by Scott Jack
Content Contributor, E-N Computers
7+ years experience in healthcare IT and tech support.
Have you been avoiding writing an RFP for IT services? Writing a request for proposal is daunting to many people who haven’t written one before. For example, you might worry about what it should include and how long it should be. Even if you’re experienced with RFPs, you may have been disappointed with the responses you’ve received in the past.
As an IT managed service provider, we’ve worked with hundreds of companies in Virginia and elsewhere, and we’ve seen too many small businesses suffer through their RFP processes. A great RFP gets you just the right vendor with a minimum of miscommunication. A bad RFP will attract low-effort vendors. If vendors respond at all, they will pepper you with questions that your RFP didn’t answer. You’ll have to publish responses and handle a lot more administrative work. And in the end, you still may not get a vendor who can do what you need.
While writing a good RFP takes time, the benefits far outweigh the pain of writing one. If you avoid the three big problems outlined in this article, you will save major headaches later. A well-written RFP is an effective way to solicit standardized proposals for a complex project, saving you time and money. And you’ll get help along the way with real IT RFP examples and a downloadable RFP template.
Great RFPs rely on having strategy, a strong understanding of what you want to accomplish, and clear evaluation criteria. When you paint a complete picture for applicants, you are more likely to receive quality responses.
How to improve Your RFP Process
A successful RFP starts before you even begin writing it. Writing a strong RFP requires a clear understanding of how the project fits into your business-IT strategy. Your strategic plan identifies how technology can be used to streamline processes, improve financial well-being, and provide better service. Rather than squeezing business processes into a chosen technology, or stretching a technology to fit business needs, the two are designed together for the best result.
A qualified IT team can help you build your business-IT strategy and define projects that can be accomplished in the short term while contributing to the larger vision. As an IT services provider, we’ve helped decision makers with both strategy and the RFP process. Based on that experience, we’ve found three common problems with RFPs that can be easily corrected or avoided entirely:
- Being vague
- Not thinking far enough into the future
- Not knowing how you will choose a winner
In this article, we’ll go over some common questions businesses have about RFPs, cover the three big problems with most RFPs and how to fix them, and finish with a brief overview of how to organize your RFP.
Need a place to start with your request for proposal for information technology services? Our detailed template is here to help. It provides you with a standard RFP outline and lists all the important questions vendors need to answer.
Enter your email address, and we’ll send you a link so you can download it later or share it with your team.
Common Questions About IT RFPs
When would you use an IT RFP?
RFPs are commonly used for projects that will be paid for with public funds. If you’re a government agency, a non-profit organization, or a business largely dependent on government contracts, you may be required to publish an RFP. Using an RFP is a great way for your business to outline what deliverables or services you are seeking, receive proposals that match your needs, and clearly document why you awarded the contract to a particular vendor.
Who should prepare the RFP?
An RFP should be prepared by the person most familiar with what is being requested. In the case of IT projects and services, your internal IT person may take the lead in preparing the RFP. The person who prepares the RFP will also answer questions from vendors during the submission period, so it’s important they are familiar with your objectives.
How do I start the RFP process?
The RFP process starts with gathering information about your objectives, what kind of solution you’re looking for, how open you are to alternatives, and who should be the internal contact for preparing the RFP and fielding questions about it.
How do I decide whom to send the RFP to?
Search the web or talk to business contacts to find managed service providers in your area. Don’t forget to include vendors you already have a relationship with. Many government-funded projects require the use of a web portal to post the RFP and prohibit sending the RFP directly to vendors during initial stages of the RFP process. For example, E-Rate requires a 28-day period to pass before you may directly solicit vendors for proposals.
How long should an RFP be?
The length of your RFP will depend on the complexity of your project, any appendices you are required to include, and your submission requirements. The template we provide along with this post is five pages long, so you can expect a short RFP to be around seven to 10 pages. Your goal is to provide all the details a vendor will need to build an accurate quote without being overly prescriptive in your project and submission requirements.
What happens after the RFP process?
Your RFP will outline a schedule that includes the deadline for submissions, a timeline for choosing the winning proposal, and target dates for work start and completion. After receiving proposals, you will evaluate them according to the rubric you created, notify vendors that a proposal was selected, and sign a contract between your organization and the winning vendor.
Now for the common problems with RFPs.
Common problems with RFPs
Problem #1: Being Vague
Clear and specific RFPs are more likely to receive clear and specific proposal responses. Vague RFPs attract low-quality responses. Painting a complete picture of your current infrastructure, needs, and challenges can help the vendor prepare a more suitable proposal. It also demonstrates that you are serious about the project and signals that the RFP is worth a vendor’s time and resources. What should you include?
Your RFP should focus on what can be accomplished within the year. By only requesting what can be done in a year, you avoid spreading time and resources too thinly.
Describe your current technology environment and what you are trying to achieve. Specific information about your infrastructure will help vendors prepare their proposals.
- How many servers, desktops, laptops, and mobile devices do you have?
- How many end users?
- What network equipment do you have?
- What phone system do you have?
Including the make and model of all this equipment lets the vendor know how many operating systems (Windows, macOS, iOS, Android) and hardware configurations they may be supporting, in addition to how many vendors they may have to coordinate with.
You may also want to include information about your current IT support.
- Do you have internal IT staff; if so, how many?
- What is their level of experience and availability to work with the vendor?
- Are there unfilled positions?
- Is your goal to outsource IT, supplement internal IT on an ongoing basis, or provide additional support for a well-defined project?
Answering questions like these lets the vendor know who they are likely to interact with, who may support the completed project, or whether there is an opportunity to offer additional services.
In your RFP, make sure to distinguish between needs, wants, and unknowns. Some features may be absolutely necessary for your project to be successful. Others may be nice to have if they can be implemented without significant added expense or time delays. And in some situations, you want suggestions or guidance from vendors about what they can provide.
One example is response time. Your organization may have certain issues that are deemed critical or high priority and require a response time of 30 minutes. In that case, you might include a statement like this: “The Vendor shall acknowledge reports of critical incidents within 15 minutes and shall initiate attempts to resolve such incidents within one hour of the report. Critical incidents include X, Y, and Z.” On the other hand, if you do not have strict service levels that must be maintained, you can ask for vendors to explain their typical triage and escalation process, including how they prioritize problem reports and their current response times. (We discuss our approach at E-N Computers in this article on outsourcing IT support.)
Problem #2: Not Thinking Far Enough into the Future
Beyond the initial cost of the project, you need to consider how it will be supported and maintained. A common pitfall in many RFPs is to ask for technology services including cloud, hardware, software, or other project implementations without a plan to maintain and support the new infrastructure. Whether you have an internal IT department or you partner with a managed service provider, make sure that they have the skills and staff to support your new technology before you put out an RFP. To highlight the importance of thinking past the project, consider the following illustration.
When a housing authority plans a new development, they incorporate a plan for maintaining the buildings and grounds. They may factor in hiring more city employees or contracting with a third party for maintenance services. They will verify the workers have the skills and equipment needed to properly maintain the development. You should take the same approach when requesting proposals.
You can do this by asking for information about the cost of ongoing support in your RFP, with the understanding that it may change in the future. Vendors can then provide you with their fee structure. For example, E-N Computers offers fully managed IT services and co-managed IT services for a monthly rate dependent on the size of your organization and the complexity of your compliance requirements and technology stack. We also provide emergency and after-hours support at a separate rate.
Problem #3: Not Knowing How You’ll Pick a Winner
You can lay the groundwork for choosing the best proposal while writing your RFP. Early on, identify the criteria that will determine who wins the bid. Weight the factors according to how important they are to your project. Some examples of criteria include price, prior experience, personnel qualifications, availability of time and resources, and whether they are a local vendor, minority-owned, or are involved in the community. Then create an evaluation matrix that will allow you to rank and compare vendors. Providing a copy of this matrix with the RFP may help vendors submit more competitive bids.
If a portion of your project funding is coming from a government agency, an evaluation matrix that includes certain factors may be required. For example, federal E-Rate funding for schools and libraries requires applicants’ selection process to be documented with an evaluation matrix. This matrix weighs price over other factors.
How to Organize an RFP
Organize your RFP so that all the information you provide can be easily found and referenced by using sections and subsections. The document will consist of at least five sections, each having their own subsections. The main five sections are:
Start by introducing your organization and the purpose of your RFP. By providing greater insight about your company and your goals for this RFP, you improve the likelihood of receiving high-quality follow-up questions and proposals. This section is also a good place to highlight key points from other sections such as your:
- contact person
- deadline for submissions
- most important selection criteria
Describe in detail what products and services you are seeking. Differentiate between your needs and wants. Let vendors know if you are open to suggestions on how to reach a particular goal.
This section also explains how the proposal should be prepared and submitted. You can set requirements such as how proposals should be organized, page limit, number of hard copies that must be provided, whether an electronic copy should be provided and by what means.
Explain how you will evaluate and select the winning bid. Specify the factors you will use and how they are weighted. This helps vendors know what is most important to you and tailor their response to your concerns and values.
Set a reasonable timeline for the RFP process and project completion. To improve the responses you receive, allow vendors adequate time to prepare. Important dates include:
- submission deadline
- notification of award
- anticipated start of project/service
- anticipated completion of project
Describe your RFP process so vendors know what to expect. Vendors usually want clear and specific answers to questions like:
- When are submissions due? Does a USPS postmark date meet the deadline requirement?
- How long will you take to evaluate proposals?
- By what date will a proposal be selected?
- How will the bid winner be notified?
- Will you notify us if we are not selected?
A carefully considered and prepared RFP is a powerful tool for finding qualified partners that will help you reach your goals. To build a great RFP, 1) review your business-IT strategy, 2) define projects that can reasonably be accomplished within the year, and 3) think past the project by having a plan to support and maintain your new tools.
Because business and technology are ever-changing, it’s important to regularly analyze your IT situation and look for opportunities to grow. Our free IT Maturity Self-Evaluation will help you identify action steps to improve your technology stance. We will be happy to discuss your results with you!
Learn More About Funding for School and Library Projects
READ: E-Rate Resources
The FCC’s E-Rate program provides technology funding for schools and libraries. The program rules don’t require an RFP; instead, you must fill out FCC Form 470. However, you can include an RFP, and it can be an excellent way to provide more details about your project. If you write an RFP for an E-Rate project, it must be submitted to the E-Rate portal along with your Form 470. Check out our E-Rate Resources and learn about the difference between E-Rate and the Emergency Connectivity Fund.
Is your business ready to weather changes, including employee turnover? Find out by taking our IT maturity assessment.
You’ll get personalized action items that you can use to make improvements right away. Plus, you’ll have the opportunity to book a FREE IT strategy session to get even more insights into your IT needs.