Monday, March 17, 2014

BASIC RFP TOOLS TO PROVIDE YOUR RFP TEAM BEFORE THE RFP IS RELEASED

Are you ready to take on the task of writing a proposal response to a Request for Proposal?

In the EMS industry, it can be a daunting task to do so. However, before you get to that point, you need to be prepared and begin developing the resources you’ll need to respond in an effective way to a Request for Proposal.

As a consultant, I am hire to go into a company, and asked to handle the RFP for a young or inexperienced company, and more times than not, everyone wants to dump the problem off on me for a couple of different reason.  One, they are paying me very well to make it happen. And Two; they don’t want to be bothered with it. They want to come and go, not put in long hours, and feel like hiring outside the firm is the safest bet with all of their information. 

The problem I see from my perspective is that most of these small ambulance agencies want to hire me to come in and wave a “magic wand” over the whole company process and event and provide the winning proposal. But I’m merely a consultant, and magic is a two way street.

You see, as a “consultant,” I’m not an employee. I am not aware of your culture, or history. I have no knowledge of the nuances or idiosyncrasies that make your company unique, but also successful. I can make observations, take some notes, but I am still and outsider looking into your fish bowl, and I have been assigned to write your story. If you don’t involve yourself in this process, then how can I write your winning proposal unless I write fiction?


Making the Commitment
When you decide to respond to a competitive bid, your making a commitment. You’re committing time, energy, and resources to preparing a document that is a representation of your company and all that it stands for. So you hire someone, like me to write your story, but I don’t know where to begin, or how you want it completed. Sure, I can write pretty great content. I can make an adjective sing like a first soprano in an operatic aria. But I’m not a mind-reader, and rarely does mindreading go hand-in-hand with magic.  

Most companies tend to procrastinate. They wait until the last minute to get started when they should have begun gathering what is necessary to develop a proposal. My friend, Michael Shabkie has a philosophy that is pretty much spot on, as it pertains to proposal writing. ”Every day is a day we need to submit a proposal,” and that is some very sound advice.  

So, you want to grow your business? Start creating your own “proposal database” that has everything you may need to use to tell your company’s story to a stranger. Your database should have graphics, pictures, background information, staff photos, resumes of your key people,  and documents that are standard to each and every RFP process.

If you have responded to proposal requests in the past, each response should be located in a single electronic folder that will allow for easy “cut and paste” options. Trust me, the questions ask on ambulance service RFP’s don’t really change that much, they may change the order they want them presented in, but that’s pretty easy to handle.


Some of the documents that are generally needed and should be included in your proposal include:

Company background and formation documents
o   Articles of incorporation, TIN/EIN, county state and municipal operator licenses, your CQI program documents, and committee minutes, policy & procedures manual, etc
o   For a Federal bid; your “Cage Code” and DUNs number, Employee certifications/licenses, your ambulance certifications and safety inspection logs and certificates

Pending litigation – are you being sued for any reason?
o   Be upfront! Transparency…

Professional references
o   References of performance on previous contracts, what can they say about you?

One or more years of audited or reviewed financials
o   Generally they want to see 3 yrs., and a letter of financial stability from your bank.
o   Could you continue if they couldn’t pay you for a few months?

Certificates of Insurance (COI)
o   Liability and indemnity, vehicle insurance certificates

Overview of clinical practices
o   Protocols and treatment modalities,
o   all structured procedures involving patient care and outcomes.

Overview of operational practices
o   Your company Policy and Procedure Manual
o   Staff development plan
o   Continuing education programs.
o   Safety training programs

Administrative and operational organizational charts
o   The “who’s who” of the company.
§  (I may think the “coffee lady” is your CFO!!!)
§  (I don’t work there; therefore I don’t know who is who?)



It Is Never Too Early To Have These 
So, before you call me and want to “dump’ a project in my lap, create your organization a database or a library where you can gather and deposit all of the data about your company, (it policies, procedures, protocols, and etc.) and electronically scan these items into it, so that its safe and secure and you don’t have to worry about where you set it down, or whether you’re going to recall where you set it 5 minutes previously.

Now, when an RFP is released, all you have to do is choose your team, and give them access to your wealth of data. By having your resources ready when there isn’t a competitive process underway, provides your company the ability to review what you presently have available, and just start to review the content.  Once again, long-time EMS proposal writer Michael Shabkie states over and over to everyone within ear-shot,  

  • The best time to develop your proposal or work with a professional proposal or content writer is when there is no pressure of an impending submission deadlines.”  

The Cherry for the Sundae
When I was a child, there was always one person in my class who always seemed to have their nose stuck inside a book, because the story was so engaging they couldn’t stop reading. This past year, I wanted some of the evaluator we ran into to be like that kid I remember, and here’s why. In a competitive process, the proposal evaluator is generally an independent party who has been asked to serve in this capacity for the purpose of impartiality in their selection of a winning proposal.
While initially honored to be asked to serve in this capacity, that feeling soon passes for angst and regret when they come face to face with piles of 200+ page proposal responses, coming from a number of ambulance agencies that are local, regional, national or global. Many become overwhelmed by the task that lies in before them.

It is a very well known fact that many evaluation committees, when faced with the thought of how many Tylenol will be taken to stop the constant headache they’ll have to endure while reading each one of these proposals, that they’ll begin skimming through them! (Surprised?)

This is why you really want to come out of the chute very strong but concise with your “Executive Summary, or cover letter, because it may be the only thing that has been read in your proposal, other than the pricing breakdown.

By putting considerable effort into an Executive Summary (cover letter), the evaluator is being given a high impact overview of your proposal, hitting all of the discussion points explaining what your company is about and why you are the only choice for their community or facility.

Having that information on that single page will make a positive first impression and should reflect a message that is saying,

“We are the one you want caring for your grandmother because we are professional, educated, experienced, with the skills your looking for, and we want to serve the community, as you do."  

It’s easy, and its one of the areas your response should focus on, framing the remaining aspects of the proposal, as well as setting the tone for what’s to come, and possibly motivating the evaluator to actually take the time to read your proposal in greater depth.


The “Less is More” Approach
Don’t “banter” or use “shop-talk,” “buzzwords”, or “fluff.” It wasn’t asked for, and it isn’t going to have any impact on the outcome of the decision. Don’t waste of your time, because the evaluator of your proposal just doesn’t care! They have enough to read and grade for “best-fit” to what has been asked for. If you make them read more than they need to, how do you think they are going to grade your proposal? You just made them read 4 paragraphs of stupid stuff, when a single sentence or paragraph that’s concise and direct will do quite nicely.

I spend time “shredding” the RFP after its bee released (pulling the information on the data they’re looking for), and build an outline for other team members to follow. During the process, as the proposal response is being built, we can collectively determine if additional support may be needed to clarify a response. (Make certain that your annotations direct the evaluator to the exact location of your support data).

Some may say that there is no “pat answer” to the questions asked in an RFP. I tend to disagree with that assertion and have to say that there are some things that can be made into a template format, that can be inserted into your proposal format, like vehicle data, certification data, provider numbers, etc. These are items that have to be included in every proposal response, and to save time while packaging the response, you can create templates or “boilerplates” and save them to your “Proposal Response” folder you created several weeks ago on your hard drive. Now, all you have to do is bring them up and print them off.

Another thing you can create a template for are Dividers for the binder separating the sections of your response. I personally like to use those photos we take of our company ambulances, or facilities, crews responding to an incident, etc. This affords me the opportunity to put a little bit of “flair” into the response without really looking obvious about it, and it is different and makes your response memorable in a subtle way.

Now, you can’t really create “canned” answers for these responses. Each proposal is different, and really needs to be treated that way. There are always going to be “twists” and variations that will inevitably pop up, and make you stop and scratch your head for a few minutes while considering your answer. However, you can take each question, break it down into structured elements, and create an info-encyclopedia about the various aspects and elements of your organization, that keep it running efficiently.

Some of the re-occurring elements of an EMS proposal have to do with:
  1.  CQI programs and their structured processes
  2.  System status and communications, including response time review process
  3.  Any type of corrective action being used to review system variances that may occur
  4. Company compliance programs
  5. Financial management and stability
  6. Community service and education
  7. Technology: GPS and vehicle tracking, dispatch software and its ability to interface with   existing systems
  8. Response time measuring, reporting, the “response clock”
  9. Outstanding legal considerations
  10. Mutual aid alliances and a plan with other regional agencies to help you when the need arises
  11. Operations processes that assure that labor costs are controlled
  12. Etc.…Etc.…Etc.…
But remember… only answer what they’re asking for!

You are still going to need to answer the questions and put things into your own words. The list I created above should have a list of the components of the process, simplified and used as a “cheat sheet,” so that a team member can look at it, and use their own words to write their segment.

But even with all of these resources and prepared items, you still have to write and keep it “fresh” and currents. My friend Michael Shabkie says;
  • The easiest way to be eliminated from the competition is by not answering their questions.  No matter how mundane or irrelevant, you have to assume they asked the questions for a reason and they're judging you on the responses you provide.” - Words to live by! 

It Never Fails…
The area of writing your RFP response that everyone seems to overlook, and ALWAYS wait until the very last minute to put together are their references. This is your time to shine, and I personally can not understand why the officers of a company don’t go out way in advance and solicit reference letters from some of the “key players” that they work with regularly, and ask them for a letter? Have your marketing team do it if you’re too busy, or just take a day off from your Sunday golf game and write a personal letter, on company stationary, and ask them politely if the would be willing to write a nice and objective letter about their experiences with your company, and be willing to do they same for them.


Whatever you do though from this day forward, don’t shove the compliment letters and satisfaction surveys into a drawer and forget about them until it is too late. Use them DAILY… they’re not just for special occasions. These are the tools that your marketing teams may use to build your client base, and are great for closing a contract deal with a health plan, or provider. Have them nicely bound and use them to improve your company’s position as a marketing tool. 

Additionally, they are they best way I know of to demonstrate to those who are scrutinizing your company’s services, and making a decision about your future, that you are the clear choice to be their provider and no one else will do. If you have competitors who are out there running your company down, these help to dispel those rumors, and restore your reputation to the point where you may get a tap to step up to the plate. They are especially effective if you have two or three letters from communities of similar size, that you’ve been a contractor for previously.  If they like what you have done in the past, your very likely in the top tier of contenders.


The Company “Spin”
“Man does not live by bread alone”, and pricing in a competitive bid, isn’t the decider of providers, either. There are always companies that will “lo-ball” their bid, with the idea of sorting it out later. Thinking that “possession is 9/10th of the law” and that if they get the contract they can come back to the table in 6-12 months with their “hat-in-hand,” and ask for more money, using a possible shut down of the operation if they don’t get it.

While that has worked in the past, it hasn’t so much any longer.

Here in San Diego, the market has evolved and there are many more competitors in this regional market. While some of the smaller companies will violate rules to get some “skin-in-the-game,” many won’t. Don’t let the low-priced companies trap you into that game. Pricing is not what differentiates the competitors. What you have that makes your company unique in the market, and the professionalism of those you employ to provide the services you offer is what your client want and why they call your company.

Remember, your services have value, and there’s always going to be companies that underbids you. So, don’t fall into the trap of worrying about how someone else is going to frame their bid, and write about your company instead. Be passionate and talk about what you have that makes your business better than everyone else. Ideally, you want the evaluators to come away from the table nodding their heads, satisfied with the idea that your company is the one they want to do business with.

Not a one person is more qualified than you to tell us why you are who you are, where your defining moment in the company’s history was that made you create a service that everyone loves, and calls you for. After all, who wants to be known as the “product of a low bid system,” right?

Point being that the magic is within you to make the winning pitch, and tell them why you are the right choice to make. In this instance, it is a destiny shaper, and you will only succeed at it if you take the time to develop and execute a well thought out plan.

(Special thanks to Michael Shabkie, who originally addressed this in the Marketing 911 blog article, “Winning Ambulance RFP Strategies - What Every Company Needs to Know,” published on August 24, 2012)