From the RFP Stack: How to Format Text-Only Responses

Welcome to the RFP stack. It’s the pile of customer requests for proposals that B2B contractors cue up by date to complete and submit by the RFP deadlines. And it can be daunting.

For B2B contractors one of the biggest curveballs in their RFP stack – aside from daftly written ones – are the RFPs requiring responses in a text-only style, with no formatting allowed. Say goodbye to all those great graphics 🙁

This can happen when customers use online platforms like AribaBonfire, etc., or require RFP responses in a spreadsheet. These tools make customers’ lives easier when putting contracts out to bid but can also diminish contractors’ responses.

Minimize Contractors Waffle

Customers’ Reasons for using Text-Only RFPs

To Avoid Volumes of Customer Waffle

The primary reason customers use text-only RFPs is to constrain the size and volume of contractors’ responses in technical proposals.

Far too often contractors respond with 100s of unhelpful pages of generic marketing copy that don’t answer the RFP questions asked.

These kitchen-sink proposals waste customers’ time and induce them to skim over technical responses at hypersonic speed before jumping to the price comparisons.

To Attempt the Worthy Goal of True Apples-to-Apples Comparisons

Customers will always compare contractors’ pricing side-by-side in RFP evaluations, which is easy with numbers.

However, evaluating contractors’ text responses side-by-side (the often named but rare apples-to-apples comparison) is almost never practiced in technical proposals.

This laudable goal of apples-to-apples is done by requiring text-only responses that are read and evaluated side-by-side, either online or in a spreadsheet.

Unintended Failings

Unintended Failures of Text-Only RFPs

Unfortunately, the benefits of text-only RFPs also bring several failings; one that impairs customers’ ability to get better responses, and the other is a common failing of contractors’ responses.

Say Goodbye to Visual Storytelling

Removing flowcharts, images, tables, etc. from technical responses also removes an effective way to communicate complex ideas quickly and easily.

With no graphics to help storytelling, the narrative burden falls on written text responses.

And many contractors’ writing ability is not where it should be, specifically when it comes to situation-specific, unique solutions that customers look for in RFPs. Many do not answer the questions in front of them but paste in brochure copy written for anonymous readers.

Brick Wall of Words

Here’s a failing where numerous contractors don’t make the most of what text-only RFPs allow.

Contractors often eschew the idea of formatting altogether because: Hey, it’s text-only responses. This abdication shows up as sentences bunged together into a single, breathless brick of words.

Pity the poor customers who have to read these responses because they have:

  • No place for the eye to rest
  • No way to tell the hierarchy of ideas
  • No appetite to figure out where a thought starts & ends
  • No clue how to make sense of this word mess
How to do it: Format Text-Only Responses

How to Format Text-Only RFP Responses

Contractors want their customer-evaluators to actually read what they’ve written in their technical responses: That’s the point. So, to get customers to read text-only responses, contractors can try to:

1. Create White Space to Ease Eye Strain & Invite Readers In

Give ’em a break: evaluators reading text-only responses that is – they need a break from the eye strain of a wall of words.

Before and after headings, paragraphs, and bullets, contractors must create visual white space in their responses. This allows readers to rest their eyes and to better understand groupings of thoughts and ideas.

HOW TO: Just hit ENTER one or more times to create white space. Keep an eye out that white spaces are consistent – it means using the same number of ENTERs between content to keep white spaces equal.

2. Declare Headings for Idea Hierarchy

In many contractor responses, there are multiple levels of content; typically, an overview followed by subsections making up the entire response.

Contractors must help customers understand the relationship of that subsection content to their overall RFP answers. That’s what headings do, so use them to make sure the hierarchy of solution ideas is visual.

HOW TO: Make headings ALL CAPS so they stand out and there’s white space before and after. Consider indenting lower-level headers using blank spaces, or with additional characters, such as:

HEADING 1

HEADING 2

HEADING 3

-or-

HEADING 1

>> HEADING 2

>>>> HEADING 3

3. Use Symbols to Visually Add Faux Formatting

Not that contractors will get bold or italic formatting, but there are numerous symbols that can be used in text-only responses, depending on the online platform or spreadsheet – such as Unicode and ASCII (Microsoft expanded ASCII to become their Windows-1252).

ASCII is a subset of Unicode and represents lowercase letters (a-z), uppercase letters (A-Z), digits (0–9) and symbols such as punctuation marks – while Unicode represents letters of English, Arabic, Greek, etc. mathematical symbols, historical scripts, and emoji covering a wide range of characters that ASCII doesn’t.

Contractors can use any variety of symbols but should definitely:

  1. Test early (long before due dates) to find which symbols work in the required submittal format
  2. Use symbols consistently so as not to confuse evaluators reading the text

HOW TO: Here are several examples:

–> (2 dashes & greater than sign) For indented paragraph text instead of blank spaces

* (asterisk) For bullet level 1

++ ( 1 or 2 plus signs) For bullet level 2

Summary-How-To-Format-Text-Only-Responses

Summary

Customers require text-only responses for a couple of reasons; to reduce extraneous content in submittals, and to compare text content side-by-side.

Since that’s the situation, contractors must make the best of it by crafting responses that are:

  • Easier to read with consistent white space
  • More understandable with headers to delineate idea hierarchy
  • More visual with symbols to help carry the narrative of the solution

One of a contractor’s key RFP goals is to get evaluators to score their technical proposals the highest. To do that, customers have to read them and contractors have to make that easier.

From the RFP Stack: How to Format Text-Only Responses first published on LinkedIn.

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