Some tips from a guy on the other side of the table.
you are just about to launch into a major strategic planning effort in your
community to update your economic development plan from a decade or two ago.
You do not have an “extra” 500 hours this year, in addition to all your other
responsibilities, to pull it together. So, with some arm twisting and perhaps
some lucky grantsmanship, you get the funds together to hire a consultant.
Congrats! You have taken a couple of important steps already. The next step is
to solicit proposals and select the best possible team to perform the work.
simple as that sounds, there can be some real pitfalls. Below are straightforward
ways you can increase the odds of a successful request for proposals (RFP) process, i.e. of soliciting
and actually receiving multiple, high-quality responses from experienced teams.
The alternatives can be ugly: no responses at all (whoops! There goes three
months) or 20 bland, generic responses (have fun reading those) or a handful of
disappointing proposals from underqualified groups (you could have done much
RFP document itself, tell us exactly
why you are doing this, what your community looks/feels like today, what you
think are your major issues/opportunities, and what you want out of the process.
Be as specific and detailed as possible, more is better.
emails and Q&A
and encourage consultant teams to call you directly and discuss the RFP. We
learn so much in just 20 minutes of talking to you and this insight allows us
to tailor a response to your exact situation. This is an opportunity to discuss
nuances that cannot be described in the RFP itself. For example, is there a
major political hot button topic to be aware of, either to (a) avoid
completely, or (b) address head-on in the proposed scope of services? [Not
something you are going to describe in detail in writing for the world to see
in the RFP.] How important is general public engagement versus limiting it to
key stakeholders? [Everyone will say engagement is necessary, but how essential
is it really to your process?] What elements of the scope are non-negotiable
and which ones are flexible?
also allows the consultant to bounce ideas off you to see if they get any
traction. Sometimes these ideas can make all the difference in the actual work:
you may have left out an interesting variation to the planning process that could
be included. Sometimes these ideas are just not appropriate for one reason or
another. Either way, the consultant does not know unless he/she gets the chance
to talk to you about them.
might argue that having calls is somehow showing favoritism to one group over
another or not giving everyone the same set of information. My response is that
each team should have the opportunity to ask the questions they feel are
important. Each team is different and will likely ask different questions and
may interpret responses differently. If, however, something significant is
uncovered in this process, then do the right thing and notify all the teams in
writing. Problem solved.
recognize that sometimes this is not possible given local procurement
guidelines that prohibit anything other than written communication. In such a
case, seek a waiver. If not granted, then allow for at least two rounds of
Q&A and be thorough in your responses to the questions. (I can’t count the
number of times a question was left essentially unanswered because the response
was short, did not address the entirety of the question, or simple says, “See
page 16 of the RFP”.)
for consultants across the country, this is the #1 strategic planning RFP pet
peeve. You know how much money you have, we know you know, you know we know you
know. Just come out and say it in the RFP. Unlike the procurement of, say, road
salt for your local DPW, this is not a commodity product that you are trying to
purchase at the least possible cost. We believe that strategic planning RFPs are
about getting the best possible plan for the resources you have available.
clear, this is not saying to give up trying to get a good deal. You can try to
get the best deal by clearly stating that price will be a factor in selection.
Just make sure to specify how important that factor is! Is it a 10% weighting
or a 50% weighting in selection? Consultants will respond to your guidance
accordingly, especially if you give a specific “anticipated budget range.” You
will likely get proposals that run the gambit of the anticipated budget range
and then you get to decide if the higher price proposal is worth the difference
in scope/qualifications with respect to the lower priced proposals.
we all get caught in the “budget dance” where you maybe give hints but do not
specify, we thrust, you pary, euphemisms abound (“tell me about the level of effort you expect…”). We spend
all kinds of time ferreting out this information: (a) looking at past plans
your organization has funded and at what level, (b) combing through meeting
minutes to see if a budget resolution included an allocation, (c) trolling
through grant awards to see if your community’s name pops up, (d) reading
newspaper articles for any hints, etc. Sometimes we get selected only to find
out the community needs us to cut out $50,000 worth of work to get to their
budget. Sometimes we find out we came in too low because we thought you did not
have much money, so we ended up cutting out essential scope that could have
made your process much more fruitful. Some communities end up throwing out all
bids because they were all way beyond resources, mandating a restart of the
entire process. Most often, however, you will just get far fewer bids and of
lower quality – consultants have to put in tons of effort on proposals and do
not want to waste their time. It is one of our own top criteria for our
go/no-go decision on whether or not to respond to an RFP (see below for the
complete list). No one wants to put in 40 hours of work on a proposal just for
it to land Dead-On-Arrival.
motivates a consultant to respond to an RFP more than a phone call from the
issuer saying, “Hey, we think you would be great for this job. Would you
consider submitting?” Clear signals like that show us that our 40 hours of work
on a proposal could pay off. Another good option is to pre-select a set of
consultants to whom you will be sending the RFP and state this in the RFP. You
can still keep it open-ended (i.e. we will accept proposals from any qualified
group whether or not they are on this distribution list). Likewise, you can
absolutely check in with us during the process to ask, “Hey, are you planning
on submitting? If not, why?”
Secret Hint: Some communities
“accidentally” forget to use blind copies when sending out the RFP itself or
when sending out addenda. All the consultants make it into the “To:” or “CC:”
lines of the email – effectively showing everyone what the field of competition
is. It tells us that you are not sending this out to 50 companies but maybe
only 5 or 10.
can also consider doing a joint RFQ/RFP solicitation process (RFQ = Request for Qualifications). While it adds
another step, it does not add much time to the process. Briefly, first issue a
simple RFQ and broadcast it to a large audience soliciting only qualifications
from each team (i.e. no custom components like scope, budget, schedule and the
various narratives that accompany proposals). This can be a quick turn-around
as it does not take much time for the teams to respond. Then select 5 teams to
whom you will issue the RFP. Again, this means you get a set of highly
qualified and highly motivated consultants who will very likely submit a
customized and thorough proposal.
clear as possible with the anticipated scope of work. Focus more on
deliverables and outcomes than on the process itself. This allows flexibility
in how consultants respond with their scope of services while ensuring that you
will get the product that you need. For example, you can specify a minimum
number of meetings with the steering committee if that is important to you. You
can specify a particular analysis (e.g. targeted industry analysis, supply
chain study, etc.) or a list of stakeholders that must be consulted. Perhaps
you want a project-specific website or a social media campaign? You do not need
to tell the consultant how to get there, but do tell them what you want.
email submissions in lieu of paper. It is easier for everyone, costs less and shows
you are game for moving things into the modern era.
arbitrary submission requirements – the exact type of binding on paper copies,
font size, page limits, tabs, etc. But do suggest how you want the proposal to
be organized – it can make it a lot easier for you during the review process.
sure you include waiver language in case some technical detail comes up
(i.e. “…we reserve the right to waive any informalities…”) that could otherwise
be challenged. For example, if you require paper copies and a blizzard hits,
you can waive the deadline requirement due to acts of god. Or someone forgets an original signature on a
form. You can “cure” these technical issues if you have a waiver clause.
hope this gives you a little perspective on what we, as consultants, think
about in terms of the ideal RFP process. To show this in more concrete terms,
below is a “back of the envelope” test we informally use in judging whether to
pursue an RFP. Think of it as a cheat sheet you can use to make sure you get
good responses to your solicitations.
“should we respond?” list:
this within our core service area?
we know the budget? Can we do the “budget dance” and figure it out one way or
we know the client? Does the client know us?
there a significant disconnect between the budget and the anticipated scope of
we able to have a meaningful discussion with them prior to submission?
the scope of work clear? Do we know what they want? Are there any major
ambiguities that were not answered during calls/emails?
there a clear incumbent that would be hard to dislodge?
steps to write a better Request for Proposals (RFP)
the same author, with a bit of levity, on how these things can drive people to
One example of a good RFP here.