The length of a request for proposals (RFP) document can vary, from 20 pages to 300 pages; however, a significant amount of that information isn’t relevant to your writing process.

When I receive an RFP, I start by reading the entire document uninterrupted, which allows me to more easily refer back to other sections if needed as I review. I allocate a significant block of time to this process. Shutting yourself up in an empty office or conference room, if you can find one, is the best environment. Reducing as many distractions during this review will help you maintain your concentration and not overlook any important information. I’ve also found reading while standing can help me stay focused.

I prefer to read the document in its entirety before discussing it with anyone else so when meetings do occur, I have a general idea about the request and will be able to have a more informed discussion. If you are brought into a meeting without at least a general knowledge of the RFP, you will look unprepared, even if that isn’t true. While various departments will be involved in creating the response, they will only be responsible for specific sections. Aside from the sales lead assigned to the RFP, you will be the person who is expected to know the most about the overall request, so give yourself enough time to become fully familiar with the document.

I prefer to review an RFP using a printed version, which isn’t as environmentally friendly as I would like, but I have a hard time being organized and referring to other sections when viewing the RFP on a screen. I start the review with several highlighters. The number of colors needed varies based on the RFP. As I review, I’ll use a different color to identify the department responsible. As an example:

  • If a section is specific to my responsibilities, such as writing the letter of intent or the format required for the proposal, I’ll highlight that content in blue.
  • If a section contains information the legal team needs to review, such as contract requirements or if certain organizational certifications are needed, I’ll highlight that content in green.
  • If a section contains information that the financial team needs to review, such as data on pricing methodologies that must be followed, I’ll highlight that content in yellow.
  • If a section isn’t important to the proposal, such as an overview of the requestor’s company history or an outline of the decision-making process, I don’t highlight that content.

By highlighting only the relevant information, I can reduce the amount of time I need to spend reviewing the proposal in the future. Also, once I inform the various teams of the content they need to review, I can ignore those colors as well.

While some sections may seem irrelevant, such as the organization’s overview or their reason for requesting products or services, don’t simply glance over that content. Sometimes there is important information included that you may overlook. As an example, I knew of a company that lost a proposal opportunity because the writer missed the requirement that the letter of intent had to be submitted with the RFP number included on the outside of the envelope.

Highlighting is specific to proposal requirements, not the questions that will be answered about the products or services, which will be the bulk of the proposal. I organize those questions in a different manner when the time comes to populate the proposal with existing information from previous proposals or content from the proposal database. I then compile the questions I don’t have answers for and send those to my department contacts for responses. I’ll discuss that process in a later post.

During the initial review, I also write all of the important dates on the front of my printed copy so they are always available to me without needing to search for that information in the document. These dates may include the:

  • Deadline for submitting the letter of intent
  • Deadline for submitting questions
  • Date the responses to questions will be available
  • Deadline for the proposal submission
  • Date of the award

There may be other dates included, such as the in-person presentation date, contract signing date, and contract start date, but those aren’t important to me, so I don’t include that information on the cover. I’m only concerned with what information I need to create the proposal. This helps me focus on the actual work that needs to be performed.  

Concerning the due date, I will note the actual date and then create my own due date, which is the date I use when requesting content from internal resources. This date includes padding for the time needed to finalize the response, review the document with management, and then print and ship it. Ideally, you should allow several days for shipping in case of carrier delays; however, almost all of my proposals have been shipped the night before the due date to arrive the next morning. I always start optimistically, but it rarely pays off. 

In upcoming posts, I’ll continue to discuss my proposal creation process so you can streamline your approach to proposal writing.