How to Submit a Successful GIS RFP Response
Many long-time geographic information systems (GIS) users, whether government or private entities, have very robust internal GIS resources. Organizations like these, with professionals and technology capable of implementing complex geospatial applications, tend to handle GIS related projects on their own.
In some cases though, they may come across a GIS-related project that calls for expertise in aspects of the technology they aren’t so strong in. Other organizations are new to GIS altogether, or simply don’t have the internal resources to implement a project themselves.
“These are typically the organizations who are releasing requests for proposals (RFPs) to hire a GIS expert to implement for them,” says Sarah Fletcher, senior proposal coordinator at Esri.
She says organizations typically release RFPs seeking GIS know-how in two circumstances; they are either looking for someone to lead the design and implementation of a GIS project for them, or they are looking for support while they lead the project themselves.
“Either way, the ultimate goal is to procure the services of a GIS expert to ensure the success of their GIS investment,” Fletcher says.
In her experience, she has noticed that government entities release the majority of RFPs because they use public funding for their projects and have to complete a competitive procurement process. That said, she sees RFPs coming from all types of organizations, including private, commercial and non-profit.
While more and more groups are seeking expertise in integrating GIS with cutting-edge technology — like 3D, big data or real-time solutions — the majority of RFPs are focused on integrating GIS into the organizations’ everyday operations and workflows.
“So, expertise in integrating GIS as a system of record — think SAP, Microsoft Office, Salesforce — is a big task,” Fletcher explains. “In addition to GIS expertise, organizations also want to see that a bidder has specific industry experience as well. A gas utility not only wants someone who can speak GIS but also the language of transmission and distribution, compliance and safety.”
In her role at Esri, Fletcher works in the professional services division reviewing RFPs and helping put together responses to RFPs that Esri bids on. In her 13 years as a proposal coordinator, she says she has easily read more than 1,000 RFPs from around the world, across all industries. She says she has prepared proposal responses for hundreds. For the past three years, Fletcher has presented a lightning talk at the Esri User Conference titled “Tips for Writing a Successful GIS RFP.” The presentation is tailored to those putting together GIS RFPs and aims to help them get the best proposal responses.
GIS RFP responses have to convince the organization, in a clear and concise manner, that the bidder has the expertise, experience and passion to successfully implement the project.
While knowing how to assemble a clear and detailed RFP is important for those seeking GIS expertise, submitting an attractive proposal response is key for geospatial service providers. Fletcher points out that in today’s economy, the competition to win contracts is tougher and more diverse than ever.
“A clear, concise and compliant response to a GIS RFP isn’t enough anymore. Your response needs to not only pass the initial administrative review; it has to stand out among the pile of response documents that organizations are receiving.”
Most importantly, she says, GIS RFP responses have to convince the organization, in a clear and concise manner, that the bidder has the expertise, experience and passion to successfully implement the project. It can be expensive to respond to RFPs since the process takes time and resources away from other contracted work. With many companies facing shrinking internal budgets to respond to RFPs, she says each response has to be a winner.
In a recent interview, Fletcher shared eight tips for producing a winning GIS RFP response based on her experience. They are as follows, in no particular order:
While compliance alone is not enough anymore, it is still very important. An RFP is a competitive process and organizations use compliance to weed out responders who do not follow instructions. Being immediately disqualified for using the wrong font size is not ideal. When Fletcher trains individuals in proposal development, she always stresses that it doesn’t matter how odd, counter-intuitive, or nit-picky an RFP instruction is; do it, make it work. Otherwise the bidder loses, no matter how great the proposed solution might be.
2. Ask the right questions early
Bidders will always feel the need to seek clarification on the RFP they are reviewing, and that is fine. Some questions need to be answered in order to put together a complete response. However, it is important to evaluate each question before submitting it, because in a competitive RFP situation, all questions and answers will be distributed to all bidders, including competition. If a question provides a hint at the planned solution, it may not be worth everyone else seeing. Alternatively, a strategic question with an answer that gives the bidder a leg up over the competition is something worth submitting.
Also, unless it is absolutely necessary for compliance, asking nit-picky questions around minor errors or inconsistencies in the RFP is not a good idea. Pointing out the mistakes made does not set a great tone with the potential client. Also, it is good to ask questions as early as possible, before the question deadline. There is a chance that the potential client will release answers earlier, and the earlier answers are received, the more time there is to react before the proposal is due.
3. Have a process and an owner
Establish a process, document it and stick to it. RFPs are unpredictable; bidders have no idea what they are up against until the document is released. But if they have a process to help guide their efforts, it will provide them with a map to most efficiently navigate from point A (RFP release) to point Z (proposal submission). It will also help the bidder avoid pitfalls along the way.
At Esri, the process directs the team on everything from when to involve senior management to how to develop graphics. That said, a process is only useful when it is implemented. The biggest part of Fletcher’s role as a proposal coordinator is owning and driving the proposal process on every proposal she works on. If the organization can support it, it is good to have a person or a team dedicated to owning and implementing the process on all proposal efforts.
4. Focus on the executive summary
The executive summary (the summary of the offering at the beginning of the proposal) is the first and best chance to grab the attention of the potential client and make them want to read more. The client is not just reviewing one proposal; they may have tens of long documents sitting in front of them. After doing a compliance review, the next thing most reviewers will read is the executive summary, and much like the summary on the back cover of a novel, this is the bidder’s chance to persuade them to pick their proposal for further review. If the executive summary is dry, canned and not customer specific; if it starts with, “We are pleased to provide this proposal for…” then the reviewers will likely assume the rest of the proposal is more of the same and put it at the bottom of the pile.
Despite the misleading title, executive summaries should not be written with only executives in mind. The review team will be the first to read them. Typically, executives will only ever see the ones that come from the proposals that have first been selected by the review team. So, it is important to write with them in mind, not just the CEOs of the company.
If an RFP does not allow for an executive summary, get creative. Use the cover letter to present the executive summary details. Put the message in the body of an email if it is a digital submission. Worst case scenario, put it in an appendix and try to call attention to it, but get that message into the proposal somewhere.
5. Put on the advertising hat
A proposal is a technical document and often a contractual document. It is also a sales and marketing document. Bidders should keep this in mind when putting proposals together. Page after page of text does not catch or hold the reader’s attention, and it does not sell. Humans are subjected to mass marketing every moment of their lives, and their brains have become used to processing an entire message in one, well-thought-out slogan or catch phrase. Taking a few tricks from the advertising world can help catch and keep the readers’ attention:
- A reader often needs to see or hear a message three times before it sinks in. Try to repeat the win themes and other important information at least three times.
- Use visuals. A picture is worth 1,000 words. It also grabs attention and helps break up pages of text. Make sure to spend time on eye-catching and informative diagrams and images.
- People tend to scan text. Use headlines or section titles to allow readers to find important information quickly. Use captions to allow them to quickly understand the key points of an image or diagram. Use call-out boxes to make key information stand out on the page so it is not missed by quick scanning.
6. Have a dedicated team
If you are responding to a critical RFP, make the commitment to have a proposal team that is dedicated to the effort. While it may be difficult to take the best technical architect off of other work, the proposal will suffer if the team is constantly being pulled in other directions. Fletcher’s team has a proposal “war room” where team members co-locate for the duration of the proposal development. Having the team sit in a room together allows for quick and easy collaboration, and reduces the amount of outside distractions.
7. Do your homework
Bidders can never have too much information when it comes to responding to an RFP. Ask formal questions, attend bidder conferences and dig independently. Local governments often publish valuable information about their procurement processes and funding online. Ask around to see who might have had experience with the client in the past. Fletcher likes to group the information that she is looking for into two main categories: the client and the competition.
- The client: what is their experience/history with GIS? What business systems/technology are they currently using? What is their budget for this procurement? Who will be reviewing the proposals they receive? What has been working for them? What hasn’t?
- The competition: Who received the RFP? Who attended the bidder conference? Have they met with the client in the past? What are their win themes? Have they been a competitor in the past? What was learned?
8. Bid the VW, not the Cadillac
No matter what the evaluation criteria in the RFP says, price is a major deciding factor in competitive procurements. To stay competitive, make sure to bid the must-have requirements. If they have a list of “must-have” requirements a mile long, that will cost twice what they are thought to have budgeted. Think about bidding a base program that gets them up and running, with options for the extra bells and whistles.