What Consultants Wished You Knew About the RFP Process

One of my least favorite parts of being a consultant is business development. I love getting calls or emails from people who are interested in our services because 1) I know we’re developing a reputation for good, professional work that truly helps communities; and 2) It may be a piece of business we don’t have to respond to a Request for Proposal (RFP) for. Now, we’ve been really fortunate and have won some really great projects and made some good friends (both clients and strategic partners) through RFPs. As someone who spent a decade in state government prior to being a consultant, I totally understand the need and requirement of going out to bid. If you work in a public or larger non-profit organization there are likely strict rules in place and boilerplate language that must be used. But after five years of being on this side of the fence and putting together a string of proposals the last few months in particular, I’ve come up with a list of things I wish I would’ve known or thought more about when I was in government. Some of these may be more related to our fields but feel these are pretty universal thoughts from myself and fellow consultants.

Terminology- I think this is one of the most low-key areas that undermine the RFP process. What do I mean by it? I mean terms your industry uses may not be universal. Let’s use an example. Let’s say community issues an RFP for a “strategic plan.” Now as a consultant, I know what a strategic plan is. We do them all the time. But locals may confuse the term with something else they mean. For us, a strategic plan is typically an organizational document that spells out what the organizations mission and vision, what its challenges are, determine its goals and objectives, and develop a plan to address these, generally speaking. What we’ve seen are several RFPs where this type of strategic plan is combined with a fundraising plan, capital improvements plan, market analysis, and basic sub-area plan. Both are strategic in nature and both can be technically correct. One is just a whole lot more complex than the other. But if the local director asks their peers, “What did you pay for a strategic plan?” They may be talking about two entirely different things. As issuers, please realize whatever you call your project may be different from what other people call it and base it on what specifically you’re asking for.

Timeline- Maybe you know this, but the sweet spot for the timing of an RFP is about a month. If it’s something much shorter, like two weeks, we assume you already have a consultant identified and you’re just going through the motions to satisfy whatever purchasing criteria you have, and we won’t bother submitting a proposal.

Page Limits- I know some consultants will disagree with me on this, but I secretly love page limits. We consultants can sometimes go on and on about ourselves, our work, and how we would approach your project. Having sat on the other side of the table, I hated getting super thick proposals that looked like books. Forcing us to get to the point and be compelling in 24-32 pages helps focus the conversation.

Digital Submissions > Mailed Submissions- Prior to COVID, we submitted one digital proposal in five years. Since COVID, all submittals have been digital. This is a trend I am hugely on board with. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good, printed proposal. I’ve taken pictures of the end product before because they looked so good. But to be honest, they’re expensive and wasteful. The more copies you request, the more expensive it is for the consultant to produce and mail. Yes, I know it’s a cost of doing business, but what do you do with all of those proposals when you’re done? You throw them out or hopefully recycle them. Keeping proposals in a digital format keeps costs down for us and is better for the environment.

Feedback- No one wants to hear they didn’t get a bid. But providing constructive feedback certainly helps cushion the blow. As I mentioned earlier, proposals are time consuming and can be expensive. We’d at least like to hear either what we didn’t do right or what other folks did better.

Budget- I left the biggest for last. I know this is immediately polarizing with people on the RFP side feeling strongly both ways in terms of revealing a budget or not. When I was in government, I at one time was on the side of not wanting to reveal the budget. Then I went out for RFP. It was for a technical assistance program and we received more than 20 responses. Unfortunately, the best three were twice our budget. Had we just been up front about the budget, we wouldn’t have wasted their time or ours. From that day on, I became convinced in revealing the budget. Now on the consultant side of the table I am even more firm in that belief. Not that we are solely concerned about how much a project pays, but after reading the RFP, understanding how much the client has set aside for it also tells us the level of understanding or expectations of the project. Sometimes terminology is inconsistent (see above), so budget is often one of the orienting factors for level of anticipated effort and complexity. As an example, a client had started a conversation a few years ago with us about a small project to try to get an idea on what they should budget. They came back almost a year later with an RFP with what we talked about plus a few more things. My initial thought was the budget would be in the neighborhood of what we had talked about. After revealing what the budget actually was (four times higher) we were able to go from a small team to a much larger one providing everything they wanted and more. The result was an incredible project they were thrilled with and we were proud to work on.

I know the biggest counter to revealing is something along the lines of “But if they know the budget, how do you know you’re getting the best deal?” This is a fair argument. The problem with this approach is if you’ve budgeted a certain amount and don’t tell consultants what it is, a consultant is forced to do one of two things: 1) Give you the best (i.e., most expensive) option possible or 2) Guess your budget but possibly not give you everything you should get (that you may not know to ask for.) And if you happen to hit the jackpot, good for you. But more times than not, you’re better off revealing the budget and let consultants tell you what they can do for that amount. Numerous times, we’ve been able to offer additional benefits and services the client hadn’t even considered. Let consultants compete on the value they can provide for the budget.

As consultants, we understand the RFP process is necessary. It can also be helpful to make you aware of service providers you might not have known about otherwise. But if you take the above to heart, you will likely receive more and better proposals.

Joe Borgstrom is a principal with Place + Main Advisors, LLC. Place + Main specializes in Place-Driven Economic Development + Destination Storytelling