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You just sent out a request for proposal (RFP). Will it give you the responses you want? Will it set the stage for a great long-term relationship?

An RFP is a key step in engaging an outside marketing partner. Don't underestimate its importance. It's not simply a straightforward business communication; it's a brand opportunity.

Many organizations overlook the opportunity the RFP presents, hurriedly creating a "good enough" piece that's neither clear nor particularly compelling. Others approach the RFP with dread, simply repurposing another document rather than rethinking the process, the requirements, and the schedule.

If you're seeking a smart, strategic partner, your RFP should reflect that. Here are seven guidelines to help you create a great RFP—or what I like to call a "really fine publication."

1. Prequalify recipients

Who will receive your RFP? Take the time to prequalify recipients by visiting websites, interviewing principals, requesting work samples, and viewing portfolios. Send your RFP only to those organizations that have a reasonable chance of doing business with you. Doing so is not merely courteous and professional, it's also efficient.

Many firms will decline to respond when they discover that you have sent the RFP to dozens of recipients. While firms understand your requirement to obtain competitive bids, most are unwilling to complete a time-consuming RFP if they sense they've been included merely to provide another point of reference.

As a preliminary step, you might consider sending a request for information (RFI). Less formal than RFPs, RFIs can help you find the best candidates based on quality of work, capabilities, relevant experience, reputation, staff size, and geographical location.

2. Create an RFP that's worthy of your brand

Take a good, hard look at your RFP. What, exactly, does it communicate about your organization?

Is it well structured and clearly written? Can recipients scan it and understand what you're looking for? Is it free of jargon? Does it include a checklist of response requirements?

Realize that you get what you request. If you send a complex, detailed document, you will receive a complex, detailed response. If you request fewer facts and figures and more creativity, your recipients will happily oblige.

Regardless of your goal, strive to create an RFP that represents a top-notch brand communication, one you would eagerly share with your organization's senior executives. High-quality RFPs garner high-quality responses.

3. Value brevity

Longer does not necessarily mean better. If your RFP has chapters or a complicated numbering system (Section 3.3.2.2.1 and the like), consider pruning. In many organizations, RFPs begin simply enough but then get passed along and expanded—year after year, author after author, project after project—until they become completely overgrown, redundant, and confusing.

If you've inherited a huge, unwieldy RFP, take action. Don't add to it; cut and rethink. Or consider starting fresh with an RFP template. Many are available online.

4. Answer questions from all recipients

The RFP process should be respectful, fair, and professional. Set aside time to answer questions by phone and email. Indicate that you will compile questions from, and provide answers to, all recipients.

It's also good form to share the names of those firms that have received your RFP. You may receive a more competitive or more creative response by doing so.

5. Set a realistic response schedule

Responding to an RFP, especially a large-scale RFP, takes time. Give recipients reasonable deadlines—and reciprocate by making your decision in a comparable amount of time. Best-in-class RFPs include specific decision time lines, such as the following:

  • Selection team reads and scores proposals.
  • Selection team meets to short-list finalists.
  • Finalists are notified.
  • Finalists present to selection team.
  • Selection team makes final decision.
  • Contract negotiations are finalized.
  • All bidders are notified of the decision.

6. Provide clear evaluation criteria

How will you make your decision? Create—and share—evaluation criteria. You'll simplify the decision-making process and receive more complete information from all respondents. Some RFPs indicate that price is most important. Others present a more detailed scoring system with several variables. Here's an example:

  • Expertise
  • Creativity
  • Team-member credentials
  • References
  • Account and budget management
  • Ability to meet schedule
  • Overall price

It's helpful if you indicate the value that you'll place on each variable. For instance, expertise: 30%, overall price: 20%, and so on.

7. Follow up with all bidders

Telling bidders that they did not win the work is part of the job. Take the time to talk with the representative of each firm that submitted a proposal. Most will appreciate a candid critique, thanking you for initiating a forthright discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of their proposal compared with the competition's.

Closing thought: If you've been responsible for an RFP, you'll breathe a sigh of relief once you've finished writing and distributing it. Although it's certainly an achievement worth celebrating, it's not the end; rather, it's the beginning of a long-term relationship with a new strategic partner. Make sure the first step of that relationship is a positive brand-building experience.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gwyneth Dwyer is director of writing services at Larsen (www.larsen.com), an interactive, branding, and design firm with offices in Minneapolis and San Francisco. She blogs at MarketingProfs Daily Fix (www.mpdailyfix.com). Reach her at g.dwyer@larsen.com.