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How to write a great RFP — from the people who’ve read thousands of them.

  •   5 min read

We’ve rounded up six key steps to writing a better request for proposal (RFP), saving your team from weeding through countless unqualified vendors to transform your public transportation.

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If you work in the procurement office of a transit agency, you’re certainly familiar with the ins and outs of complex RFPs. It’s an acronym that can elicit a wide range of emotions depending on who you ask, but it’s universally understood to be a critical step in the procurement process for cities and transit agencies across the United States, and in much of the world.

We hope that our experience will provide some guidance for procurement teams looking to ensure their RFP process goes off without a hitch, and brings the most qualified, exciting partners to the table. 

But soliciting proposals from qualified vendors is — as many readers may already know — the first step in a daunting process. Cities and transit authorities don’t simply put out a list of their wants and wishes and hope for the best; if they did, they’d spend the better part of a month weeding through unqualified candidates. Yet still, oftentimes RFPs don’t receive high-quality responses. In some cases, they barely receive any responses at all. 

At Via, our vision of transit requires regular and seamless collaboration between transit providers and vendors. That means a world where agencies consistently receive highly-competitive RFP responses that lead to fruitful partnerships and, ultimately, flexible, resilient, and integrated transportation networks for their communities. 

So, as an organization that reads dozens of RFPs a week, we want to give some insight into what the TransitTech RFP process looks like from the other side of the table. We hope that our experience will provide some guidance for procurement teams looking to ensure their RFP process goes off without a hitch, and brings the most qualified, exciting partners to the table. 

1. Intelligence gathering can be key. 

As transit procurement teams know, the market is full of innovative technologies that seriously vary in capabilities, maturity, and price. Open, informative exercises typically allow transit providers to develop better RFPs that encourage more competitive responses from vendors. 

This discovery stage can help you shape and refine your exact needs, leading to a more efficient process and fewer project delays down the road. We’re firm believers that knowledge exchange always leads to better procurements (and better partnerships), and value the opportunity to have an open dialogue before formal RFP processes. So whether it’s by way of a free-flowing conversation or even a more formalized request for information (RFI), don’t be afraid to ask for information that may help you develop an RFP.

In the end, while you may be shopping for specific technology or solutions, this process also facilitates a level of relationship-building. Vendors want to get to know you too — and there are definitely more fun ways to do that than sending 50-page documents back and forth.  

2. When it comes to budget — the more detail, the better. 

While it’s commonly understood that funding sources should be solidified before a bid, the reason for this goes beyond common best practice. The truth is, you will always receive proposals that are better thought-out, more achievable and more tailored to your agency’s specific goals if applying vendors have a clear understanding of your budget parameters.

If you haven’t yet secured your budget, it might be a good idea to take a step back from procurement. But not to worry — there are countless funding resources out there if you’re looking to integrate technology into your service. Additionally, partners (like Via) often work with cities and transit agencies to help secure funding to get a new service or project off the ground.

3. The best RFPs describe problems, not solutions.

When you’re clear about the problem at-hand — whether it’s low utilization at particular service hours or limited access for individuals with disabilities — vendors are able to use the full scope of their resources to brainstorm creative solutions. This isn’t the case when an RFP describes both the problem and a specific approach to solving it. Doing so puts these problem-solvers in a box; what if they have an innovative fix, but you’ve already prescribed the solution? In fact, describing the solution in extensive technical detail will actually lead some vendors to skip an RFP, when they may have been just the right partner to address the problem. 

Another piece of this involves providing ample data on your current service, so vendors can fully understand the local context, and even discover areas for improvement you might not have considered. And just because you want to remain open-minded when it comes to potential solutions, doesn’t mean you should withhold your broader vision. Be bold: We want to see what your dream service would look like, so we can start charting the path to get there.

4. Don’t be afraid to set standards for your ideal form of collaboration.

Different transit providers look for different things in their partnerships. Some may seek a collaborative partner with whom they can brainstorm ideas, others would prefer an experienced player who can quickly execute a well-developed vision, and still others are looking for an independent firm that will implement a solution without asking much of the provider. 

RFPs should establish a clear vision for the partnership: From implementation, to ongoing support. But, from our experience, falling back on the conventional, more rigid model for an agency/vendor relationship can act as a roadblock to innovation. By instead asking for a wider set of professional services from your potential vendor — like a robust launch team and a point of contact solely devoted to your service’s success — you lay the groundwork for true collaboration that can, in turn, drive a scalable, dynamic service. 

When you look for a vendor with a broad-based approach to support, you will naturally attract more multifaceted firms, with a diverse set of experiences and services to bring to your project. Let’s say you just want scheduling software — wouldn’t it be great if that software has been informed by the firm’s real-world experience in service design, planning, and first-hand operations too? 

5. Look for a partner that can back up its claims.

It’s vital to discern the difference between a shiny sales pitch and a partner who actually knows what they’re doing. In other words: Many firms can talk the talk, but can they walk the walk?

In developing your scoring criteria for RFP responses, we recommend giving a higher grade to real-world experience. If a vendor is claiming they can do detailed transit planning, deliver on-demand transit, incorporate fixed routes into a multimodal app, offer call center support, and integrate with your network’s payment methods… Where? With which partners? 

If they claim it, they better be able to back it up.

6. Finally, a few points on procedure.

Of course, at its core, the RFP is a highly-formalized document. While high-level strategy is important to ensuring vendors feel equipped and excited to respond to your request, there are a few immediately-actionable points that we know always ease (and expedite!) the process on both ends. These include:

  • Clear response templates and/or explicit guidance on the desired structure for proposal.
  • Digital procurements, as opposed to paper-heavy submissions.
  • At least two weeks between the publication of a final addenda and the proposal deadline. This gives vendors time to consider feedback to their questions, and make sure their proposal speaks specifically to your goals.

Still need help, or interested in checking out some of the best RFPs we’ve seen as templates to build your own? Just email partnerships@ridewithvia.com or contact us here. We’re happy to help.

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