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May 27, 2013 How To

Write an RFP that solicits lively and relevant responses

Are you tired of deadly answers to your requests for proposals? Give your RFPs new life by avoiding questions no one will answer truthfully and asking questions that will get real-life answers.

The key is avoiding zombie text — the proposal questions that appear in RFPs over and over. Zombie text is not unique to one industry and can't be blamed solely on an RFP template that multiplied like unsupervised lab mice. Thankfully, there are safe methods for putting more life into your requests for proposals and getting better, more useful results.

Here are seven tips to help you write the best RFP for your organization (and kill the zombie text):

1. Step away from the template

Using a generic RFP gets you generic responses. If you're not sure what to ask, go to the people in your organization who will use the service or will be on the ground for the engagement. What do they like? What is the biggest headache? Use the template as a guide, but modify it to reflect your own requirements.

2. Identify what’s important to you

Know which skills or experiences suit your engagement. If your finance department values a consistent team of auditors and tax people every year, make sure your RFP mentions consistency. Depending on the technical nature of the service (such as selecting a new computer system), consider getting outside help writing an RFP that asks the right technical questions, anticipates implementation challenges and evaluates skill sets. Consultants, including ours, are available to help you do this well.

3. Be clear

What are you trying to assess with a particular question? If you want to know how a firm handles conflict with a client, then ask that question. I've seen too many proposals where the question skirts around the issue. Tip: The names of disgruntled clients are not likely to be included in the proposal no matter what you ask. Inquiring how a firm handles a disagreement will shed far more light on the issue than asking for former recent clients.

4. Make yourself available

For many, a serious RFP response includes scheduling a phone call or meeting to scope an engagement. Some companies say they don't want to provide anyone with an advantage. Unless you're a government agency, why not? Someone who takes time to learn more about your particular needs may be a better candidate for your engagement.

5. Let the experts shine in their own way

You will learn more about a firm if you allow latitude in how the firm responds to your RFP. Leave the RFP structure broad enough that each firm can write a proposal that reflects its strengths in style and substance. Ask where and how they would add value for you rather than asking how a firm is different from others.

6. Explain how you will evaluate the proposals

Why make people guess? As part of the RFP, note who in your organization will be reviewing the proposals (not their names necessarily, just general roles). Then state your priorities. Is the tax-planning component more important than the audit? Is the website development more critical than the creative development? Being a good guesser doesn't correlate with how well a firm can meet your needs.

7. If you don’t already, ask for electronic responses

This allows a firm to use techniques that could flesh out your understanding of what they do. Links to a webinar, presentation or video from the firm can be included in a PDF more easily than in a paper version.

A good RFP will attract better applicants. The process of writing your RFP offers an opportunity to talk to people at all levels of your organization to identify your current and future needs. By getting more people involved in the process, you're more likely to raise the real questions and let go of the dead ones.

Cheryl Bascomb is the marketing and business development director for BerryDunn, a regional CPA and consulting firm based in Portland. She can be reached at

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