Writing a Request for Proposal (RFP) / Request for Information (RFI) is an art. A well written RFP can save you from having to finalize many events with face-to-face negotiations.

As Strategic Sourcing experts with over 20 years’ of experience in the space, we annually conduct thousands of RFPs and speak daily with suppliers across industries and geographies. Here are some of our best practices and tips for how to write an excellent ‘Request For’ and gets your supplier response-rate up:

  1. Define Purpose & Objectives
  2. Find the right balance between a “Copy Paste” & “Clean Sheet” approach
  3. Be strict on what is “Need to know” and what is “Nice to know”
  4. Make a calculated decision about “Open” versus “Closed” questions
  5. Decide how you will evaluate the RFP responses and visualize this to the suppliers
  6. Communicate why the suppliers should put an effort into YOUR RFP
  7. Never restrict the suppliers’ access to help

Define Purpose & Objective(s)

Preparation is key for writing and conducting an RFP. Always ask yourself (and answer) the following questions during the preparation phase:

  • What is the purpose of the RFP?
  • What are the objectives of the RFP?

If you, the buyer, is not able to formulate the purpose and objectives of an RFP in a concise manner, you likely run the risk that the RFP will not provide sufficient or the right information needed in order to make a qualified decision.

The common purpose of an RFP is mostly “To find a supplier of product X for a given time period”. However, objectives can differ greatly depending category strategy, market conditions, etc.

When defining objectives, we always recommend using the ‘SMART Model’:

  • S: Specific
  • M: Measurable
  • A: Accepted
  • R: Realistic (but ambitious)
  • T: Time-bound

Using the ‘SMART Model’ to form objectives makes it much easier to evaluate the information provided by suppliers, and ultimately to make qualified decisions.

Tip 1: Define you Purpose and Objectives using the SMART Model

See more Best Practice Tips for eRFx here

Find the right balance between a “Copy Paste” & “Clean Sheet” approach

You can take one of two approaches when drafting a new RFP. Either do a complete Copy/Paste of previous years’ RFPs, or build it completely from scratch. Finding the right balance between reusing existing templates and sketching completely new RPF templates is not an easy exercise but is one that becomes easier with practice and experience.

As a starting point, it is generally a good idea to reuse existing RFP templates created you or your colleagues, however, always make sure that the copied content fully supports your defined objectives. Anything that is not linked directly to your defined objectives will just become noise in the evaluation phase. And remember the cleaner a template you use, the easier it will become to reuse.

A good approach using template questions for all the standard company information, which is used to evaluate and assess the overall supplier suitability such as:

  • Financial information
  • CSR information
  • General market information

(In an ideal world all supplier (company)-dependent information and not RFP-dependent should be gathered via a Supply Base Management (SBM) system. Only information that varies depending on the event (products) should be requested via the RFP.)

This way, each buyer will not collect the same supplier information every time an RFP is issued, instead you can evaluate this information in a central SBM system, allowing you to focus efforts on collecting and evaluating the RFP dependent information.

Tip 1: Reuse existing questionnaire templates BUT make sure to adjust questions so they align with your defined RFP objectives

Tip 2: Use template questions for any standard company information and create new questions for any RFP dependent questions

Tip 3: Consider collecting the company dependent supplier information using a central Supplier Base Management (SBM) system

Be strict on what is “Need to know” and what is “Nice to know”

The Request for Information (RFI) is a crucial part of the RFP. The RFI is used to gather the information needed before making the analysis and a qualified decision. Therefore, we as buyer have a common tendency to “safe-guard” and ask all the questions we can possibility think of in the RFI. However, when writing the RFI always think: “less is more”.

Any question that cannot be linked directly back your SMART objectives, should be avoided. The extra question will just be time-consuming noise during the evaluation process. When asking too many “nice to know” questions, you run the risk that suppliers will focus too much on these and perhaps spend less energy on the “need to know” questions.

TIP 1: Avoid the ‘nice to know’ questions in the initial RFI – Remember sometimes ‘Less Is More’

To ensure you ask the right questions in the RFI, we recommend drawing a ‘question map’ (see illustration below’, where each RFI question is linked back to the RFP objectives - and the objectives are linked back to the RFP purpose. This way you make sure that no irrelevant questions are asked, and all parties spend their scarce resources on the questions that matter the most in the end.

Tip 2: Draw a question map linking each question to the RFP objective

Open versus Closed RFP Questions

Make a calculated decision about “Open” versus “Closed” questions

Once you have your questions in place it is time to consider which question type is most suitable and effective for collecting the supplier responses. If you ask the right questions the wrong way you might still be left with a lot of noise in the evaluation.

The open question types are EASY to ask because you do not have to consider or formulate actual answer option, but they are HARD to evaluate. In an open question the supplier can respond with a whole essay as response, and then you must filter out all the irrelevant information to find the information you are looking for.

The closed question types on the other hand are HARD to ask, as they require specifications of all answer options, but they are EASY to evaluate. Closed question types make it easy to compare the suppliers’ responses and you can even assign a score to each option, and let the system evaluate the responses for you.

You can argue that in the end, you are likely to spend the same amount of time no matter the question type. It is a matter of when you spend that time: in the preparation phase to formulate the closed questions or in the evaluation phase to evaluate the open questions. However, when asking too many open questions, you run the risk of suppliers might misinterpret, and not provide you with sufficient or correct information for you to evaluate the answer.

As a result, we recommend mainly using closed questions to ensure you get the information you are looking for. Remember, you can always “open” a closed question by allowing comments and/or file upload. This way you can easily evaluate and compare the suppliers’ responses, while still allowing for any additional information that could be of value.

Tip 1: Use a majority of closed questions to make sure you get the exact information needed from suppliers

Tip 2: Use comments and file upload to capture any additional information that could be of value

CASE: Qualification of multiple suppliers across numerous direct materials using RFX

Open versus closed questions in an RFP or RFI

Decide how you will evaluate the RFP response and visualize this to the suppliers

It is important to plan how you intend to evaluate the RFP response already during the RFP preparation phase. If you know how to evaluate the RFP response before conducting the RFP, you are likely more capable to construct the RFP in a way that will “push” the suppliers down the desired road. Additionally, only by determining how to evaluate incoming information, will you be able to fully assess whether all necessary information has been requested.

Example: Do not ask the supplier to write the packaging type per product if you already know you can only accept two specific packaging types. Instead, make a drop-down and give them an option to select only between the two packaging types.

Example 2: If payment terms are especially important to you, then highlight this for the supplier by offering them a list of options: the minimum (e.g. 30 days) will give a neutral score, a better option (e.g. 60 days) will give a 1% price advantage, and the best option (e.g. 90 days) will give a 2% price advantage.

Another recommendation is to show the suppliers your Minimum Requirement (MR) instead of keeping this information hidden. Practically all RFPs contain some MR elements that will disqualify any supplier who cannot fulfill. However, this is not commonly communicated to the suppliers, who might disqualify themselves without even realizing it.

Tip 1: Make sure you know the preferred response to each question

Tip 2: Visualize you preferred answer or Minimum Requirement (MR) for each question

Tell suppliers why they should make an effort to win YOUR RFP

We often take it for granted that suppliers are as excited as we are when issuing an RFP. Why should they not be - this is an opportunity for them to win some business. But we as buyers need to realize that our suppliers also need to assess exactly how big of an opportunity this RFP is for them. They must distribute their scarce resources to their biggest opportunities. The size of an opportunity is not the only factor in play, also chances of winning compared to the required effort is important for a supplier. So, to increase our chances of getting as many qualified responses as possible, we need to make an effort to communicate WHY they suppliers should spend their scarce resources on our RFP.

Here are our recommendations for what to highlight in the RFP introduction:

  1. Who are you as a company, especially if they are not a current supplier?
  2. What is the contract length, and potential value?
  3. What is the process and timeline, especially, when do you expect to award?

The company introduction in an RFP is often a couple of standard lines that do not offer a lot of value. However, a short and concise company intro helps the suppliers to quickly evaluate whether your company matches their target market in relation to industry, size, geography etc. The contract length and potential value can either increase their interest or perhaps even spur new interest if your company is not a usual target for the given supplier.

Finally, being very precise about the upcoming process and timeline, makes it easier for suppliers to assess the amount of resources they must commit to an RFP. For example, make sure to state the potential number of bid rounds, any face-to-face negotiation meetings, and especially inform about when you expect to award. Nothing is more demotivating to a supplier than participating in an RFP with no end date.

Tip 1: Be concise about exact terms, the process and timeline in the RFP introduction

Tip 2: Always state when you expect to award and include the expected end date

Never restrict a supplier’s access to get help

One element which is often overlooked during an RFP is suppliers’ access to get help during an RFP event. Often the suppliers with need help of the following:

  1. Questions related to the RFP itself
  2. Questions/difficulties related to the online eRFP platform where the event is hosted

We NEVER recommend restricting or limiting the access for suppliers to any kind of help during the RFP. Lack of help can cause the suppliers to either not respond, or to make wrong assumptions and ultimately to submit responses that are useless.

For the eRFP related questions, it is common practice to set a Q&A deadline for the suppliers to submit questions. This approach forces suppliers to read the RFP material early to ensure they have a chance to ask any questions before the deadline. The downside of a Q&A deadline is that some suppliers might think that questions are not allowed at all after the deadline (which should never be the case).

It is important to share all RFP related questions and answers across suppliers. A question that is unclear for one supplier is also likely to be unclear for another supplier.

Also, it is important to remember that your suppliers might not be used to working with online RFP platforms and/or they might not be familiar with current platform. For that reason, we recommend setting the bar according to the lowest common denominator. Rather give your suppliers more instructions than not enough. You run the risk that supplier relinquish from submitting their response if they run into too many challenges.

As a minimum, create a short descriptive and instructive text highlighting exactly what the suppliers must do to submit their response. Depending on the size, complexity and importance of the RFP other elements such as attached quick guides, videos, a one-to-all “how to webinar” or the “one-to-one” supplier training could be beneficial methods to ensure that you get the response rate and quality you are aiming for.

Tip 1: Never restrict or limit a supplier’s option to ask questions about the RFP or the event eRFP platform

Tip 2: Consider using Q&A deadlines to ‘force’ suppliers to properly read the RFP before entering the event

Tip 3: Always offer proper instructions for how to submit an eRFP response. Let your eRFP Platform Provider help you provide Quick Guides, How-to-Videos, How-to-Webinars or host supplier training prior to the event

Learn more about Scanmarket Quick Call functionality or supplier trainings.