Writing an RFP is harder than writing a proposal. If you are a proposal writer and have never written an RFP, especially for something you need created or developed, you should try it some time. It is a great way to improve your ability to see things from the customer’s perspective.
Even if you can clearly express what you want, doing so in a way that someone else won’t misinterpret is challenging. And most RFP writers are not experts, either in articulating what they want or in writing RFPs. They tend to word things poorly and get lost in the complexity of their own needs. If you’ve tried writing a complex RFP, you’d understand.
Unfortunately, the result is that even though proposal writers have to follow the RFP precisely, the RFP is fallible. If it says something that’s clearly wrong, it can be fixed. But most of the problems people have responding to RFPs are when it’s hard to tell, like when the RFP requirements are ambiguous, open to interpretation, convoluted, or just a little… strange.
Issues like that make you scratch your head and wonder why someone put it in the RFP that way. It’s easy to psych yourself out and develop conspiracy theories related to what they are really trying to do based on the assumption that they said it that way on purpose. The odds are more likely that it was just poorly worded. But the problem with conspiracy theories is that no matter how far-fetched, they could be true…
If you are a proposal writer, you can’t just leave it alone. Understanding why the customer wrote the requirements the way they did helps you understand their motives. Understanding their motives is critical to winning in writing, because that is how you not only respond to the requirements, but fulfill their unwritten needs.
So take a look at this list of possible reasons why the customer wrote something the way they did:
- They had to
- They want to keep things the same
- They want something different
- They didn’t know what else to say
- They are afraid
- They are ambitious
- They were lazy
- They are cheap
- They want what they want
- They don’t want to be tied down
- They aren’t an expert in what they need to buy but have to write the RFP anyway
- Someone else suggested it
- They misinterpreted what you suggested
- They forgot
- They didn’t know how to quantify it
- They didn’t want it to limit them in the future
- The Powers That Be don’t trust their own people
- They don’t agree
- They have a deadline
- They've been burned
- They already know who they want to win
- They don’t want to keep the incumbent
- They want new ideas
- They are resistant to change
- It was in the RFP they recycled
- Bad copy and paste
- They changed their mind
- Their needs changed but they forgot to update the document
- They didn't realize they contradicted themselves
- They're short sighted
- They haven't figured it out yet
- Their priorities aren't what you think they should be
- They can’t predict the future
- They know more than you think they do
How many of these could explain what you are seeing in the RFP?
How many of these represent issues that you could have helped the customer with? Too bad once it's in the RFP it's probably too late. You need more information than just what's in the RFP. But if you know why they did what they did, you can strategize a way to work around it. Or better yet, you can address the requirements in a way that fulfills what their real motivation is.
If you don't know the customer well enough to understand their motivations before the RFP is released, all you can do is guess. But as you can see from the list above, it will be easy to guess wrong. And you should assume that at least one of your competitors won't have to guess.
Wouldn't you like to be the one making RFP suggestions and confuse your competitors instead?
Carl is the Founder and President of CapturePlanning.com and PropLIBRARY
Carl is an expert at winning in writing. The materials he has published have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is also a prolific author, frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To find out more about him, you can also connect with Carl on LinkedIn.