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What's all the to-do about RFQs?

Heed this advice before responding to a request-for-proposal

by Malcolm Mills

Malcolm Mills

The thought of responding to a formal request-for-proposal (RFQ) is enough to send some salespeople searching for psychiatric counseling. But, I ask you, what in the world is so difficult about responding to an RFQ? You know how to read. You have competent and qualified personnel on staff. You’ve possibly done it before or at least know someone who did. You have the documents or have pulled them from the Internet. You have a phone and can call people. So, what’s the problem?

You say you are gun shy because you’ve missed out on the past six proposals? You can’t win no matter how hard you try? It’s cost you money and time? Here are a few RFQ DO’s and DON’TS that may help.


1) Search the marketplace for opportunities, then quote in a timely and professional manner.
There aren’t so many opportunities to bid on that you can afford to miss something up your alley. Spend time networking and snooping out potential clients, but do more than watch, wait and listen. Call procurement managers and ask if there is upcoming work. They may not meet with you but they will take a phone call. Make it good. Practice your elevator speech.

Even though a company may post an RFQ on a Web site, they also make personal contact with past bidders they have worked with successfully and ASK them to bid. By reputation or by experience, we know who can do the work the way we want and need it performed. This means you must present yourself even better. Do that and expect to lose some and win some. Don’t forget price. Low prices are kind of important.

2) Review the RFQ in its entirety.
Offering a quote on a bill of materials (BOM) is one thing. Bidding on a million or multi-million dollar RFQ is not to be sneezed at. Do you know how many bids hit File 13 in the first 10 minutes due to missing integral parts of the scope of work or deliverables? Some are fat and some are thin. It’s what’s within that makes or breaks them. After reviewing hundreds of bids, purchasing folks get a feel for competence. Like the guys at the border who either let you through or don’t. A higher price, plus bad presentation equals pull over and empty your car.

That said, if you meet criteria others cannot, or if you are a local company the industry wishes to develop, buyers may assist in your bid preparation. Much depends upon the schedule, budget and circumstances. The third bad document presented, however, will hit the trash mighty quick.

3) Examine the document for inconsistencies.
Only after in-depth scrutiny, forward your questions to the appropriate contact listed in the RFQ.

Keep in mind that the document you have received was compiled by different departments. Don’t be surprised to sometimes encounter repetition and inconsistent data. The game of hurry up and wait occurs throughout all projects. Finally the word comes down to purchasing to release the RFQ but now the scope and deliverable, even specs have been revised. There will be inconsistencies. The client can get away with this. You cannot.

Ask yourself a few basic questions:

  • Do the specifications requested in the RFP make sense?
  • Is the project doable as specified by the RFP?
  • Can you offer suggestions which would add value or reduce costs for the project?

4) Respond to the bid using the exact same structure and sequence as the RFP document.

The RFP you received conformed to a specific layout. Follow that structure in your response. Use the numbered heading structure of the RFP as the basis for your response in the same order as the original RFQ.

Think about it. If you can’t follow the numbers on a simple RFQ, how the heck can you be trusted to build or supply something? Make it easy for the reader.


1) Harass companies/purchasing folk for work.
Put together a package, ask to drop it off, set up a meeting to sell your services, qualifications, expertise etc., but don’t be a pest. And do it before the RFQ hits the street. No-names struggle to be seen. Get in there before a project begins because, once underway, time is money and you are one of many wishing an audience. The answer will almost certainly be NO. The NO isn’t personal, it’s probably time related. There isn’t enough time in any day.

2) Submit late, incomplete or inferior documents.
Dissect that RFQ from top to bottom and inside out. Don’t do it as an individual but as a team and don’t rely on the individuals entirely. Critique each other’s portion. Go the extra mile. NEVER submit a document until you are perfectly clear on each and every deliverable, specification or requirement.

Once you’ve made the bidder’s list, purchasers are obligated to assist you even more and answer all questions. But make sure the answer hasn’t already been answered, say on the last page.

Don’t send crap. A five-page RFQ document on a million dollar project will net you nothing. A hundred pages of bad photographs and pictures of you, your boat and your kids are no better than blue smoke and bay leaves.

3) Never ask for extensions.
Also don’t ask for revisions to the scope or deliverables or clarifications just to attract attention to yourself and to get to speak with the contact. Buyers don’t have time for frivolous contact.

Buyers understand there will be questions and know there may be inconsistencies in the document they have released. Anyone who has ever worked with an engineer knows how often that group revises specs, and deliverable requirements. Time dictates the release of an RFQ more than does quality. Dates, however, rarely vary. Never count on a schedule change or a delivery date decrease. Don’t try to negotiate delivery dates at the bid stage.

4) Do not attempt to look superior in pointing out irregularities.
Do not appear to boast in offering suggestions.

The bid stage is not a good place to offer too many proposals or suggestions. Get on the short list and you can make a composite case then. Buyers or purchasing folk may or may not be aware of some of the problematic technical issues you may discover. Cut them slack. They absolutely must have willing and compliant partners rather than self-seeking glory hunters. You cannot extol yourself even discreetly. Express yourself, yes.

There are a hundred small issues which can drive you insane when responding to a complex RFQ. The key is to understand exactly what the customer must achieve and then mold yourself into the best vessel by which to accomplish their goal, to their spec, at the right price and in that frame of time.

Here is the kicker: Should you even be bidding on this work? This may be the most important question you should ask and answer.

  • Are you qualified and experienced enough to bid with a reasonable degree of success? If you have doubts or are out of your element, perhaps you shouldn’t seek other opportunities.
  • Do you meet the quality, safety and technical standards required? Do you understand them?
  • Do you have the financing to carry you through as you await milestone payments which may be delayed?
  • Is the qualified expertise you require in-house or must you sub-contract it?
  • Did you consider issues such as Letters of Credit, Compliance, Packing & Shipping, Alcohol & Drug Policies, Delivery Schedule, Key Personnel, Health, Safety and Environment, Diversity Issues, Equal Opportunity issues, Company Supplied items, Certification documents or other deliverables?

If you are losing bid after bid, you might wish to examine why. We can touch upon only a few.

  • Perhaps this just isn’t your type of work.
  • Perhaps the competition is bigger, better and more experienced and it would be better to simply seek a niche.
  • Perhaps you should try “subbing” out to the main contractors.
  • Perhaps your documentation is inferior or your key personnel don’t meet certification. What is your reputation?
  • Would it help to hire a specialist who can assist you?

Lastly, don’t put yourself on the psychiatrist’s couch attempting to do what you cannot. Bid on where your strengths lie or partner with those who have what you lack. Call in a specialist where one is required. If you’ve done all this and think you are the right company for the job, keep trying.

Malcolm Mills is available for speaking engagements at corporate functions or seminars. His book “It’s a Tough World Out There - 25 Ways to Lose a Customer 25 Ways to Fix It” is available through Xlibris Publishing or by contacting Malcolm directly. E-mail: or telephone (902) 530-5952.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2010 edition of Industrial Supply magazine. Copyright 2010, Direct Business Media, LLC.


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