How to Write an RFP

Create an RFP That Will Get Results

Businessman giving presentation to colleagues in conference room
Caiaimage / Paul Bradbury / Getty Images

A request for proposal, sometimes called an RFP or RFQ for "request for quotation," is a document a company issues when it wants to buy a product and it wants to make its specifications available to the public. This is usually the case when several companies will bid on the work or job and it invites more competitive prices. But your effort might produce bids that are a waste of your time, or worse, no bids at all, if you don't prepare the RFP correctly.

Here's how to go about it for best success.

Difficulty: Average

Time Required: Often takes several days

Here's How:

  1. Do your homework: Figure out what you need, what you want, and what is possible before you begin writing your RFP. Don't issue an RFP for a machine that can produce 1,500 widgets an hour if you've never sold more than 25 a month. There's no point in issuing an RFP for a flying car when a messenger can get through traffic just as fast on a bicycle.
  2. Distinguish between your needs and wants: If you want to purchase an application that can transmit pictures between headquarters and your vans at the job site, you might specify the number of images you need per second, the maximum size of the images you need, and the necessary resolution. Sure, it might be nice to have those images in color, but is that really necessary? If you really require a certain specific, use words like "will," "shall," and "must." This indicates that these are the requirements. Specifications that are merely "wants" should be identified by words like "may," "can," and "optional."
  1. Decide what the winner will look like​: The proposals you get in response to your RFP will differ. Each responding company will have different strengths and weaknesses. Some will focus on lowest cost. Others will gear in on best quality. Still others will offer a complete feature set. Decide up front what you're looking for – the lowest cost, the fastest delivery or some combination of the two.
  1. Organize the document​: Anything you write for business should be given a great deal of thought and should be organized. An outline is a good place to start. At a minimum, you'll need sections for an introduction, requirements, selection criteria, timelines and process. Many of these sections will have subsections. 
  2. Write the introduction​: This is where you'll explain to potential bidders why you're publishing the RFP and what you hope to achieve by doing so. The introduction may also include a summary of the key points from the other sections, including the due date. The introduction of an RFP for an image transmission system might read something like this: "XYZ Company requests proposals for a highly reliable, easy-to-use system capable of transmitting images from the main office to vans anywhere in the metropolitan area. Responsive bids must be received by Monday, March 5, 2007, at 8AM PST."
  3. Explain requirements​: This section is one of the most important and it usually takes the most time. You'll have to specify the size and clarity of the images to be transmitted and the necessary speed. Be specific, but don't tell bidders how you want the work to be accomplished unless that's essential. You might want to break this part up into subsections by system. For example: a) image size and quality b) transmission (which could include both desired speed and any requirements that make the transmission secure) and c) desired options (where you might list color as a desirable option).
  1. Selection criteria​: Here's where you tell bidders how you'll select the winning bid. You can divulge as much or as little as you like. It's a good idea to include a sentence like, "The winning bidder, if any, will be selected solely by the judgment of XYZ Company." Some government RFPs are very specific about selection criteria, but most commercial RFPs are less precise. You might want to create a spreadsheet that awards each bid a certain range of points in each category, then have a team choose the "best" bid from the ones with the top three scores.
  2. Timelines​: This section tells companies who want to bid on your RFP how quickly they must act and how long the process is expected to take. Be reasonable when you set your deadlines. Don't ask for proposals for complex systems then give the bidders just a few days to respond. Give longer time to prepare a bid if your RFP is large, if your desired purchase is complicated, or if you require a more detailed response. This is also where you can tell bidders how long the evaluation process will take, when they'll be notified if they were successful, and how soon they must deliver.
  1. Process: ​Use this section to explain how the process will work, from sending out the RFP to awarding the contract and beginning the work. This section might say, "Bids are due on the date specified in Step 8 above. All bids will be reviewed to make sure they meet all requirements and are responsive. All responsive bids will be scored in X categories (you can name the categories if you wish) and the top three bids will be evaluated by the proposal team to select the winning bidder and an alternate. Negotiations with the winning bidder are expected to result in a contract award within two weeks."
  2. Decide how to send out the RFP​: Most RFPs are mailed out, but they don't have to be. You can send an RFP by email, or you can post it on your company's website. Just be sure to specify the name or number that bidders should use to identify the RFP they're responding to.
  3. Decide who will receive the RFP: You may already have identified the suppliers from whom you want to purchase. Your company may even have a list of acceptable vendors. If not, you can find possible vendors through your professional network, by searching online, or by asking trusted vendors of other materials for their recommendations. Don't limit your list of who receives your RFP to only "large" companies or "established" vendors. You might find better ideas and even better pricing from smaller vendors who are often more interested in winning your business.
  4. Send the RFP.