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What does it really mean to be RFP compliant in a proposal?

Are you operating under the wrong assumptions about RFP compliance?

RFP compliance means demonstrating fulfilment of all the instructions and requirements contained in the RFP. RFP compliance is mandatory for some bids, such as Federal Government RFPs. The problem is that full RFP compliance often cannot be achieved.

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Proposal Management

Proposal managers are taught from birth that:

  1. Proposals must be 100% compliant or they will lose and it will be your fault.
  2. Do not parrot the RFP. It even says so in the RFP.
  3. Do not merely state compliance. That is not compliant enough. You must explain how you will be compliant and do it in your own words.

All are wrong. But only sometimes. 

It’s not pleasant to be responsible for full RFP compliance when it is not possible. When the customer releases a hundred-page statement of work but limits you to a 20-page proposal that must address both the technical and management responses, full RFP compliance is not possible. Actually, it's a good sign that point-by-point compliance is not what the customer is looking for.

RFP compliance is not an absolute. Compliance is simply meeting the customer’s expectations. But what are the customer's expectations? Have you tried asking?

What matters?

What matters about RFP compliance is totally and completely up to the customer. Only the customer gets to decide whether your proposal is any good. Your bid strategies depend on what matters to the customer. Do you know what matters to the customer about what they are buying? And do you know what matters to the customer about RFP compliance?

If they are buying commodities, they will evaluate it completely differently than they would if they are buying complex services. Sometimes the specifications are the only thing that matters, and sometimes they are more concerned with what they are going to get and only give a minimal consideration to the RFP specifications.

But keep in mind that the customer is more than one person. What matters to the contracting officer is different than what matters to the end users. The contracting officer is concerned with making sure the acquisition process requirements are fulfilled, while the end users are concerned with getting their needs fulfilled. Not all of the specifications in the RFP are required for either of them. But some of those specifications matter more than others.

Some of the requirements in the RFP exist because they are required by the procurement process. Some must be responded to, but others get incorporated into the contract and really don’t need to be talked about in the proposal. Some of the requirements in the RFP are to tell you what they want. If they must inspect what you are offering to make sure they are getting what they asked for, they’ll need to validate that the RFP requirements are fulfilled in the proposal. If they don’t trust their vendors or if that fulfillment is complicated or subjective, they’ll need to see how you fulfill them. If the requirements are routine, they’ll focus more on the results or what they are getting as evidence that the requirements were fulfilled.

Writing for multiple audiences

The decision to accept a proposal is almost never done by one person is isolation. Proposal evaluations may include junior staff, senior staff, procurement specialists, subject matter experts, executives, and random people who got drafted. The proposal should be written to address what matters to all of them. Luckily, some messages will work for multiple audiences.

If the customer expects to receive a lot of RFPs they may divide the evaluation into two or more parts, with one focused on compliance and the other focused on more qualitative evaluation criteria. The compliance review is often designed to be a quick, low effort pass to eliminate as many proposals as possible before the more substantive review. 

Whether the customer evaluates this way formally or not, compliance is not enough to win. It just gets you to the review that counts. This review is where they consider what matters to them. If you don’t push past compliance and address what matters you will lose the review that counts. The trick is to address the aspects of RFP compliance that will get you past the initial review.

But what do you do to achieve compliance?

Give the customer what they need to address their concerns as decision makers. Those concerns will depend on what they are buying. Your job is not simply to establish RFP compliance. It is to add value to the evaluation process. You can do this even in a low price, technically acceptable evaluation by making it easy for them to satisfy their concerns.

If you don’t know what their concerns are, you shouldn’t be bidding.

Even if you don’t know the customer, you should be able to look at their circumstances, the nature of what they are buying, and the competitive environment and anticipate at least some of their concerns. Be fully RFP compliant in the ways that matter for what they are buying. Try to be fully compliant everywhere else, but when the number of pages of RFP requirements exceeds the page limit for your response, you’re going to have to take some risks.

All proposals involve taking some risks. Take your risks strategically. If you try to not take any risks, you’ll still be taking risks --- only you’ll be doing it by accident. Take the right risks on purpose. This means the most effective proposal process is one built around risk assessment and not RFP compliance CYA.

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More information about "Carl Dickson"

Carl Dickson

Carl is the Founder and President of CapturePlanning.com and PropLIBRARY

Carl is an expert at winning in writing, with more than 30 year's experience. He's written multiple books and published over a thousand articles that have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is also a frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant and can be reached at carl.dickson@captureplanning.com. To find out more about him, you can also connect with Carl on LinkedIn.

Click here to learn how to engage Carl as a consultant.

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