Surefire Strategies for RFP Questions
Most RFPs are cut-&-paste jobs. That’s not a criticism of agency contracting shops, it’s just what they must do to keep the fire hose of RFPs going. When your agency has the next 60 days to spend a few billion dollars, there’s no time for a lot of creative writing.
As a result, details get overlooked. The Evaluation Factors for an older RFP may not be a good fit for the new one. Ditto for the Instructions to Offerors, the NAICS Codes, and certainly the PWS. Wires get crossed. And who notices? You do, when you analyze the RFP and ask, “What are these guys smoking?”
So you have questions about the RFP. Do they really mean what paragraph C.4.1 says? Wasn’t support for this required software terminated a year ago? Why does a Cybersecurity RFP call out a NAICS Code for patio furniture?
But wait a minute.
Should you ask these questions?
Let’s look at it logically.
“Will they get mad at me for bothering them?” Not likely, provided you expose substantive flaws or inconsistencies in the RFP. If the agency can avoid protests by correcting these errors, they will be grateful.
“Won’t I be spilling the beans on my company’s Win Strategy?” You might, if you’re not careful. Phrase your question indirectly if you must, perhaps as a hypothetical instead of “Most vendors were counting on ABC instead of XYZ.” If you are an incumbent contractor, you might want to resist clarifying something that gives away what you know about the agency.
“Won’t submitting a question make me look weak?” Well, what exactly do you have riding on your question? Is it a deal-breaker? Will the answer substantially change your approach? In that case, would you rather look macho, or get answers to your questions? If you have a question that could turn your proposal into a No-Bid, or could keep you from making a profit, you MUST ask that question. (Caution: Be careful when addressing the performance schedule. A schedule that looks unrealistic to you is likely the result of months of agency planning, and might even have been imposed from above. Consider the agency’s needs before second-guessing them).
“Couldn’t I just call the COTR, and not have my question published for all to see?” Maybe, in the Draft RFP stage. But the rules for contacting the agency following RFP release are very specific, designed to keep both the agency personnel and you out of trouble. Play by the rules.
“The RFP deadline for questions has passed. Can I still ask my question?” Sure, no reason not to. They’ll either answer it or not, but nobody’s ever been kicked out of a competition for submitting a question. To be on the safe side, though, make sure it’s an important question with real impact on the procurement. If it’s to the agency’s advantage to answer, they’ll answer.
Are there Best Practices for Writing your questions?
Oh, yes. Here are a few:
1. Keep it professional. Don’t just ask the question, but cite the relevant RFP paragraphs and suggest a solution. “Does the government contemplate thus-and-such … “ is a good way to ask the government to clarify its meaning or intentions. “Would the government consider thus-and-such… ?” is a smooth way to introduce your suggested solution.
2. Keep it civil. This should go without saying. Don’t be snide or sarcastic. Don’t try to show the agency how much smarter you are than them; it IS possible you might be wrong!
3. Don’t complain. “You guys always do this, and it keeps us from winning … “ Any question that’s buried in there will receive the agency’s stock response: “Please refer to the RFP as issued.” In other words, “Get Lost.”
4. Don’t expect specific follow-through from any previous conversations with agency reps. “Col. Babypants told us this thing wouldn’t be in the RFP, and that this other thing would be!” How many times do you want to hear, “Get Lost”?
5. Does every nitpicky typo in the RFP rate a question? No. That will annoy the client. The questions you should submit are mainly the ones that clarify issues related to vendor qualifications, pricing and performance. If a requirement is overly restrictive, it’s up to you to suggest an alternative that will let you win and make money. Asking questions is not about appearances; it’s a straight business decision.
I hope these tips clarify what many see as a thorny issue. Just keep your good sense at the forefront, follow the rules and always project a professional image of your company. Happy Hunting!