How to use an RFP outline to speed up your process

Written by
Wendy Gittleson
Wendy Gittleson
Updated on
  9 min read

As procurement professionals embrace strategic sourcing to find the perfect partners, RFPs become longer and more detailed. Luckily, using an RFP outline can help manage the increasing complexity. Used as a tool for requirements gathering and a framework for RFP creation, the outline ensures the RFP is thorough and complete before it is issued to potential vendors. Consequently, it’s an important part of an efficient and effective RFP process.

This blog explores everything you need to know to build and use an RFP outline. To begin, we’ll lay the foundation by defining what an RFP outline is and why it is helpful. Next, we’ll take a detailed look at many of the RFP sections you should consider including in your outline. Finally, we’ll offer tips for creating a useful RFP outline.

What is an RFP outline?

An RFP outline is a guiding document created and used by procurement professionals to aid RFP planning and drafting. Typically, an RFP outline contains a simplified list of information that will be included in the final RFP. For example, the outline may contain notes about the project background, important RFP sections to include and additional documents needed.

Why should you use an RFP outline?

Like most organizational tools, the goal of an RFP outline is to help proposal managers be more efficient and consistent. Indeed, having an easily consumable overview of your complex RFP improves the RFP process in several ways.

Explore how to issue an RFP in more detail in this ebook: The RFP process ebook.

Gain internal stakeholder buy-in

When undertaking procurement projects on behalf of internal teams, it’s important to gather input from stakeholders. During the RFP requirements discovery process, you’ll discuss the challenges, needs and goals for the project. Frankly, it’s often a flood of information. Unfortunately, some of it may get lost in translation. By starting your writing process with an RFP outline, you can engage with stakeholders to verify your plan is headed in the right direction and matches their expectations ⁠— before you dedicate hours to writing the RFP.

Fortunately, the brevity of the RFP outline ensures that this is a quick process. You can quickly socialize the plan, identify potential gaps and ask for feedback, without bogging stakeholders down by asking them to review the full RFP. Put simply, an RFP outline keeps stakeholders confident and in the loop while also reassuring them that you’re making progress and a solution is on the horizon.

Use your outline as an RFP checklist

It’s understandably tempting to jump right into writing an RFP. After all, you’re trying to save time and move quickly. However, when you begin writing without a proper RFP outline, you may accidentally omit a section or important question ⁠— even if you’re using an established RFP template.

Unfortunately, missing information often isn’t identified until you bring your stakeholders back in to begin the RFP scoring process. If you find yourself in this position, you’re left with two bad options. You can send the additional questions to vendors and extend the RFP process ⁠— increasing the total cost of procurement. Alternatively, you can stick to your original RFP timeline and proceed without the information, which may lead to making the wrong vendor selection decision.

Improve the structure of your RFP for responding vendors

Thorough, thoughtful proposals start with thorough, thoughtful RFPs. Your prospective vendors want their proposal to tell an engaging story. To do that, the RFP must follow a logical order. So, before you begin building your RFP, use an RFP outline to map the flow of information. In addition, seeing the full RFP document in an outline format will help you identify and eliminate any duplicate or similar questions.

RFP sections to include in your outline

Think of your RFP outline as a map. Not only should it help define what it will contain, but it also helps you decide the order of sections.

To begin, use the three primary sections of your RFP as the headers in your outline: project information, RFP sections and additional documentation. Next, you’ll fill out the outline with the items you’d like to include in your RFP. Finally, add sub-items that note specific information to include.

Here you’ll find a list of many of the most common sections that fall under each header. Naturally, you won’t need every section for every RFP outline, but these will give you a good starting point.

Project information

This section of your RFP outline focuses on all of the information about your company that helps vendors create a customized solution.

Company information

Start your RFP by introducing your company. Generally, most of this information will be boilerplate. However, helpful background information will look different from one RFP to the next. For instance, it would be helpful to include office locations in an RFP for insurance, however, that information wouldn’t likely be necessary for a cloud-based software RFP for a single department. Alternatively, including your website information and social media links might be important for a marketing RFP, but probably not useful for a healthcare RFP.

Consider including:

      • Industry
      • History
      • Office locations and headcounts
      • Mission, vision and values
      • Links to website, news and social media channels

Primary contact information

Include the person that the responder should reach out to with follow-up questions. Additionally, be sure to specify who the RFP submission should be addressed to in this section.

Project background

In this RFP section, provide as much information as possible about the project. Covering who, what, when, where and why is always a good start.

Consider including:

      • Internal team seeking the solution
      • What is the problem to be solved
      • Statement of need
      • Gap in the current process
      • Motivators for purchase
      • Timeline for solution

Goals and objectives

What do you want to achieve? Share those outcomes in this section. If possible, make your goals concrete and quantifiable. For instance, if you issue a web design RFP, your goal isn’t to have a new website, it’s probably deeper than that. Instead state your end goal more specifically ⁠— to increase the health of your website, decrease load speed and improve time on page.

Project deliverables

This section of the RFP outline specifies how you plan to meet your goal or overcome the challenge. Remember, it’s important to be specific. What do you expect the vendor to deliver?

Consider including:

      • Scope of work details
      • Desired specifications
      • Technical requirements

Budget

If you have established a firm budget for the project, share it with your potential vendors. However, if your budget is flexible, it may be better to omit this section.

RFP timeline

How long will the project take? What are the major deadlines? As with other elements of the RFP process, provide as much detail as possible.

Consider including:

      • Issued date
      • Question and answer period
      • Responses to questions and answers
      • Proposal deadline
      • Evaluation period
      • Short list announced
      • Oral presentations or demonstrations
      • Final evaluation
      • Final winner announced

Minimum requirements

Do you have a few baseline requirements that are deal breakers? Share those here. Often, they may include implementation timeline, financial or experience requirements.

Scoring and selection criteria

If you’re tired of getting RFP responses that focus on the wrong things or are incomplete, you may want to spend some time on this section of your RFP outline. Indeed, this RFP section guides vendors as they create responses. It enables them to spend more time focusing on the elements that are most important to you. This is particularly important for teams who use weighted scoring to compare vendors.

Submission instructions

It’s your RFP, so you get to decide how you want the vendors to present their information. Consider how formatting impacts your ability to evaluate proposals and make your preferences known. Love comic sans? Go ahead and make it a requirement. Remember, your RFP, your rules.

Consider including:

      • Page limit
      • Formatting (Font, margins, spacing, etc.)
      • Design element guidelines

RFP sections and questions

Generally, this section of your RFP outline will be the longest. Indeed, this is where you put all of your questions. It enables you to gather the information and details that will help you select the right supplier.

Vendor information

    • Company name and location
    • History
    • Mission, vision and values

Product or service information

    • Overview of solution
    • Features and functionality
    • Roadmap and future plans

Qualifications

    • Previous experience
    • Customers with similar use cases
    • Key staff members
    • Sub-contractors and consultants
    • Sample work
    • ROI figures

Customers

    • Number of customers
    • General demographics
    • Industries and field
    • Customer references

Competitors

    • Top three competitors
    • Primary differentiators

Pricing

    • Proposed solution pricing
    • Pricing table
    • Growth pricing

Customer success policies

    • Onboarding timeline
    • Implementation process
    • Customer success approach
    • Enablement resources
    • Ongoing, post-deployment support

IT

    • Available integrations
    • Data hosting and security
    • Uptime, update frequency

Company values and HR

    • Diversity and sustainability policies
    • Headcount and employee retention
    • Pending employee litigation

Financial information

    • Ownership information
    • Quarterly financial records

Legal

    • Confidentiality
    • NDA requirements
    • Standard terms and conditions

Additional documentation

In this section of the RFP outline, simply make note of which documents you plan to include. In addition, list the documents you wish to see from the vendor. For example, you may include an NDA and you may want them to send back their onboarding materials.

5 quick tips for getting started: How to outline an RFP

1. Brainstorm needs

Hold a working session with any affected stakeholders. Prompt discussion by asking for details about the challenges, current process, goals and ideal solution. As you discuss, try to write down each piece of feedback.

2. Categorize and consolidate output

After you hold your brainstorming session, you’re ready to start working on your RFP outline. Using the sections above to guide you, categorize each piece of information, suggestion or consideration. Now, review the sections and look for themes. Use the themes you identify to fill out the sections of your RFP outline.

3. Prioritize your requirements

Once you’ve categorized and consolidated your raw stakeholder input, it’s time to organize. Move the RFP sections around so their order makes sense. Most RFPs begin with sections that contain simple questions. Then, they move into more specialized sections with detailed, technical questions.

Next, organize the questions in each section. Ideally, try to group questions by theme and place them in order of importance. This helps the vendor understand where to focus their time and makes navigating proposal evaluation a little easier.

4. Consider a multi-tier process

If you’ve issued more than one RFP, you know that some of the questions are repeated from one RFP to the next. Typically, this is standard information like company name, location, product descriptions and so on. In this case, you may benefit from using a multi-tier process with vendor profiles to shorten the procurement timeline.

In this approach, all interested sellers submit a vendor profile that covers a standard set of information. Then, when you’re ready to build an RFP outline and subsequent RFP, you don’t have to ask those questions because you already have the answers on file.

Get started now: Download the vendor profile template.

5. Build a master RFP outline

Much like RFP templates, you can save time by building a master RFP outline document. Similar to the list above, you can collect all of the RFP sections in a single document and customize it. Remember, it’s important to keep your RFP outline current, so update it when you add a new section or question theme to future RFPs.

One of the easiest (and fastest) ways to create RFP outlines and RFPs is using RFP management software. Not only can you upload any template into the platform for digitization, but your vendors also respond using the tool. This full-circle approach delivers efficiency for businesses that issue RFPs and teams that respond to them.

Ultimately, an RFP outline ensures your procurement process starts off on the right foot. It improves alignment among internal teams. In addition, it also provides direction when writing a new RFP or customizing an existing RFP template. Not only does it benefit internal teams and processes, but it also ensures that your vendors have a clear path for presenting their solution.


Wendy Gittleson

Wendy has more than 10 years experience as a B2B and B2C copywriter. She developed a passion for writing about tech from living in the San Francisco Bay Area and working for a technology school. From there, she transitioned to writing about everything from SaaS to hardware and cloud migration. She is excited to be part of the wonderful team at Responsive and looks forward to playing her part in building the future. Connect with Wendy on LinkedIn.

LinkedIn