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What to do about a poorly written RFP

You must follow the RFP, even if it's poorly written

Writing a proposal is hard enough, but it's even harder when the RFP is poorly written. Bad RFPs come in a number of different forms:

  • Too much detail. Some RFP authors try to document every specification and sub-specification possible for even the most minute requirement. Sometimes it's because they don't trust their vendors and sometimes it's because they want to force them all to bid the exact same thing. While on one hand, the customer needs to ensure that nobody proposes something sub-standard to reduce the price, specifying the requirements at too granular of a level creates its own problems. RFPs that say “do not simply restate the requirement in the proposal” but then go on to specify in great pain staking detail exactly what you are to propose are a particular nuisance.
  • Not enough detail. If customer doesn’t sufficiently describe what they want, it can be nearly impossible to write a proposal, let alone price it accurately. Insufficient detail limits a contractor's ability to make accurate estimates.
  • Requirements that contradict each other. Large RFPs often have multiple authors who sometimes insert requirements that are impossible to meet because they contradict each other. Usually the only way to resolve a contradictory requirement is to submit it as a question to the customer.
  • Poor correlation between staffing and activities. Position descriptions provided in an RFP often conflict with the activities required. Either the description has requirements that aren’t necessary for the activities, or they don’t specify who should perform certain required activities.
  • Inconsistent delivery schedules. The delivery schedules specified in the RFP often will not match up with the production requirements. Dependencies are often overlooked.
  • See also:
    Compliance matrix
  • A lack of correspondence between the instructions, evaluation criteria, and statement of work. RFP instructions often specify the outline that you should follow in your response. The evaluation criteria tell you how you will be scored, and should indicate what is important to the customer. When the instructions and the evaluation criteria don't match up, you have to modify the outline in order to reconcile them. This often involves making judgment calls that may differ from what the customer intended. The same can be true if the instructions and/or evaluation criteria do not adequately address the requirements of the Statement of Work. 
  • Missing or vague instructions, evaluation criteria, or statement of work. If the RFP does not include any instructions for how the proposal is to be formatted or organized, it makes it difficult to provide the information in a way that meets the customer’s expectations. If the evaluation criteria are missing or vague, you won’t know what is important to the customer (although that’s probably better than wrong or misleading evaluation criteria).
  • Unrealistic page limits. When the RFP contains many times more pages of requirements than it permits you to use in your response, you simply can't respond to them all without generalizing or skipping some. It may be impossible to achieve 100% RFP compliance or to reply in detail without simply restating some RFP requirements. Because there will be some things you have to address, you may not have enough space to say anything that adds value. Even though all bidders operate under the same limitation, if the page limit is low enough it favors those who add the least value and have the least insight.

There are a couple of techniques that you can use to cope with bad RFPs:

  • Make assumptions. If there is not enough detail, create your own and document it as a list of assumptions.
  • Provide options. Providing options in your proposal lets them select how they want things to be interpreted.
  • Redefine the requirements. Find a way to interpret a problem requirement that resolves the issue, then restate the requirement in a way that subtly redefines it. 
  • Ask questions. Ask A LOT of questions. Ask questions you don’t even need the answer to. Ask the same question three different ways. Just ask a lot of questions. And then ask for an extension because there are so many answers and not enough time to incorporate them all.


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Carl Dickson

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 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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