requesting, then no, it is not worth it until you have gained field experience.”

Homework First

Couple the groundwork in experience with homework about the type of organization issuing the RFP. All levels of government (federal, state, county, local) issue RFPs. So do commercial enterprises.

Different entities have different requirements. “Each of them has their own guidelines and spending limits,” says Henry Bockman, president of Commercial Restorations in Germantown, MD.

In the context of different approaches, Bockman reminds us that would-be bidders should also look out for requests for information (RFI) opportunities. “The RFI is a request for information to see if there is anyone interested in bidding on a future RFP.”

Moreover, being alert to RFIs may lead to no-bid contract opportunities. “For government bids, an RFI is usually sent out first, and in most cases, no one responds back, so the job is sole sourced out without ever going out for bids,” explains Bockman. “This can be very lucrative for winning local government jobs without having to give the lowest price.”

The opportunities that are made known via an RFI are usually under $10,000, explains Bockman. Dollar limits vary by entity issuing the RFI, of course.

Experience is what matters most, irrespective of the entity requesting proposals.

“The most important key to winning any large job is to prove that you are the best contractor for them to hire based on your experience, past performance, capabilities—and to offer them a price that’s within their budget or close enough that they can work with it,” says Bockman.

A submitter must also be sure that it’s a budget their company can handle. Large contracts have great appeal. Yet they often require adjustments within the business. Many government entities require awardees to use their accounting procedures, for instance.

And there are more fundamental considerations. “Can you pay your employees, cover job expenses and company overhead, and wait 30–90 days for payment?” says Bockman. “Can you afford to lose other jobs while performing the contract?”

Bockman cites the foregoing as two of five questions that must be answered before submitting a proposal. The others are as follows: Can a competitive price be offered? Can all requirements be met? Are the equipment and knowledge in place to complete the job fast enough to make a profit?

It’s a must to factor into any response to an RFP the time the response takes. Return on investment must be weighed in every component of business, including responding to RFPs.

Bockman, too, sees the use of assistance in responding to an RFP as one that must be decided on a case-by-case basis. “I would say ‘no’ for contracts under $10,000, but as the value of the RFP goes up in price, so does the risk—and if you can’t bid it competitively enough to have a strong chance of winning the contract, then all the time and effort that you invested in submitting a bid for it is wasted.

“I have worked with a lot of contractors to teach them how to bid on RFPs,” continues Bockman. “I have also teamed up with them to bid on and perform large jobs, so they can learn how to do them on their own in the future.”

The federal government encourages small businesses to become General Services Administration (GSA) certified, so they are eligible to bid on federal contracts. Does obtaining such certification by the GSA provide experience akin to responding to an RFP?

“In my opinion, getting Small Business certified, GSA certified, VOSB [Veteran-owned Small Business} certified or registered in SAM [System for Award Management] doesn’t really give you any real help in bidding on RFPs,” says Bockman. “However, it does give you experience by teaching you how to jump through hundreds of hoops—and you’re going to need that experience to bid on most RFPs.”

Learning Aids

Do you think the RFP route might be an interesting one to follow, but you’re still a little uncertain? Take advantage of the abundance of assistance available to businesses that are new to responding to RFPs.

“If they are a veteran-owned company, I would highly recommend the VIP Start Program at www.nationalvip.org for help on government contracting,” says Bockman. “It will also help with commercial work.”

The Veteran Institute for Procurement is made possible via a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Small Business Administration. “Since I went through the program, I have sponsored other power washing contractors, helped them get into the program, and testified in front of Congress to increase funding for it,” say Bockman of the VIP. “The information I learned has helped me to win several jobs, one more than $500,000.”

In addition to being a veteran, a participant in the VIP must meet certain other requirements, including one full year in business and revenue generation for the past year. Once a participant, though, there is great access to expertise, explains Bockman. Curricular topics for VIP participants range from contracting and sub-contracting (RFP and RFI) and operational program controls to business essentials (e.g., insurance, marketing, and capital management).

The USA.gov portal is another excellent source of information. Use it to search for how-to-respond guides. They are numerous, and most are specific to jurisdictions. A particularly good one is “How do I respond to an RFP?” It is a product of the Procurement Technical Assistance Center, LaGuardia Community College, by Lauren Linakis, associate director.

The 52 pages cover all the basics and issue an overarching advisory: READ. (See https://esd.ny.gov/sites/default/files/How_to_Respond_to_an_RFP.pdf.)

The PTAC document includes two must-dos: First, understand the terms and conditions that will apply to the contract before applying. (Can a business work with them?) Second, understand the criteria that will be used for evaluating the proposal. (If they cannot be met, preparing a proposal makes no sense.)

Read and read carefully, advises the PTAC document. Pay attention to geographic restrictions, set asides, time line, and competencies that must be demonstrated.

Any entity releasing an RFP wants a project done. It does not want to be left with an unfinished project. Unreasonably low bids will be rejected as surely as unreasonably high ones, notes the PTAC document. Look at past awards by the entity to try to get some indication of reasonable dollar range.

Finally, when responding to an RFP, keep the customer in focus. How will their problem be solved? How will the work at their site be accomplished expediently and in an excellent manner? And so on…

The issuer of the RFP does not care that winning the contract would be a boon to the company submitting the proposal. But, that’s a nice motivation for persevering through the process! 

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