July 15


A recent conversation I had with a government employee confirmed there’s a dirty little secret in the RFP world – clients don’t read the ten to twenty proposals they receive.  They have a pre-conceived notion of the top few firms they’re leaning towards.  Maybe you’re on that list, maybe you’re not.

You have to have enough experience so they believe you can do the job, but the guy who’s designed 200 bridges isn’t really more qualified than the guy who’s designed 20.  You just have to get over that minimum threshold.

So instead of a writing a unique fifty page proposal for every project, here’s a method friends of ours have used to cut their RFP response time by more than 50% while winning the same proportion of projects:

  • Step 1 – Figure out the top three types of projects you’re successful at winning.  Hopefully you have a solid niche or two.  Convert a report and/or design from each of your project types into a generic example by taking out the specific client references and putting in generic street names.
  • Step 2 – Develop a couple of pages detailing similar projects and customer references that match that generic project sample.
  • Step 3 – Develop a letter template that explains you are busy doing project work and that you don’t have time to fully comply with the detailed RFP, but that you are committed to delivering a successful project if you are selected.
    • First part of your letter is your approach to the project in an easy to digest bullet point list.
    • Second part of your letter references the attached example project as what they can expect and references your list of similar projects and client references.
    • Third part of your letter lists your fee and completion date.  Say you’ll work with them on the detailed schedule if you’re selected.
    • Close by saying you’re busy working on engineering projects and you don’t have time to fully comply with their RFP.  Tell them you’re committed to flesh out any documentation they need as part of the contracting process if you’re selected.
  • Step 4 – Email them this proposal or mail them one hardcopy with the digital copy on a usb drive.  Don’t kill the environment with 30 copies.

The client may still want you to write a proposal for the project because they have you in mind as one of the top three consultants they’re considering.  This process filters out those projects where you weren’t going to make their short list anyways.

I take this approach a step further because I don’t chase government RFPs very often.  I only write scope/fee engagement letters where clients specifically come to me.  Last year, 87% of my letter proposals turned into traffic study projects for me.

Think about experimenting with this template approach and track your win rate over the next twelve months.  It is guaranteed to save you time and it may just lead to you actually winning more work (at least there’s a good chance your win rate won’t go down).

  • Speaking as a county traffic engineer, one government employee is not enough data to draw a conclusion. Perhaps many agencies do work that way, but we try not to. It’s easy enough to weed out the bad proposals and narrow down to those worthy of our attention.

    We try to give all proposals an evaluation worthy of the effort the firm put into it. A proposal like you suggest could be construed as one or both of two messages:

    1. Lack of attention to detail: your final product is likely to show the same quality (or lack of it) as your proposal.
    2. Lack of respect: you think we are not worth your time and effort, but your boss told you to submit a proposal anyway.

    We don’t want a draft design report for a proposal. We do want to see that the proposer has read the RFP, visited the site and put a little thought into what the job entails. Mentioning a few site-specific items to be addressed in design will also get you points. Similarly, we don’t expect a detailed Gant chart, but we require a basic schedule.

    If you want to get selected for municipally-funded projects, you have to keep your overhead low. My department often selects proposer other than the one with the lowest fee, but we have to justify our choice to the county budget office and legislature.

    The key is showing that you will provide the best value for the tax dollars you want us to entrust you with. Using you as an example, we could probably convince them a full-day video count is worth the added cost compared to peak hours manual counts.

    (Aside: Federal-aid project procedure expressly forbids using the fee as a selection criterion. And people wonder why the trust fund is going broke.)

    Before trying this minimalist approach, you should get to know your prospective clients. Some, as you suggest, may have a group of preferred firms that is hard to break into. Some may thank you for not burying them with excess detail. Those like us will just move your proposal to the bottom of the stack.

  • Thank you for the thoughtful comments Jim. I think this comment is at the heart of the issue –
    “Before trying this minimalist approach, you should get to know your prospective clients. ”

    If you don’t know your prospective client, you probably shouldn’t be preparing any proposal.

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    Mike Spack

    My mission is to help traffic engineers, transportation planners, and other transportation professionals improve our world.

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