What is a request for proposal (RFP)?

A request for proposal (RFP) is a way for businesses to ensure that a consultant / consulting firm not only has the expertise to help meet their outcome, but also has a detailed plan for the specific project in question. It is often considered as the most crucial step when contracting a consulting firm or consultant team.

An RFP often follows a request for information (RFI), which allows a business to identify whether a consultant/consulting firm’s services and capabilities align with their needs. A RFI helps determine whether the consulting firm is of the right type, has the right capabilities and quality checks to deliver the right fit of services, and has a way of working that aligns with the client’s company culture.

Read also: What is a request for information (RFI)?

Once the consulting firm is broadly deemed to be a good fit, a request for proposal can be put out to obtain more specific information. While a RFI informs consultants of the nature of services required, a RFP details the specifics of the project, complete with expected outcomes, deliverables and timelines. A RFP breaks the project down into measurable components, and gives consultants a detailed overview of what is required.

The RFP drafted by a client should include a variety of information, from the context and background of the project, to the distribution of responsibilities and liabilities between the client organisation and the prospective consultant. The RFP could include information on the finances and culture of the client organisation, so as to given consultants a better idea of how to prioritise their proposals.

Data from Consultancy.org shows that an average RFP is between 10 and 20 pages in length, although this varies based on the specific project. A good RFP:

  • Is structured in an accepted format, which should include a summary, a description of outcomes, and guidelines for proposals;
  • Provides a detailed overview of the business and its practices;
  • Contextualises the problem/ objective within this broad operation;
  • Provides a concise and specific description of the services required, which ensures that prospective consultants are all on the same page;
  • Includes output-based, measurable expectations;
  • Invites more specific information that could not be obtained at the RFI stage;
  • Doesn’t refer to costs or pricing (typically part of the RFQ);
  • Is considerate of the consultants’ time and resources, and isn’t excessive in its demands;
  • Invites consultants to discuss the RFP if required;
  • Include a confidentiality agreement, given that the RFP already contains specifics of the project.

Consulting firms are expected to respond to a RFP with a detailed document (a proposal) touching upon each of the points requested. This typically includes their vision on the issue described, the approach they will follow and the methodologies used, the team proposed to deliver the services, a roadmap and planning, detailed listing of milestones and activities and track record in the field.

Larger RFP processes in the private sector and most large government RFP’s build in an Q&A process. Having reviewed the RFP and the requirements, consulting firms are provided the possibility to ask questions to the contracting team. To maintain a transparent and fair process, the answers to these questions are then released to all pitching firms and consultants. The RFP process is commonly concluded with a pitching round, when firms are invited to present their proposal to business leaders of the client.

The RFP process is the most important step of the consultant contracting process, as it has a two-way objective. With detailed proposals in hand from various prospective consultants, businesses have the ability to shortlist the plans that best match their requirements and objectives.

Meanwhile, for consulting firms, the request for proposal provides them the insights needed if they can deliver the project given the requirements, and hence is crucial in their decision to pitch for a project or not.

Consulting firms that successfully come through the RFP process are asked to submit a request for quotation (RFQ), which invites pricing offers for the services in question. This step is aimed at getting an accurate idea of the costs of hiring consultants, which can then be incorporated into broader project budgets.

Read also: What is a request for quotation (RFQ)?