There are problems in developing most larger and/or complex RFPs. These come from a variety of sources – different writers, complexity causing conflict, incomplete information, outdated information, etc. The end result is a problem for potential bidders to responds to these RFPs.
It is informative to look at a few of the problems from the point of view of the developers of the RFP.
Instead of stating that they want a solution to a problem, the technical writers for the RFP define exactly how services are to be performed, the process, the tools to use and the specifications for each element. By not presenting the overall picture, it eliminates innovation or improvements that may have occurred in the marketplace. The end result is that a potential bidder, in order to win, has to offer other than the optimal solution.
Lack of Specifications:
This is the polar opposite of micromanagement. The client has not spent the time necessary, does not have the expertise to understand their situation or they just don’t know how to write clearly. From the viewpoint of a bidder, if you can’t understand the RFP, you can’t bid. Alternately, you can bid offering a solution that you ‘hope’ meets the needs of the client.
Large complex requirements usually have several authors writing different sections. Contradictions in terminology and specifications occur due to a lack of coordination between the writers, the knowledge of the writers, and the different skills sets of each writer. The end result may be a RFP that has serious problems. Unfortunately, rather than take the time to properly vet the RFP, the clients leave it to the potential bidders to find and question these errors.
The RFP, having been written in sections, may be poorly structured. Elements that are required in order to even commence working (should you win) may appear in the middle of the RFP or at the end (or even throughout). Elements that are needed to complete the work appear at the beginning or the RFP, in the middle or once again, throughout. If is very difficult for a bidder to track and organize the elements into a structure that makes sense.
Due to the complexity, the RFP evaluation criteria may not reflect the requirements of the Statement of Work. This could be another symptom and result of multiple authors.
As an example, I saw an RFP that required an accountant to verify an element of the work. Based on the statement of work, I assume that the requirement changed (due to a rewrite) to reflect to need for a Project Manager certified by the Project Management Institute. In other words, a PM rather than a CA was required. However, the evaluation criteria still asked for CA credentials to be evaluated even though there was no requirement for accounting work in the bid document.
The other item that often happens is contradictions in work schedules vs. RFP instructions and evaluation criteria. The result is that the evaluation scoring does not reflect the schedule that the requirement calls for. This is difficult for a bidder to manage. Which element of the RFP is to be followed?
More often than not, missing information is easy to detect. In developing the RFP, sections and information were deleted or added by error but the numbering scheme remained unchanged. The gaps in the numbering scheme indicate missing information.
In some cases, it can easily be seen that the RFP does not include instructions for the formatting of the proposal. For example, the RFP states that the proposal is to be no more than 100 pages. What is not stated are the font, size of font, margins, size of page and spacing of lines – all of which are related to the proposal length? To ensure a fair and equal playing field for all firms, the information has to be the standard. A firm cannot be allowed to gain an advantage simply by adjusting the font or margin in order to increase writing space for proposal content.
Similarly, gaps in the evaluation criteria also happen. It is incumbent on any bidder to total the marks in the evaluation criteria to ensure that there are no errors. Bidders should also be provided the relative weight for each criterion. This prevents ‘guesswork’ and allows bidder to understand the marks allocated to each section.
For bidders, there are a few solutions available to the problem with poorly constructed or bad RFPs – guess, create alternatives or ask questions, employ an expert.
The best solution is to ask question after question. Any confusion works against you. If in doubt – ask. When you receive an answer and the answer doesn’t make sense – ask another question. Your goal is to submit a high quality responsive proposal and you need the proper information to do so.
The next best solution is to create alternatives in the written response. This has to be carefully managed. Many RFPs expressly forbid this and insist that two (or more) separate proposals must be submitted. It is safer, but time consuming, to submit alternate proposals.
The worst solution is to guess. If you make an intelligent guess, you must explain it in detail and justify your assumption. This takes extra time without the offset benefit of knowing that your bid meets the requirements. Your bid may not conform to requirements nor be what is wanted your time may have been wasted.
For both the developers of an RFP and the bidders, employing an expert will prevent many problems. For many people, the large complex Statement of Work and resulting RFP is a ‘one-off’. They do not have the knowledge to ensure that the complexity is properly managed and that oversights do not occur. For bidders the same statement can be made. Many bidders who respond are completely capable of preparing written proposals on a routine basis. However, when they encounter a large complex RFP, this is also outside their realm of expertise.