The Secret Sauce, Ep. 21: How to Write a Better RFP

Is it possible to write a better Request for Proposal? Our Account Manager Allison Manley thinks so. She has seen hundreds of RFPs come through the door, and shares some thoughts on how to streamline your process, and ask the right kinds of questions to get what you need on our latest Secret Sauce podcast episode.

Writing a Request for Proposal (or RFP, for short) is no easy task. You want it to be as detailed as possible, as to ensure you get the right kind of proposal from the right kind of vendor, but general enough since you're not entirely sure what you need – and the expertise of the vendor will help articulate some of that, ironically. So how can you write a better RFP given these circumstances? Our Account Manager Allison Manley has seen hundreds of RFPs come through the door, and shares some thoughts on how to streamline your process and ask the right kinds of questions to get what you need, and make it easier for vendors you actually want to submit a proposal.

iTunes | RSS Feed | Download | Transcript

We'll be back next Tuesday with another episode of the Secret Sauce and a new installment of our long-form interview podcast On the Air With Palantir next month, but for now subscribe to all of our episodes over on iTunes.


Allison Manley [AM]: Hi, and welcome to the Secret Sauce, brought to you by This is a short podcast, just a couple minutes, that offers a quick tip on some small thing you can do to help your business run better.

I’m Allison Manley, an account manager here at Palantir, and I’m the one offering today’s advice, which is about how to craft an RFP (which stands for Request for Proposal) in order to attract really good responses from firms like Palantir.

RFPs are hard to craft, no doubt. You have to be concise, you likely have to insert a ton of legal jargon, but you want to create an appealing proposal that will attract the right firm for the job.

Over the years we have looked at a lot of RFPs, and have seen the good, the bad and the ugly. We thought it would be helpful to share our experience from the responder's side.

I’m going to outline the main five things you should consider. There are many more things to consider, and actually I outlined 15 of them in a blog post from March 2016 that is up at But here are the key five things I think you need to know.

1. Be specific about your desired outcomes and goals

When outlining your goals, get as specific as possible. Even if you need just a general upgrade because your site is outdated in both the look and the technology, there must be a reason you’re frustrated with the old site: is it now too slow for back-end users to update? Does it need to be mobile-friendly? Do you want to increase traffic for a specific reason or conversion? Why do you want those things? What will they do for you that your current site can’t?

Try to also avoid generalities such as: "We want a website that incorporates social media,“ or “We want more traffic,” and “The site needs to convey our message and mission.” Because guess what: everyone wants those things, and they don’t give us enough information. When outlining projects, make sure to tie outcomes back to specific goals.

2. Give us a budget

From a bidder’s perspective, there’s probably nothing more frustrating than asking for a budget, only to be told “we don’t know. We’re trying to figure out how much this should cost.”

Let’s face it: there’s a number in your head. I know this because once I hear the basic parameters of the project, I’m going to respond with a range. And based on your reaction, I can get a sense of budget. I’ve had a lot of potential clients describe their needs, to which I’ll respond, “a similar project we did cost in the low six figures.” This is usually followed by a client saying, “oh, that’s fine” or “we don’t have more than mid-five figures to spend.”

See, you did have a number in mind! Even if it was your maximum cap.

Don’t ask for all the bells and whistles of a Porche-sized project if you know you only have the budget for a small Kia, or some similar car. Giving a budget upfront allows each firm bidding to tell you what they can offer you for your money. Then you can compare expertise and the value offered for your budget, which gains for you a more complete picture of what you're buying.

3. Be specific about constraints and exclusions

Are there certain key dates by which you would need your project completed? Are there brand and identity standards that we have to adhere to? What about third-party integrations that need to be considered? Giving us parameters helps us focus on what we can deliver for you.

Exclusions help define a project as well. What items will the bidders not be responsible for? Will someone else be in charge of photography and/or content creation? What about hosting and migration? Letting us know what not to bid on will ensure we don’t account for it as an unknown in our estimate.

4. Realize you are buying the process, not just the end product

Palantir didn't always work for healthcare clients. It took the trust and vision of our first healthcare client to give us the project to prove that we could. Consider responsive design: prior to 2011, nobody had ever heard of responsive design, let alone build anything for all devices, it just wasn’t done. But the smart firms all made a smooth transition to responsive.

Don't necessarily discount a firm because they've never done a project exactly like yours. Instead look for proof that they have related experience, are effective problem solvers, and have the creative and/or technical range required to complete your project successfully.

Conversely, the firm that does nothing but your particular type of project is unlikely to give you a solution much different than the one they produced for your competitor last year. Make sure you are dealing with firms that can effectively translate your message to your audience and not a production house offering cookie-cutter solutions.

5. Do not ever ask for spec work

Spec work is asking for work done prior to engagement with a client in anticipation of being paid. Never ask for examples of solutions as part of the RFP process. For one thing, professionals are paid for their ideas. Let’s face it: our ideas cost money. But more importantly, any quick solutions that a candidate would come up with before doing the proper in-depth research about your organization's culture and goals would simply be ill-informed and incomplete. Having strategic thinking guide your message is a much better bet than the "throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks so we can get the job" approach. Who wants to hope for a happy accident?

In conclusion

Writing a good RFP is not easy, I’m not gonna lie. It isn’t! It’s tough to get everything you want distilled down to a few pages (and in some cases impossible, since your organization may require many pages of legal attachments that need to be there).

The bottom line: make sure you are clear about what you need and why. Give us some solid parameters from which to work. Tell us what will make the project successful for you. This helps us suggest the best solutions to fit your needs. And leave the possibility open for a conversation with the bidders so they can ask follow up questions in case you missed anything.

And if you need assistance defining your project and writing your RFP, call us. We’d be happy to help show you a better way.

So that’s it for this week’s Secret Sauce. For more great tips, follow us on Twitter at @palantir, or visit our website at Have a great week, everybody!