9 Tips for Writing and Delivering an RFP

Updated: April 30, 2009

Buying new technology can be a confusing experience when a business relies solely on the conflicting advice of vendors and system integrators . Each vendor and integrator has its own strengths and weaknesses and will tailor its sales pitch accordingly. If your company does not take control of the customer/vendor dialogue, it risks getting stuck with the wrong solution to the problem at hand.

The RFP (Request for Proposal) is your company's steering wheel throughout the technology-purchase process. An RFP is a document that defines the relationship that your company wants with vendors, tells them what they need to know in order to propose a pertinent solution, and specifies how the solution should be delivered. Here are some tips for writing and delivering an RFP that can keep your business in the driver's seat.

1. Define the project. It is essential for vendors to understand the business case for the proposed project; that is, what value your company hopes that the new technology will add. You should describe your company and how it came upon the desired solution. Also, explain the deliverables that your company expects from the vendor.

2. Break out technical requirements. There are functional requirements, which directly support the business objectives of a project. Then there are nonfunctional requirements, which define or describe how the system should behave or what is required to keep the system running securely and reliably. Nonfunctional requirements include such items as failover, clustering, roll-up reporting and so on. Lastly, there are technical- architecture requirements, including concerns like server OSes, switching and routing needs, backup solutions, and so on.

3. Prioritize the requirements. Assign a high numeric priority to must-have requirements, a lower priority to supporting requirements and an even lower priority to "nice-to-have" requirements. This will help your company evaluate proposals on an objective basis. For example, "must process 5,000 emails per hour" might be a three, "must integrate with Outlook" could be a two and "should log files" might be a one.

4. Put the burden of answers on vendors. Every RFP should have a section of questions for vendors. Ask them to explain how their products will meet the RFP's requirements. Ask about necessary support infrastructure and technical architecture. Be very specific in your requests for information, or you will get back mostly marketing hype. Request cost quotes for each phase of the deployment, as well as a description of the final deployment.

Of course, you should ask about the vendors' track record with similar projects. Also, a vendor's longevity in business and financial stability are fair game. Ask vendors for their sales figures, funding sources and cash reserves. Additionally, you may want to ask vendors for previous clients' contact information so that you can check their references.

5. Give vendors a deadline for responses. Set reasonable deadlines based on the project's complexity, your company's time line for completing the project and how busy the vendors are. But always set a cutoff date.

6. Decide what criteria are most important. Some proposals will emphasize lowest cost, while others will underscore performance, scalability or some other aspect of the RFP's requirements. You should know in advance what criteria are most important to your company and how much weight to give them when evaluating proposals.

7. Organize the RFP logically. The RFP should be organized into sections. Start with an introduction that describes your company, the environment in which the project will be conducted and the goal that must be met. The requirements section follows the introduction and spells out what the desired solution should do. The selection-criteria section tells the vendors as much (or as little) as your company wishes about how a final selection will be made. (It is best to keep this section a little vague.) The time-lines section tells responding vendors how fast they must act and how long they have to submit a proposal. It also specifies how long your organization will take to evaluate proposals and notify all parties of the final decision, as well as how much time the winner will have to deliver the goods.

8. Decide which vendors will receive a RFP. You may already have a list of approved vendors. If not, start networking with your business contacts to develop a list of possibly qualified vendors. Be sure to include some smaller, younger firms, as well as recognized, established vendors. The most innovative and cost-effective solution may come from an upstart.

9. Decide how to send the RFP. Many companies deliver RFPs via old-fashioned mail. But you can also email an RFP or post it on your company's Web site as a downloadable PDF. Be sure to specify a title or number that vendors can use to reference the RFP in question.

Companies should put much thought and effort into crafting an RFP before they send it to vendors. The more time your business spends on defining its needs and explaining them to vendors, the less time it will spend wading through irrelevant responses or tweaking the project once it is underway.

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