How to Write an RFP

How to Write a Request for Proposals for Leadership Consulting Services

Suggestions from the CDRI consulting team 

1) First, when not to write an RFP: If you are already leaning strongly to hiring a specific consulting firm, please don’t issue an RFP. Just ask that consultant to write a proposal and, if it’s what you wanted, figure out how to hire them directly. Please don’t ask other consultants to invest the time to write proposals for which there isn’t an even chance of success.

2) Second, if it’s a choice between a handful of known consultants, call them (or meet with them one-on-one), discuss the project, and ask them to send a proposal. Writing an RFP takes your time and you don’t need to spend it if you really are planning to pick between a few known consultants. Instead, just call and tell them what you are looking for and ask them to put together a proposal. They will ask you all the clarifying questions necessary to put together a good proposal that will meet your needs (if they don’t, they aren’t who you want to hire anyway). Then, either pick from the best proposal or interview the leading candidates further.

3) If you write an RFP, in the scope of work description, focus on the result you want, not the micro steps you expect it will require.  The best RFPs refrain from outlining the exact scope of work and focus instead on the result or impact desired. For example, don’t try to write the survey questions you want asked or specify the number of meetings or step-by-step schedule you require to be held for planning. Outline, instead, the decisions that need to be made as a result of the work and explain what it is that you don’t know that you would like to find out or become skilled in. You might also identify key requirements for success/failure avoidance (e.g. specify that a given stakeholder group will need to be involved or that completion is necessary by a given date in order to coordinate with other events anticipated). Good consultants are experts in a range of tools and approaches and you want to put them to work in the proposal recommending an approach that best fits. If it’s a strategic plan, for example, you might ask the consultant for development of a plan, and an approach to planning, done in partnership with the agency that will leave the agency substantially stronger in its ability to achieve various broad goals (e.g. innovate, support employees, prepare for anticipated demographic changes, etc.) and/or help the agency break various specific log jams.

However, while you do not have to be specific, do evaluate proposals based on whether the consultant is very specific about exactly what they will do for you — make them tell you the scope of work and if it isn’t understandable and specific enough to your liking, don’t hire them.

4) If possible, disclose an upper limit on the budget or give a range.  In the RFP, state the amount of the available funds for the project — or at least a very rough ballpark. This allows for an apples-to-apples comparison — instead of trying to compare proposals with a very wide range of budget figures, the proposals will all try to provide what the consultants view as the best approach within or below the budget. Then compare quality of scope-of-work and anticipated outcomes to make your decision. Assuming the budget isn’t too low to configure a way to provide a reasonable product, this approach may also attract more qualified consultants.

5) Think twice about holding a "pre-proposal" conference. These meetings are a great way to make lawyers feel comfy that you are treating everyone the same but are otherwise rarely a good use of time. Here is the question we often want to ask, "We'd like to suggest a somewhat modified approach from the literal steps outlined in the RFP that would have XYZ elements. Does that sound like it is something we should spend our time writing up or is that not the kind of thing you are looking for?" Think we are going to ask that in front of our competitors? Not likely. Remember: This is a competitive bid situation. Smart consultants will often not ask some of the more important questions in these environments anymore than we would send out copies of our proposals and budgets to our competitors in advance.  This leaves us having to make educated guesses about the answers and then deciding whether it is worth the time to write a proposal in that context.  The same reasoning applies to written question periods where questioners all know that both the question and the answer are going to be distributed to everyone who is considering proposing.

Instead, give proposers a way to call in, write, or meet, briefly, to ask questions one-on-one. Of course, give similar answers to similar questions, but don't share the answers with anyone who doesn't ask the question. That way, you'll get better questions, and skilled consultants (the type you want to hire) will gain the information they need to offer better approaches and better proposals, which is definitely in your best interests.

6) Interview the finalists. Sure, we’d like you to just pick us over other proposers without even picking up the phone, but it isn’t always the best way to make the choice now that you have gone to all the work of issuing an RFP. If there is only one good candidate team, pick them. But if you have two or three, meet them. Even in the Internet age, schedule face-to-face meetings with finalists or, at minimum, hold conference calls. You will want to work with consultants who are not only experts in their field, but who can demonstrate an ability to listen well, respect your point of view and challenge you to consider new approaches in a collaborative manner. Ask them lots of questions; test their willingness to be flexible; and answer their questions (they should definitely have some). Then decide.

7) Finally, if you want CDRI to propose, tells us that. In our effort to focus on helping clients who are genuinely interested in a constructive give-and-take between their innovative leaders and a savvy consulting team, we have all but stopped the practice of responding to blind RFPs (those we become aware of only through mass e-mailings or listings in trade publications). Unless we get a phone call, we are likely to assume that either a) Someone else is already preferred or b) The work requested, however described, is generic, routine, or otherwise does not represent an engaged leadership priority. That is why, if you are interested in real, positive change and would like us to submit a response to your RFP, the best way to ensure that happens is to call us up and say so.