How to Write an RFP
Section 1: Scope
This section is equivalent to an executive summary, and should be no longer than one paragraph. You’ll want to very briefly introduce your company and provide a high-level description of the product or service you seek.
Section 2: About the Company
In this section, you should provide the potential vendors with some information about your company. Details such as market sector and core products or competencies, history and key corporate milestones, management, and key customers should be included here. Don’t assume the vendors know who you are or what you do; give them enough information so they can quickly decide whether or not they even want to respond to the RFP. Especially if you are a small or relatively unknown company, use this section to sell yourself a bit. Convince the vendor that they want to do business with you because you are an exciting company. If you can do this, you will get better, more interesting responses and will find that you have more negotiating leverage later.
Section 3: Submission Guidelines and Schedules
You need to provide a potential responder with some nuts-and-bolts details here. If there is any particular response format you require, specify it here (e.g., paper versus electronic submission, or PDF versus RTF formats). Describe precisely how and exactly to whom a responder should submit any requests for clarification; no matter how thorough you are in preparing the RFP, vendors are bound to have questions. Your goal in this section is to make sure that all vendors respond in the same manner and in nearly the same format, which will help you compare the responses once it is time for you and to evaluate them.
Be sure as well to specify any and all deadlines. In addition to the final submission deadlines, provide a deadline for submission of requests for clarification. This date should give you adequate time to respond to such a request, and for the vendors to incorporate responses into their proposal, while still ensuring that such changes can be made in time to meet the final deadline. This timeline can vary drastically based on the complexity of the proposal, and there are often several iterations of requests for clarification on more complicated projects.
Finally, detail your timeline for review and response so that a vendor has a very clear understanding of what they can expect from you after submission. Describe what you anticipate to be the next phase of the selection process, whether it be immediately awarding the contract or creating a short list of vendors for further evaluation. Include your timeline for review, when you would expect to issue your own requests for clarification, and when you would expect to move to the next phase, whatever that phase might be.
Section 4: Contact Information
This section is the most straightforward. Provide all relevant contact information for anybody with whom you might expect a vendor to interact throughout the selection process. This should include the persons to whom requests for clarification should be submitted and the persons to whom the final proposal should be submitted.
The final two sections contain the bulk of your RFP and will vary a bit based on the type of proposal you write. The two sections can briefly be described as "What we know about the problem or what we want" (Section 5), and "What we want to know about you and your solution" (Section 6). The form each section might take is going to vary based on the type of RFP you are issuing—whether for a product or service.
I like to present these sections in short descriptive narratives, as well in an outline form with details so that it is easy to reference specifics and facilitate discussion and revision later. This approach also provides vendors with an easy framework in which to provide their line-by-line responses. These sections are briefly described below, and the example that follows demonstrates how these sections might look in an actual RFP for a software engineering project.
Section 5: Description of Project and Minimal Requirements for Response
In this section, describe what you know about the service or product you seek, and any requirements you have for any vendor that might respond. This should include any key assumptions you have made, descriptions of known interfaces or touchpoints with other projects, vendors, or systems, and descriptions of the work that your company or has done to date.
If there are any minimal requirements of the vendor for participation, describe them here. These tend to be items that you will expect to be common and similar among all of the potential vendors. They take the form of a list of requirements, and are generally statements along the lines of "The qualified vendor must . . . XYZ." Some examples might include certifications you require ("Vendor must be ISO 9001-Certified"), equipment you require of them ("Vendor must have proper test equipment to certify all cabling to EIA/TIA-568 Category 5 performance standards"), or particular skills, training, or certifications you require of the personnel who will work on the project team ("Management team must have at least one member certified Six Sigma Black Belt or better").