Over the past few years, more organizations across Canada require prospective contractors/partners to successfully complete a Request for Proposal (RFP) response to secure a contract.

RFPs are documents that list the requirements and needs of a project. Companies create RFPs for upcoming projects, as a form of a proposal to potential contractors and agencies. These contractors and agencies then bid to win the contract, based on the requirements of the RFP.

However, if you say “RFP” to a business owner, you will likely receive one of these two responses:

1. They have never had to respond to one before.

2. They will shudder.

The reason business owners do not enjoy responding to RFPs is that, like funding grant applications, they have a reputation for being a time consuming, frustrating exercise. With proper planning and an organized approach, this doesn’t have to be the case.

Prior to opening a writing consulting business, I used to write RFP responses for a Fortune 100 company for eight years. I would not have stayed that long if RFPs were that terrible!

However, I understand that responding to an RFP can be stressful for an entrepreneur, especially if they’ve never had to do it before. If you write RFP responses often, or you will need to in the future, let me offer some tips to make the process less stressful.

Read the Documentation Thoroughly

When you finish reading the RFP for the first time, don’t set it down. Read it again for a second time, and document the following information:

  • Submission due date and time
  • Official RFP contact person (i.e. the only person you can speak to during the response period)
  • Submission requirements (e.g. minimum or maximum font size, whether the final version must be hand delivered, electronically submitted and the number of copies required)
  • Signature requirements (e.g. many RFPs require an original signature to be compliant)
  • Special requirements (e.g. the response must be coil bound or cannot exceed 20 pages)

RFPs have a tendency to be very dense documents. Being aware of the submission requirements early in the process will help you see items that you will need to compile or reach out to others to find (e.g. financial statements from your accountant).

I recommend creating a spreadsheet documenting this information, as well as all of the questions you must answer to ensure that you do not miss a requirement.

Follow the Instructions Precisely

The RFP document may explicitly tell you how to structure the response. If it doesn’t, I recommend mirroring the structure of the RFP document itself. Include a title page, table of contents, sections to align with the RFP structure and any required forms or signatures.

If you do not meet a mandatory RFP requirement, your submission can be disqualified. Yes, I have seen this happen before to a former colleague. Due to a communication error, the RFP response was delivered two hours after the deadline.

This is why I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to follow the instructions precisely; this includes asking the RFP contact person for clarifications if you’re unsure of any of the requirements.

How to Make Your RFP Response Stand Out from the Competition

My best advice is to ensure you answer every question fully. Use your spreadsheet to make sure you do not miss a question, and write very clear answers that are easily understood.

In addition to clear responses to every question, remember that your main goal is to convince the reader to select your business. As much as you need to meet all of the RFP requirements, you need to find a way to make your business stand out from others.

I recommend staying away from negative references to your competition; I have rarely seen this tactic work in the corporate world. Taking the high road is much more effective. For a crash course in persuasive RFP writing, read these seven tips.

Once you complete a full draft, print it and read every answer looking for ambiguities. Due to the private and confidential information associated with RFPs, it may be difficult to share a draft with someone outside of your business for review purposes. Use the tips in this article to help you edit your own work.

I enjoyed writing RFP responses because being selected meant positive developments, such as being able to hire more employees to serve a client, greater job security for current employees and the opportunity to expand an area of the business. Seeing the impact a winning RFP had on people was incredibly rewarding.

If the future of your business depends on your ability to write a successful RFP response, I encourage you to start the process early, stay as organized as possible and write clear responses that share what is unique about your business.