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What to do about a poorly written RFP

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

One of the hardest parts of writing a great proposal in response to an RFP is dealing with the fact that many (most?) RFPs are poorly written. You can't follow the instructions, comply with the requirements, offer something great, and maximize your score against the evaluation criteria if you can't understand what the expectations are or if something in the RFP doesn't match up or is broken.

Give the customer some sympathy, because writing an RFP is harder than writing a proposal. Try it some time.

Unfortunately, contractors still have to write proposals in response to whatever ended up in the RFP, however it got there. And it can be challenging following the RFP instructions and fulfilling the RFP requirements when they are poorly written. It's easy to get stuck and not be sure how to respond. There are some techniques you can use to respond to poorly written RFPs, and sometimes it's even possible to turn it to your advantage if you find a way to resolve the issues for the customer and your competitors do not.

There are a number of problems in RFPs that I see on a regular basis. Here are descriptions of them with some advice regarding what to do about them:

See also:
Compliance matrix
  • Too much detail. Sometimes the RFP tries to document every specification and sub-specification possible for even the most minute requirement. Sometimes it's because the customer doesn'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 RFP requirements at too detailed 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 painstaking detail exactly what you are required to comply with are a particular nuisance. It doesn't help that the more details in the RFP, the more likely they are to get something wrong.
  • Not enough detail. If the 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. This can result in underbidding and underperforming, or it can result in overbidding when vendors pad their estimates to make up for the uncertainty. Either way, the customer is not getting the maximum value. Contractors tend to respond to vague requirements with vague proposals.
  • 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. Proposal writers can't assume that the customer has asked for something incorrectly or for something that they actually do not want. But it happens, and if you can't ask a question when it happens, then consider whether you can support both possibilities. A contradiction is an issue for the customer as well, and if you can provide a path forward for them in your proposal, you may gain points. If you can't, consider making a documented assumption.
  • 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. If you can comply with all the requirements, then you can focus on the ones that you think will be most important to the proposal evaluators. If you have to leave any out, make sure they are ones that do not matter to the proposal evaluators.
  • Inconsistent delivery schedules. The delivery schedules specified in the RFP often will not match up with the production requirements. Or will drive cost considerations the customer didn't anticipate. Or will test feasibility concerns. Dependencies are often overlooked. There may be better ways to make the trade-offs, but you're limited to what the RFP requires. This is another place where if you can't ask questions, documenting your assumptions may be your best option.
  • 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). Sometimes all we want to do is meet the customer's expectations. The customer thinks they put their expectations into the RFP. But if the RFP is poorly written, their expectations may not be clear. 
  • 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. If there are contradictions in the RFP, then choose one and document that assumption. If something in the RFP is too vague, then assume the detail and document that.
  • Provide options. Providing options in your proposal lets them select how they want things to be interpreted. Sometimes RFPs limit your ability to do this. But when the costs are the same, you can usually offer "flexibility" or conduct a discovery activity and tailor your approach based on their preferences.
  • 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. Consider documenting this as an assumption.
  • 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. Instead of making you look like you don't know what you're doing, questions can make you look thorough and reliable.


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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, 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.

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