If you're poring over the Request for Proposals trying to learn what the client really wants, you're looking in the wrong place. I've yet to see an RFP that provided the most important information I needed to write a winning proposal. Yet amazingly, many proposals are prepared with little more insight than what can be gleaned from the RFP. My advice: Never trust the RFP!
Why not? First of all, the true selection criteria usually don't appear in the RFP. Most clients are looking for someone they can trust, someone they feel comfortable with, someone who most understands what they want and offers the best solution. How often do you see those criteria in an RFP?
Most of the time, the successful firm is the one that has developed the strongest relationship with the client before the RFP was released. No matter how objective clients may try to make the selection process appear, it's not. They hire the firm that "feels" right and score the criteria to get that result. You won't find that mentioned anywhere in the RFP, of course.
Obviously I'm not suggesting that you ignore the RFP. You should be fully responsive to the instructions in that document. Organize your proposal as the RFP specifies, provide all the requested information, and make it easy for the client to evaluate your proposal based on the published selection criteria. Just don't assume that will be enough.
A really strong proposal should answer most of the questions listed below—even though they may not be mentioned in the RFP. That's the feedback I've gotten from clients over the years. There's a catch, of course. Unless you've been talking to the client before the RFP is released, you'll not be able to answer most of these questions with any confidence.
That's why the time to start considering these questions is during the sales process, not just before you start the proposal.
Here's where I'll generally take exception with the RFP. I almost always include an executive summary, although the RFP rarely calls for one. This is the essence of your proposal, reduced to a few pages. The primary focus of your executive summary should be answering the following question:
How will we help the client be successful through this project? This is the primary message you want to deliver in your proposal, and effectively encapsulate in your executive summary. Think in terms of 4-5 critical success factors that must be accomplished and how you are going to make those happen.
You should demonstrate in your proposal that you understand the underlying issues, concerns, problems, and challenges associated with the project. Key questions to answer include:
What are the needs driving the project? Look beyond technical issues. Consider strategic drivers (economic, competitive, political, operational, mission-critical). Also consider personal needs (human impacts and benefits).
What is the client's vision for the project? What does the completed project need to achieve? What does it look like in the client's mind? Keep in mind that when we speak of "the client" we're usually referring to several decision makers, each of whom will have a different definition of success, as well as different priorities and concerns. Your challenge is to synthesize those different perspectives into a cohesive vision.
What are the client's priorities and concerns? What aspects of the project matter most? Cost, schedule, quality, outcome? What is the client most worried about? What are the critical success factors, the things that absolutely have to happen for the project to be a success?
What are the greatest challenges? These may link to the client's greatest concerns or to the special challenges the project presents to the consultant or design firm.
What other stakeholders are there and what are their priorities and concerns? In some cases, you may need to elevate this issue in the mind of the client. Regulators, the public, affected land owners, special interest groups, or other third parties can have a crucial role in the success (or failure) of the project.
Writing the project approach should come natural for most technical professionals. But often they overlook important aspects of the project, such as addressed in the following questions:
What is the best solution to address the client's needs? Based on the project background you developed above, what approach, design, or technology best responds to the client's desires and the situation?
Why did you select this solution over other possible alternatives? Share your thought process; don't just make a recommendation without offering an explanation of how you got there. Is the client biased towards a specific solution? Do you think it's the right one? If not, how are you going to present what you believe to be a better option?
What are the expected outcomes? Be specific about what the results of your proposed solution will be, expressed in terms that directly link to the clients needs and concerns. Quantify and offer supporting evidence where you can.
How will you execute the work? Many technical professionals focus on what will be done, but say little about how it will be done. Yet this is an important matter for many clients. How will you manage the project to ensure it goes according to plan (assuming you have a plan!)? How will you keep the project on schedule and within budget while meeting quality expectations. How will you effectively allocate and manage staff and other limited resources?
What are the potential risks and how will you address them? This is a critical concern for most clients that is often ignored in our proposals. Don't be afraid to describe what could go wrong as long as you have a plan to prevent and mitigate those risks. That discussion can prove to be a key differentiator because so many competitors avoid the subject.
How will you optimize the working relationship and deliver a great client experience? This is a vital issue that you'll rarely find mentioned in the RFP. What's it going to be like working with your firm? How will you make sure the client has an exceptional experience? Despite the importance of these questions to clients, few firms give much attention to this issue in their proposals. It's a key opening to stand out. Ideally, you've already demonstrated how well you serve the client during the sales process.
How will you effectively engage other key stakeholders? The importance of this issue was noted above. Hopefully you've discussed this with the client, because some are reluctant to proactively involve stakeholders (even though they should). Don't address this if you're not sure of the client's position on the matter. But if you are, outline your plan for effectively interacting with and involving those other key parties.
Qualifications & Experience
One of the main reasons not to trust the RFP is the over-emphasis on qualifications and experience. These are considered more objective selection criteria, but in fact they usually fail to meaningfully differentiate competitors. Yet clients rely on them heavily nonetheless—at least publicly—and seduce many technical firms into putting more emphasis here than on the more important factors outlined above. Don't fall into that trap!
Of course, you still want to put your best foot forward in describing your qualifications and experience in your proposal. Answering the following questions will help:
What are the benefits of your past project experience? So you have more relevant experience than your competitor. Can you demonstrate the benefit of that added experience in terms that really matter to the client? Can you do the project faster or for less cost? Can you minimize some risks or eliminate some uncertainties? Don't assume that simply being able to list more projects gives you an advantage. You have to answer the question: "So what?"
How did you add value? I've found that most technical professionals struggle to answer this question. Simply completing the project scope is of limited advantage; most competitors have similar experience. Instead, can you describe how you exceeded expectations? How did you provide benefits beyond the norm? What did you provide that your competitors wouldn't (or couldn't) have? Hint: Look beyond the technical elements of the project. How did you meet the client's strategic and personal needs?
How did members of your project team contribute to the above highlights? Which ones worked on the projects you chose to feature in your proposal? What were their specific contributions? These are important questions for many clients. They want to know that the specific individuals assigned to their project were involved in the past work you offered as most relevant.
If you can answer the questions listed above, you are clearly in position to put together the winning proposal. Part of this is due to the insights you can demonstrate in your submittal. Of still greater importance is the relationship with the client that you must have developed in gaining those insights.
So don't wait on the RFP to learn what needs to go into your proposal. Start asking the most important questions right now.