RFPs from the Edge

22 02 2011

Last month, the one session I attended at the AESP national conference was how to write a better request for proposal (RFP).  It was sort of a forum led by our friends at Tetra Tech.  Essentially, it was full of people like me, for whom a major responsibility is business development and marketing – responding to RFPs.  For a while I sat there like a lump, thinking, eh, just deal with it and quit whining.  Toward the end of the session I started getting fired up.

Here are some guidelines for writing RFPs:

  • If you’ve already decided who you are going to hire but have to go through an RFP process as a formality to keep some government wonk off your back, just issue the RFP with a one-week deadline with an impossible pile of content to gather so it is obvious to everyone who knows anything (i.e., not the clueless wonk), that the RFP is a charade.  I have plenty of opportunity without being duped into writing a proposal for which we have no chance.  And whatever you do in this scenario, don’t extend the deadline because some clueless bidder doesn’t “get it” and asks for an extension.
  • If you are going to extend the deadline, do it days before the deadline passes.  One thing that really smoked my butt last summer was having a deadline extended with about three hours to go for the 5:00 deadline.  This was obviously to accommodate some whining  bidders.  The RFP had been out for weeks.  If a bidder can’t manage their time better than that they deserve no chance at the project.  Is that how you would handle the actual work should you win?  I wrote as much in our proposal on that one, sparing the name calling, however.
  • If you are going to extend the deadline, do it before the original deadline.  That is correct.  We recently submitted a proposal on a Friday, the due date.  We added to the proposal that we had not received the questions (from bidders) and answers (from buyer) for the proposal.  Samples of this Q&A are discussed in You Are So Fired.   As a result of not having the Q&A, we wrote that if there is something we didn’t get from the guy who promised we would get the Q&A, have mercy on us.  The next Tuesday here came the Q&A and an extension to the next Thursday, two days away.  Good grief!  And it had MAJOR implications.  See next bullet…
  • If there is a deadline for completing the actual project, PUT THIS IN THE RFP! (please)  The RFP discussed in the previous bullet was for a quarter million dollars with no project timeline mentioned in the original RFP.  We provided two scenarios: first to complete it by late fall for one price and second to finish early the next year.  In the Q&A provided after the due date, the report was to be completed by June 30.  Nice.  If I had known that I probably wouldn’t have even bid the thing because it’s too aggressive and practically impossible to deliver.  Did I mention this was an ARRA (“stimulus”) project.  Makes sense that it makes no sense.
  • Either provide a very detailed scope of work or budget, or both.  If neither is provided, you have nothing to bid on.  This may sound like a “duh” but some RFPs want innovation and therefore leave the approach wide open, which is ok, but unless the RFP comes from congress, which knows no limit on spending, please give me a number to work with.
  • Know what you are doing.  We were recently teaming with another firm on a proposal for a relatively huge pile of work.  The constraints on cost per project and per unit of savings were about 40% lower than industry standards.  For example, a rule of thumb is that a program should deliver savings for about 1.5 times the energy cost per unit.  They were talking about something more like 0.8 times cost per unit.  C’mon.  This will be a case of hopefully getting the project and then explaining their plan is naive and needs a reality pill.
  • Keep it linear not a convoluted, semi-parallel piece of junk.  Some RFPs have an approach, scope of work, form of proposal, with a total of about 4 separate lists of things to cover.  I want to be sure to cover everything and present it clearly but this gets a little difficult when the format detailed in the RFP is a mess.  It doesn’t flow like I want because the RFP is a heap of junk.
  • Don’t mislead or outright lie about selection criteria.  When I see an RFP from a government entity with a proposal selection process that puts less than 50% scoring on cost, I know nobody put any thought into that.  Sometimes it’s a laughable 20% of the weighting.  It would be a rainy day in hell when a government entity doesn’t select the lowest cost proposal.  Quality and ROI rarely (and I do mean not always) matter to government entities, which is why we skip most of them.  I did fall for the ARRA one above, like a dope.
  • And of our wonderful utility clients, tell the purchasing / sourcing departments we are not designing a power plant, transmission system, or even a measly substation.  We don’t need to carry $20 million in professional liability insurance.  This may be asking for the impossible too, but ask the legal department to be reasonable.
  • Finally, for cry sakes hire the firm / team with the best proposal.  In the past year, we assembled a team to do a study for a regional energy efficiency consortium.  Our team put a lot of thought into the proposal and developed an outstanding approach and work plan.  I knew who our competition would be.  A firm that had done a million of these and they would switch covers on the last report, make some adjustments for the region and tell them what they tell everyone else.  If you kid yourself long enough, you’ll start accepting it as correct.  At some point you have to go to the streets and find out rather than tweak the last edition.  Our approach was to get real data from the ground up.  We lost to the mass-market provider and in the post mortem, the consortium rep couldn’t tell us a single reason why we weren’t selected.  In fact, she only told us how much they liked our proposal, over and over.  Head, meet wall.

Tidbits

I was in Austin, TX last week for my first real visit to the state.  Per my experience, there is no shortage of traffic.  Per the locals, the city likes sprawl.  It features a nice downtown and believe me when I tell you I’ve never seen so many people running in the morning darkness as there were in Austin.  Not in New York, Washington DC, Columbus, Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison, Minneapolis, Denver, Tucson, Phoenix, San Diego, Sacramento, Portland, or Seattle.  The only thing that I’ve experienced that was close was in the hills outside Silicon Valley.  And the Austin dudes are fast.  I was passed by three women in one six miler – four if you count one that pulled out in front of me and pulled away.  Fantastic!  These women were probably in their running prime but I’m not going to whine about my age till I’m at least 60.  But the average high temperature in July/August is 96F, which to me in WI, is a god-awful 4-H day, hazy, hot, humid, heinous.

written by Jeffrey L. Ihnen, P.E., LEED AP

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