Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The idea of more profitable work is an alluring one for most anyone, so a phone call confirming an invitation for participation in an RFP should be something to make anyone happy. As it happens, however, a lot of people don’t like getting an RFP. A lot of people hate it. Given that they are very often the gateway to a new, potentially prosperous business opportunity, it’s strange that there is so much animosity towards these documents. The animosity likely stems from the fact that so many are assembled terribly. So let’s look at common issues with RFP’s and how to resolve them.


By now, everyone is familiar with the story of a mid-‘80s Van Halen lineup freaking out over brown M&Ms in their dressing room when their appearance contract specifically forbade them. The story is that the brown M&M’s provision was included as a quick way to see if the rest of the contract’s provisions were honored. Sort of a “gotcha” provision because they were dealing with different venues, contractors, and managers every night, some of whom might not want to do what’s required.

Thankfully, supplier selection is not like the mid-‘80s metal scene – if only for the lack of hairspray and Spandex – but also because all parties involved are professionals. An RFP with needlessly tedious requirements (e.g. submit one original proposal, 10 copies of the proposal, all mailed in separate three-ring binders plus seven digital copies enclosed on a 100MB Zip disk) or ultra-specific requests that don’t concern to the project involved (e.g. list three previous clients in the grape soda packaging industry when you’re evaluating TEM products that are in no way related to your soda business) read to the supplier as trivial. Including them under the guise of “We want to see which suppliers can actually follow instructions” indicates a lack of trust from the beginning and can create a sour start to any relationship.

Obtuse Formatting

When drafting your RFP, it’s important to remember what it’s actually meant to do and make sure the format follows suit. Your RFP can be a true request for a proposal or it can be the basis of a proposal itself. In the first instance, it should clearly outline what is needed in the proposal and provide at least a tentative Scope of Work in order to give respondents an idea of how they should respond. In the latter case, you’re actually providing questions to the suppliers, with their answers forming a sort of proposal. In either case, the answers are going to be evaluated at the same time upon submission.

Consider how your RFP is going to be read by the supplier, and used by those evaluating the responses, when drafting. Does your RFP include forms you would like included in the suppliers’ response? Don’t send it out as a PDF then. They require very expensive software to return them to Word/text format and the alternative, scanning, takes a lot of effort and never looks right. Is the RFP a series of short answer questions? Excel, or some other spreadsheet program, is likely the best way to present those questions. Presenting questions in a spreadsheet gives the responding supplier an easy way to track their answers, and those evaluating the answers an easy way to scorecard quickly. Spreadsheet-based RFPs requiring lengthy answers will annoy everyone involved due to spreadsheet programs limited abilities to wrap and format text across multiple lines.

Short version: If there are a lot of questions with short answers, Excel great. In all other cases, Word is likely the friendliest solution.

On the subject of RFPs, there’s one final way to ensure your potential suppliers get an RFP that’s not infuriating and actually identifies what you need: Make Your Own. 

The old adage goes “Never ask a barber if you need a haircut” – the implication being that a person in the trade of selling services is probably not looking out for your best interest – is definitely in play here. Having a service or product supplier prepare an RFP for you to identify services or products that they themselves offer is a recipe for a biased RFP.

To get the best results from an RFP and identify suppliers properly, a thorough audit of your organization’s processes should be conducted and a needs analysis performed to determine what type product or service your company actually needs. Having a person or company with a product in the market tell you what you need is a sure-fire way to learn you need their solution and only their solution will do.

Finally, did you know Source One wrote a book with entire chapters dedicated to optimizing RFPs?
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Nicholas Hamner

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