Some tips from a guy on the other side of the table.
Imagine 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.
As 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 better).
In the 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.
Calls, emails and Q&A
Allow 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?
A call 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.
Some 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.
We 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”.)
Speaking 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.
To be 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.
Otherwise, 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.
Solicit Us Directly
Nothing 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.
You 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.
Clarity of Scope
Be as 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.
(a) Allow 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.
(b) Avoid 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.
(c) Make 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.
We 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.
Our “should we respond?” list:
- Is this within our core service area?
- Do we know the budget? Can we do the “budget dance” and figure it out one way or another?
- Do we know the client? Does the client know us?
- Is there a significant disconnect between the budget and the anticipated scope of work?
- Are we able to have a meaningful discussion with them prior to submission?
- Is the scope of work clear? Do we know what they want? Are there any major ambiguities that were not answered during calls/emails?
- Is there a clear incumbent that would be hard to dislodge?
6 steps to write a better Request for Proposals (RFP)
From the same author, with a bit of levity, on how these things can drive people to drink…
One example of a good RFP here.