FOR MANY FIRMS, winning private commissions is easier than landing public jobs. As Greg Hollenkamp, CEO of Minneapolis-based KKE Architects, observes of private-sector clients, “There's usually only one decision maker—and you may know the person or know someone who knows him.” But for firms hoping to grow—or to keep from shrinking at a time when much of the private economy is ailing—winning public projects is vital. And that means learning to respond to requests for proposals (RFPs), a process at which KKE excels.

Since 2003, KKE has expanded from its Minneapolis headquarters, opening offices in California, Nevada, and Arizona. In each location, the first commissions came from private clients: “[In] a new area, you need housing, and then you need retail services, and following that you need offices, and then schools, and then government services,” explains Hollenkamp. But as the regions (and firm offices) mature, the firm increases its share of public projects, which now account for about 25 percent of its $40 million in annual billing. Understanding the RFP process has been no small factor in that success.

Greg Hollenkamp, CEO of KKE Architects in Minneapolis, concedes that winning RFPs can be tough. Firms should understand the client's needs and hammer home their own credentials, he advises.
Tim Evans Greg Hollenkamp, CEO of KKE Architects in Minneapolis, concedes that winning RFPs can be tough. Firms should understand the client's needs and hammer home their own credentials, he advises.

Get to know the players. KKE's marketing department monitors federal, state, and local publications for new RFPs. Still, Hollenkamp says, “If you find out about an RFP after it comes out, it probably means you're not connected enough to the decision makers. And if you don't know the decision makers, you'll have a harder time understanding their needs.”

Skip RFPs that don't reflect your strengths.

“We feel very strongly that if you can't differentiate yourself, you probably don't want to go after the project in the first place,” Hollenkamp says.

Read, and repeat.

The RFP will generally explain what the client hopes to accomplish with the project. There's a problem that has to be solved; often, the building is only part of the solution. Respond in a way that shows you understand what's driving the client.

If it's worth saying once ...

When writing your response to the RFP, Hollenkamp says, “First tell them what it is that you're going to tell them. Then tell them. Then tell them what you told them. Some people will read every word of the RFP, but some will skim— and you still want to make sure they get the message.”

Try to avoid being selected for your fee. Most RFPs ask you to propose a fee. But don't shortchange yourself by making that your selling point. “You don't want to be selected because you're the cheapest firm,” says Hollenkamp. “You want to be selected because you're the best firm for the job.”

Pick the right people inside the firm ... Usually, the RFP will ask who in your firm will run the project. Make sure that person is experienced with the relevant building type, says Hollenkamp. And make it clear that whoever is making your pitch will really be in charge. “At our firm, we have a ‘seller-doer' model: There's never going to be a bait and switch.”

... and outside. “Usually, you'll also be asked who, outside the firm, is on your team. Be creative. If it's a school project, maybe you want to bring in a retired school administrator as a consultant.”

Keep your website current.

Most RFPs put strict page limits on responses. That means you can only present images of a few of your projects. It's safe to assume that decision makers who want to see more will visit your firm website, Hollenkamp says. So be sure your website sends the appropriate message. It makes sense, he adds, to have a website that's easily changed, so if you're competing for a very large project, you can highlight experience with that type of building.