Knowing how to respond to an RFP (request for proposal) gives businesses the ability to benefit from working with the country’s largest buyer of products and services: the U.S. government. In fact, of the 500 billion dollars the government spends annually on contracts, the government is required to set aside 23% to award to small businesses. Ignoring government RFPs often means leaving a large chunk of change on the table.
But even if you’re interested in government contracting, learning how to respond to a government RFP can be time-consuming and overwhelming. One of, if not the biggest detractor businesses face when responding to RFPs, is the heavy lifts required by the registration process, the application processes, and the maintenance required to stay on top of potential contract opportunities.
With this quick guide, we’ll cover the basics of how to respond to a government RFP and walk you through some tips for success. That said, it’s important to keep in mind that no online guide can sufficiently walk you through responding to RFPs. To truly navigate the federal marketplace well, you will need to either invest significant time in learning about and crafting your RFP(s) or enlist the help of federal contract specialists like those at FAMR.
What is an RFP in Government Contracting?
Before we jump into how to respond to an RFP, let’s quickly review what an RFP is. Requests for proposals are requests issued by large businesses or government agencies for proposals by outside vendors to fulfill a need for a product, solution, or service. FAMR helps our clients with federal government RFPs, so we’ll be discussing those alone from here on out.
Once an RFP document is sent out, vendors compete and bid to fulfill the needs outlined in the RFP. They do so by responding to the RFP and explaining why they, and not their competitors, can supply the best goods and services with the least amount of risk. The government agency then compares and scores the proposals and sources the work via contracts.
All types of government agencies — from the local or county level to the state or federal level — create RFPs. While some aspects of responding to an RFP carry over from proposal to proposal, others can differ widely.
Note: A request for proposal (RFP) differs from a request for quotation (RFQ) and a request for information.You can learn more about these different RFxs in our post on bidding on government contracts.
Before You Begin: Prepping for a Government Request for Proposal
1. Register Your Business
To be eligible to bid on government contracts, you must first register your business with the federal government. Registering your business has benefits in and of itself, including eligibility for sole-source awards, grants, and government programs. However, federal business registration is also a complex process, and many RFP proposals get stopped in their tracks here, before they even begin working on their RFP. The federal small business certification specialists at FAMR can walk you through these critical first steps.
2. Check Your Certification Status
The federal government not only awards 23% of federal contracts to small businesses but also awards certain percentages within that percentage to qualified groups. These include:
WOSB: Woman-Owned Small Businesses, 5%
VOSB: Veteran-Owned Small Businesses, 3%
HUBZone: Business owners operating in historically underutilized business zones, 3%
8(A): Businesses operated by minority and/or disadvantaged owners, 5%
FAMR can help you learn whether you’re eligible for these certifications and help you get certified.
3. Navigating SAM.gov
Now that you’ve registered your business, where can you go to find available RFPs? The System for Award Management database, known as SAM.gov is your hub for finding government contracts. However, SAM.gov doesn’t send out updates when new opportunites are available (this is where we’d link to our marketing/portal blog or page).
4. If Necessary, Boost Your Credentials
When you are a relatively new small business, it can be difficult to gain the trust of the government agencies putting out requests for proposals. Perhaps you have not contracted with government agencies before and/or do not have a lot of experience under your belt. If this is the case, you do have options:
Subcontracting: Subcontractors can work with the primary contractors (contractors that have directly accepted an RFP) as a means of getting their foot in the door. You can find available subcontracting opportunities via the SBA’s searchable database, SUB-Net.
Bid-matching services: If you want to start responding to RFPs but aren’t sure which government agencies you should pursue, bid-matching services like your local Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC) can help.
5. Put Together an RFP Team and Scope Out the Work
Once you find an RFP you want to bid on, you’ll need to actually start working on the RFP. There are multiple ways you can go about this. Write and review the RFP in-house, hire or contract a grant writer, or work with a contract specialist like FAMR that has decades of experience helping small businesses successfully navigate the RFP process.
You will, at the very least, need someone to write the RFP and someone to review their work. Ideally, you would have people write sections in teams, focusing on sections that highlight their expertise, and have a review committee as well. No matter what you choose, you’ll want to think about how responding to an RFP fits within your current timeline and budget.
The Basics: Key Elements of a Winning RFP
1. Following the RFP Instructions to the Letter
When screening proposal candidates, one of the first things that government agencies do is to dock points for businesses that did not follow formatting instructions. One of the most frustrating things that can happen is for a business to have spent countless hours carefully crafting a response to an RFP only to have it thrown out because they didn’t check the requirements for font size or spacing.
This makes a certain level of sense: if they can’t trust you to pay attention to details in your RFP, why would they trust you to pay attention to details that could cost them thousands, if not millions, of dollars?
2. Gathering Requested Documents and Filling Out Any Forms Provided
Typically, an RFP will provide certain documents to fill out and request certain forms. Make sure that these are carefully filled out and gather any and all forms that they might request. Start this process at the beginning of your RFP journey, in case you encounter any roadblocks along the way.
Types of forms typically requested include but are not limited to:
Articles of incorporation
Tax exemption status certificates
Documents regarding bylaws and agreements
Putting together these documents will also give you a better idea of what gaps your organization will need to address when writing the rest of your RFP response.
3. Writing Your RFP Response
When learning about how to respond to a government RFP, this is the area that causes business owners the most confusion. There are best practices that you can follow and templates that you can use to break down and address all of the typical aspects of an RFP. Typical sections to include here are:
Proposal Summary / Abstract
Introduction of the Organization and Capability Statement
Problem Statement or Needs Assessment
Company Methods or Solution Design
However, if you want your RFP to stand out, we don’t recommend using a generic, government RFP response example or template that you buy off of the internet. Remember: you want your RFP to stand out from the competition. You won’t get that using copy-and-paste language cribbed from a template that your competitors also have access to. Even though this is a good outline, the RFP will always tell you the order in which to submit your requried documentation.
Instead, it is generally wise to use these templates as guiding hands and instead focus on creating a proposal that keeps the project’s exact goals and agency’s express desires in mind while showcasing your company’s capabilities. Only after you’ve created an effective and compelling RFP should you consider templatizing that work to use it in future iterations for additional RFPs.
4. Review and Edit, Edit and Review
Ideally, a committee of individuals from your company should review your RFP, making sure that all of your bases are covered. If this is your first time responding to an RFP, there is bound to be a lot of back and forth at this point in the process, so make sure you budget adequate time for your RFP’s review when scoping out your timeline.
5. Gather Signatures & Contact Information
Now that you’ve registered your business in all the appropriate places, gathered all necessary documentation, and written and reviewed your RFP, it’s time to double-check that you have all the necessary signatures you need to submit the proposal.
Additionally, it’s smart to check that you have included contact information for anyone on your team who will need to answer direct questions about the proposal so that the government agencies have that information at their fingertips.
6. Submit Your Proposal
After all of your hard work, it’s time to turn in your RFP! Make sure that you are sending it in the appropriate format (typically PDFs) and via the requested method (paper or electronic). Here’s another place where you risk having all your hard work go down the drain if you don’t check the details!
Not Sure How to Respond to a Government RFP?
Regardless, when done strategically and effectively, responding to RFPs can be extremely lucrative and rewarding, especially once your RFP process has been set up and streamlined.
If you’re not sure how to respond to a government RFP — or you simply don’t have the bandwidth or inclination to navigate all of the complicated processes required to do so — FAMR can help.
Ready to leverage FAMR’s years of experience working with federal contractors and the SBA and get your share of the billions of dollars available to small business contractors through the federal government?
Call us at 866-988-1680 or contact us online today.