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Imagine you are hiring for a new role in your company. A great outcome would be that you found a great person for the job along multiple dimensions.

For what you are able or willing to pay, you were able to hire someone with the right skills, the potential to grow into and through the position, and, most importantly, the personality and maturity to join the team without disrupting its efficacy, instead enhancing its performance.

You didn’t hire the person who came at the lowest cost. You didn’t hire the person with the flashiest presentation, the best smile, or the nicest clothes. You made an offer and someone who could do the job said yes. Maybe there was only one viable candidate, or maybe there were multiple reasonable options from which to choose.

To find this individual, you needed to advertise the role to a tremendous number of people in a way that the ideal candidates would understand the job and the organization and would want to apply.

You had to look in the right place at the right time with the clearest possible description of what you hoped to see.

It’s easy to tell if you have done this badly by how people respond to your job description.

One scenario means that very few people respond, in which case you are much less likely to have cast a net that managed to catch at least one ideal candidate. (You’re confident that the ideal candidate exists.)

Another scenario involves getting many responses, almost all of which are inappropriate. What’s worse is that it is costly for you to wade through this dreck, hoping to find the diamond in the rough.

Perhaps you hire an agent like an executive recruiter to help you find and parse potential hires. That is expensive.

But in the final analysis, it all comes down to how you write the job description. How well you articulate who you are and what you are looking for will determine the quality and the efficiency of your job search.

In the best-case scenario, you receive enough applications to satisfy yourself that you have done an appropriate amount of due diligence, but not so many that you are overwhelmed with the work of having to sift through masses of distracting chaff.

It is no different with an RFP.

How do you write a good RFP? A good RFP event is one in which you get a sufficient number of relevant responses to generate competition. You receive enough submissions so that the marginal benefit of the incremental proposal is equal to the marginal cost of evaluating it, as an economist might say. It attracts competition on price and solution from the most relevant vendors.

How do we write an RFP that can solicit the optimal level of interaction from vendors?

Write in Plain English

Make it easy to understand and simple to answer. You have to help the suppliers give you what you want.

Use one voice. Too often, buyers write by committee with different individuals penning separate sections. Use a committee to draft the sections, if necessary, but ensure that you have one person who is articulate and clear rewrite the entire Statement of Work to give it a consistent tone. This makes for easier reading and reinforces the message you seek to communicate.

Writing in plain English means avoiding jargon. It is too easy to throw in technical terms that the author thinks they understand but may not have the same meaning for different readers.

Label the document so that it matches your desired outcome as closely as possible. When a supplier sees an RFP that appears to be in their domain, they will triage its suitability by reading it. This may take an hour or more of the time of an experienced hand to assess its relevance to their product offerings. Nothing can be more frustrating than spending time reading a proposal after its title promises opportunity only to find that it bore little resemblance to what the buyer intends to purchase.

Describe the Problem You Are Trying to Solve

You are purchasing a good or service to obtain an outcome, typically a solution to a problem that you face. Buying the right product means lower costs or easier execution or new sales, for example.

Start with a description of how this purchase is going to solve the problem.

This will help suppliers tailor their response to your specific needs and you may be surprised by the kinds of solution that you see in their proposals.

Do Not Tell Them What to Do

Tell them what the desired end state looks like.

For example, consider the City of New York. They may issue an RFP for a new fleet of snow trucks in which they describe what a snow truck looks like in detail. It has four wheels. It has a plough in the front. It has the ability to carry x cubic meters of snow, etc.

Instead, if the City of New York described the problem differently, they might widen the aperture of ideas vendors suggest. If the City noted that they currently clear the streets after large snowfalls using a fleet of dedicated snow trucks but wasopen to seeing what the latest snow truck technology was or even to alternatives to clearing the snow themselves, we could imagine someone proposing to clear the streets of snow as a service. If they offer to do it for a fixed cost, they will have bundled in weather insurance so that the City can budget with certainty.

Encourage creativity.

Do Your Own Homework

Do market research to understand how other people think of the problem.

If you can hire a consultant, that’s great. But don’t let them restrict how you think about the gamut of possible solutions.

If you have access to a database of prior RFPs and responses, consult them to understand what matters in this vertical category. Ideally, you can find similar RFPs from public sector entities to see how they articulated the problem and to garner intelligence about the marketplace. Find other buyers of the targeted good or service, whether they are from your industry or not, and ask for their opinions about how to specify your Statement of Work and who the players are in the category.

Avoid visiting supplier websites. Too many of them have tools for detecting your presence, some of which can be sophisticated enough to alert them of your identity (and, most significantly, of your intention to purchase). Every supplier who figures out you are in the market will hound you in a race to “shape” the Statement of Work in such a way that confers unique advantage on them at the expense of their competitors.

If you write an RFP that you have permitted a supplier to “shape” (the dreaded so-called “wired” RFP), then others will not bother to respond. It converts the entire exercise into a pro forma exercise in compliance that distorts the spirit of the business process.

Be Clear about the Obstacles

Suppliers want to know the context. The last thing you want to do is conceal the actual situation from them, only for them to discover the truth and impose multiple change fees down the road.

It may also be the case that suppliers who understand what you’re up against can offer novel approaches.

Everything Else Is Just Form

Of course, it’s necessary to talk about how they can respond, when they can ask questions, what media you will accept, etc.

That’s not what gets the right suppliers to respond. Those are just table stakes.

We built EdgeworthBox to give you the tools to be able to write the kind of RFPs that get you the outcomes you want. We have vendor onboarding tools to simplify and accelerate the process so that buyers can solicit any supplier, confident that they can vet their risk in an expedited fashion. That is, buyers don’t have to restrict themselves to sending their RFPs to suppliers with which they have an existing relationship.

We have repositories of structured data related to live RFPs, historic RFPs, and historic contracts so that buyers and suppliers can organize and execute market research on a limited budget. And we connect buyers to other buyers, suppliers to other suppliers, and buyers and suppliers to one another for relationship building and even more intelligence gathering.

Come check us out. We’d love to talk.

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