October 20

RFP Template and Formatting Best Practices

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Procurement professionals who send multiple RFPs each year will generally have a library of RFP templates. While this makes a lot of sense and could save a good bit of time in the sourcing process, there’s also a much higher chance of replicating mistakes across RFPs by using the same template over and over. Here’s the breakdown of the good, the bad, and the ugly for RFP templates, and what you can do to make sure your requests are as effective as possible.

When it comes to how buyers format RFPs, the most important element to a vendor is clarity. First, the buyer should create a contextual backdrop that the vendor can use to inform the crafting of the response.

A fleet of cargo trucks in the context of suburban Los Angeles would have a vastly different context than a fleet of cargo trucks meant for rural Afghanistan, even if the core requirements are similar.

Absent this context, what could be the right solution might be positioned in a way that doesn’t speak to the buyer. Second, the questions should be well contemplated and provide sufficient room for a response.

An answer that the buyer knows requires a degree of exposition should not be subject to the same spacing limitations as a multiple choice selection.

Finally, the actual document itself should be well considered. For example, when a buyer sends an un-editable PDF file to a group of suppliers, how are the suppliers expected to respond? Do they try to migrate the PDF — formatting and all — to a word processing application and respond inline? Is it a better practice to simply ignore the formatting of the source material to focus on crafting the response in a word processor, ultimately exporting an answers-only file to PDF?

Suppliers generally have mixed feelings about RFPs. On the one hand, they are excited at the prospect of engaging with a qualified lead to win new business. On the other hand, many of them consider the RFP an onerous process that disintermediates their sales reps. As a buyer, you can increase the rate at which vendors respond to your RFPs by making them — and your expectations around them — as clear as possible.

The difference between format and formatting for RFPs

There is a non-trivial distinction between “format” and “formatting.” As it relates to the former, it’s important that buyers offer something to the vendors that can't be edited. In an improved (but still imperfect) world, the buyer would use an RFP management solution that allows the vendor to craft a response in a web-based online editor. (In a world that inches closer to perfect, the vendor will have its own RFP response automation software.)  This leaves little room for confusion and allows the respondents to devote their time and energy to optimizing the response rather than fighting with documents. If a buying organization is more “old school” in its approach and elects to distribute documents via email, it’s worth spending a moment to think about the format.

Some might be surprised to learn that a good number of RFPs that are distributed via email are un-editable PDFs and locked Excel spreadsheets.

When vendors receive these sorts of documents, they must invest their time just to figure out the mechanics of a response.

If an editable file is distributed to suppliers, one potential issue is averted. However, the formatting of the file itself might pose problems. Imagine, for example, that you are confronted with an RFP question that lends itself to a rather verbose response, but you are allotted just two lines for your answer. This can be particularly challenging when using a spreadsheet application like Excel wherein a robust answer can dramatically alter the visual appearance and flow of the document. To maximize the number and quality of responses, buyers need to be thoughtful in crafting their RFP questionnaires, making sure that vendors can focus on their responses, not playing games with font sizes and line spacing.

Expectations are high for sourcing specialists

One of the challenges of working in sourcing is that there are often outsized expectations regarding the level of expertise a sourcing specialist might have in a particular product category. Whereas larger organizations might have category managers who have extensive experience procuring certain types of products or services, smaller organizations tend to hire generalists. It is therefore incumbent upon these generalists to get up to speed as quickly as possible when the decision is made to kick off a new sourcing event. The best way to do this is to get stakeholders engaged early and often. That, however, isn’t always easy. All too often, we hear stories of sourcing events that hinge on responses to an RFP template provided by a vendor. As you can imagine, the supplier response rate falls dramatically when the buyer forgets to remove the branding of the vendor that supplied the RFP response template!

One simple tip to help make your RFP templates more useful

An RFP will usually meld qualitative and quantitative analyses. The challenge, as it relates to qualitative evaluation, is how buyers should best use the information that they’ve gathered. While perhaps counterintuitive, an approach that merits serious consideration is quantifying subject analysis. To do this, it’s important that the stakeholders on the RFP team establish a clear set of rubrics. Once those guidelines have been established, individuals can score the answers, even when they feel somewhat subjective. A tip to simplify this process is to mix in canned options — usually multiple choice — where possible. Then, where applicable, let the vendors choose the option that makes sense while providing the opportunity for them to expand their answer with prose.

RFP vendor proposal templates vary from sourcing event to sourcing event, but if you follow the tips above and avoid stacking your RFP with thousands of questions, you’re on the right track.

For more tips on RFPs, check out our Essential Guide to Understanding the RFP Process.

If you want to know what else you can do to increase the quality and quantity of vendor responses, schedule a demo of Vendorful and we can show you exactly what you can do for your particular sourcing events.