If You Want to Shortlist, Avoid These 5 RFP Response Mistakes

Written by
RD Symms
RD Symms
Updated on
  5 min read

If you want to shortlist, avoid these 5 big RFP response mistakes

By Chaz Ross-Munro

Imagine reviewing 20 technical Request for Proposal (RFP) responses that are more than 50 pages each. You’ve now stepped into the shoes of the average selection committee member reviewing more than 1,000 pages of material from various firms.

Next, picture evaluating each one and trying to cite reasons why each proposal measures up and why it doesn’t; now you’re starting to see how long and intensive reviewing proposals as a selection committee member can be.

Purchasers have their work cut out for themselves and it’s our job as proposal writers to make it as easy as possible for them to understand and select us. But too often we actually make it harder for them. We unintentionally do things that frustrate and aggravate evaluators and actually work against our firm getting shortlisted. To avoid this pitfall, here are the 5 big mistakes to avoid in your next RFP response:

So we know it’s not unusual for selection committee members to review more than 1,000 pages of proposal material for a bid. Which means if you use a lot of boilerplate that has little connection with the proposed project, you’re definitely going to alienate the person reviewing your proposal.

Don’t: give a response narrative that goes on for days. Your job is to make their life easier, with your solution/service and with your proposal. After all, it’s about them and their needs, not you.

Do: use graphics, tables, and bullets that summarize the most critical points you’re trying to make. If you must use a lot of narrative, make sure you use headings and subheadings to break up your response and make it easier for the reviewer to skim and get the highlights.

Remember your evaluation team has several other proposals to review. So if you go over your page limit it demonstrates three things:

  1. Your firm doesn’t know how to listen and follow instructions
  2. Your firm isn’t sensitive to the needs of the selection committee
  3. Your firm may not be organized or know how to plan well enough in advance to convey the information in the space given

Not good. As Blaise Pascal the French philosopher and mathematician said, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.” Yes, being able to express complex ideas concisely, takes a lot of time and effort but it is greatly appreciated by the reviewers and makes you look much more impressive.

Don’t: go over the requested page count. You’ll only prove you can’t be trusted. And if you don’t have a pitch that’s tight enough to fit within the limit, it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

Do: invest the time and effort in creating a compelling, concise “pitch.” If you have a dynamic executive summary they will be impressed and can ask follow-up questions.

Chances are, you’re the expert on your product/service. Or at least more of an expert than most of the selection committee. It can be surprising to learn that most of them actually have a fairly limited understanding of the service/product your company is proposing on.

For example, if your organization sells civil engineering services, one person on the selection committee may be a professional engineer and the other four may not have any experience with civil engineering whatsoever. Many times, selection committees include an end user, a legal representative, procurement representatives and maybe one technical member.

With this in mind, make sure your proposal content speaks to reviewers of different levels of technical understanding. By using concise and clear explanations to questions, simple headings, engaging graphics, and illustrative tables, you can help your reader understand the value your firm can offer no matter what their technical expertise is.

Don’t: write for one audience and/or one expertise level.

Do: address varying levels of technical/specialized knowledge in your proposal. Speak to the concerns and needs of the expert, but also make it simple enough for others like legal, marketing, and procurement, to understand the gist.

If your firm doesn’t have a successful track record of completing the scope of work as outlined in the RFP, don’t submit an RFP response. 

If your firm sells construction services and you’ve never completed a new construction project for a public facility that’s greater than 250,000 sf, it’s not a good idea to submit an RFP response for a 300,000 sf project. The entire time, members of the selection committee will be frustrated as they review your proposal because they will not understand how your response is relevant and they will be wasting time reviewing your proposal.

Instead, team up with a partner who has the experience your firm lacks. That way you can build your company’s experience portfolio and have a better chance of winning future projects. Remember, selection committees tend to avoid risk, so shortlisted firms usually have a long history of providing services similar to the scope outlined in the RFP.

Don’t: bid on projects and scopes of work that you don’t have a successful track record with.

Do: make sure your firm is submitting proposals on work your firm is qualified to do.

If your team had the chance to meet with the selection committee before the RFP came out, you might know of some of their hot-button concerns. Maybe it’s price, implementation time frame, customer reviews, etc.

Whatever their particular interests, make sure they’re the focus of your proposal and it’s clear how your firm will address these issues while completing the service outlined in the RFP’s scope of work.

If you can summarize your value in one statement, or “win theme” you’ve found a great way to help your firm stand out other competing firms.

Don’t: forget to address the evaluators’ top-of-mind concerns, make them your focus — not a tacked on after thought.

Do: focus on the priority concerns and show how you solve these problems in a way that is unique, and better than your competitors.

Chaz Ross-Munro, CPSM, CF APMP, is a marketing professional at HOK, an American global architectural firm with more than 1700 professionals in 23 offices worldwide. Chaz has more than 10 years of experience and has secured contracts totaling more than $600 million in both public and private sectors within the A/E/C, custom software application, and healthcare IT industries. Chaz is also the author of “Sink or Swim Faster! Making a Splash in Marketing Professional Services” which guides and onboards those new to marketing professional services.  Connect with her on LinkedIn here or Twitter here.

As RFP360’s client success director, Brian ensures clients have the tools, knowledge, and assistance they need to get the most out of their solution. Prior to joining RFP360, he led a 60-member client services team across two offices at BrandMuscle. During his free time, he enjoys trying new restaurants and traveling.


RD Symms

RD is a senior copywriter at Responsive. He has more than 15 years of experience in writing, content development, and creative strategy. Connect with RD on LinkedIn.