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How to respond to an RFP with the right words

The words the customer needs to assess your response matter more than any words you might want to use


Before pen is put to paper, proposal writing requires you to interpret and understand the RFP.

When a customer writes an RFP they identify things they want vendors to address and evaluators to assess. When you read an RFP you can see when they are indicating these things by the words they use. For example, they often use words like "shall," "will," and "must" to indicate these things.

In fact, a lawyer specializing in procurement will tell you that terms like “shall,” “will,” and “must” have precise meanings and that certain words should be used for things that the customer believes are mandatory and certain words for things that are optional, facts, etc. But while this might be how RFPs should be written, proposal writers must deal with how proposals are written. Often the person writing the RFP doesn’t understand the subtle nuances. This can make interpreting the RFP more challenging. 

Words like “shall,” “will,” and “must” usually indicate things the evaluator will be looking for and assessing. They may indicate things like customer requirements, instructions, terms and conditions, or facts, depending on how precise the customer is with their terminology. What you can rely on when they use those words, and others like them, is that they are indicating or identifying things.

They may be doing this to bring them to your attention, the evaluators’ attention, or both. It may be necessary to acknowledge them to be considered compliant with the RFP. The evaluator may be tasked with accounting for whether you responded to them. You want the evaluator to be able to easily find the indicated words.

You should also look for lists, bullets, numbered items, and things put in tables. When the customer itemizes things, they make it easier to account for them. You want your proposal to reflect this, by making them easy to find. Using the same bullets, numbers, table formats, etc., that the customer used can help. You want your proposal to be checklist-simple to evaluate. Whether it's true or not it helps to picture the evaluator looking at your proposal and checking off on a list as they find each keyword indicated in the RFP.

Once you figure out what words they have indicated are important and that the evaluators might look for, you should build your response around those words. Pay particular attention to the words used in any evaluation criteria provided. If there will be a formal scoring or decision process, it will be based on the words in the evaluation criteria. 

The job of a proposal writer is not to simply present the offering. It’s to present the offering in a way that maximizes the chances of winning. Part of doing this is to present your offering using the language of the RFP.

What you don’t want to do is repeat the RFP exactly. This makes it harder for the evaluator to determine whether you understand what you are saying and can be trusted. Instead, take your offering design, bid strategies, and the points you wish to make, and articulate what differentiates them using the words from the RFP. 

You should review your proposal by making sure that all keywords indicated or identified in the RFP can be found in your response. If you have trouble finding any of them, even if you eventually do find them, it’s a safe bet the evaluator will also have difficulty finding them. 

A few words about page limitations

If the RFP contains several times the number of pages they limit the length of your proposal to, it may be physically impossible to include all of the keywords in the RFP. The words you want to use are the ones the evaluator will be most likely to look for. This means you must look past what they have indicated are keywords to consider what words they need to perform the evaluation. 

Doing this requires understanding their evaluation process, right down to the forms they use. Sometimes helping the customer reach their decision comes down to helping them complete their forms, and sometimes that comes down to matching the words in your proposal to the words on their forms. This is not being trivial or nit-picky. In a page-limited proposal, doing this can be vital, since any words that do not impact your evaluation are extraneous. Every word you put in your proposal should be measured not by how important you think it is, but by how much it will impact your evaluation.

Before putting pen to paper, pause for a moment to consider what the evaluator needs to see in order to perform their task. Proposals do not get read. They get evaluated.

What the customer needs from you

Customers who go to the trouble of publishing an RFP typically need to assess certain things about each proposal and bidder:

  • Have they met the qualification requirements that were in the RFP?
  • Did they follow the instructions I gave them?
  • Does what they propose match what I said I needed?
  • Did they accept all the terms and conditions that will be part of the contract?

They often ask these questions before they ask which offering they like more. If they have written evaluation criteria, they may not even consider which they like. They will consider how the bidders who make it to that stage compare on the basis of the evaluation criteria. How the evaluation criteria are worded, and how your proposal stacks up against them, will determine whether you win.

At each of these steps, whether you have used the right words from the RFP matters. The good news is that the RFP will indicate these things. But if the page limitation means you can’t possibly address every RFP keyword, then think about the information they need and their evaluation process and give them the words they need to make their decision.

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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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