Sales. In a perfect world, your sales team adeptly prospects a new potential client, fortuitously striking up a relationship at just the right time. The team delivers a great pitch. The client is happy. Agreements are signed – add it to the board.
However, in the real world, the road to sales success can require more work, for both the client and the supplier. The Request For Proposal (RFP) is a common part of procurement activity for many companies; it offers a comprehensive means of assessing the suitability of potential suppliers.
It’s easy to view RFPs as an obstacle to obtaining new business; you’re head to head with the competition, and it’s labor-intensive by comparison to traditional sales routes.
However, an RFP is a unique opportunity for vendors; it offers your business the chance to craft a detailed pitch that highlights the strengths of your products and services and deliver it to an audience you know is listening.
An RFP also gives you an insight into your potential client; what their needs are, how tough it will be to manage those needs, and where the gaps are in your commercial offering and their requirements. At the extremes, it can even push your company’s product, service or creative development into new places to address a necessity for a ‘must-win’ client.
So, embrace the opportunity you’ve been provided with and put your best foot forward.
What is an RFP?
An RFP is a process of inviting potential vendors to bid for a supply contract. The client issues a document requesting a proposal detailing product and service information, pricing quotations, and any specific business requirements that are important to the client.
Sometimes an RFP is preceded by an RFI (Request for Information), which is a shorter fact-finding process, designed to create a shortlist of potential suppliers for the full RFP process.
The documents included in an RFP are there to help the client build a picture of a supplier’s service/product offering and what the future working relationship will look like. There may be several sections in the RFP covering:
- A brief or overview of the business needs
- The budget (if for a project)
- The process by which the RFP managed and the procedure for responding
- Timeline for the RFP process
- Terms & conditions
- Criteria for selecting a supplier, or shortlisting
The primary response document will contain questions covering a range of topics apposite to the client’s requirements. These topics could include service delivery, product information, Service Level Agreements, Key Performance Indicators, project and client management teams, and many other concepts needed for a robust assessment of supplier capabilities.
Responding to an RFP as a supplier
The RFP response is your opportunity to show the client that, firstly, you understand their business needs, and secondly, you can demonstrate that you are the right company to fulfill those needs.
A well-crafted RFP response can be your firm’s ticket to your next major project win. However, before you get stuck into writing a business-winning proposal, you need to analyze what you have received and plan your response strategy.
Identifying intent and evaluating needs
A good starting point is assessing the intention of the RFP. This can be done using the communications you’ve had with the client, and the RFP content they’ve supplied.
No RFP document will ever capture the full intent of the client – what you must do is identify the underlying concerns, key issues, and, ultimately, their goals. This will enable you to deliver a response that connects on an emotional level.
For example, does the information provided suggest that they are looking for the cheapest option, or does the RFP advocate quality over price? Does it feel like they’re just embarking on a benchmarking exercise versus their existing supplier, or are they truly looking for a new solution? These are essential questions that will shape the response you return to the RFP owner.
During this stage, you should thoroughly research the client:
- Does their strategy, company ethos, mission statement, and culture have anything in common with your company? If so, this creates excellent common ground
- Is there anything in the press or company annual reports that may affect a future relationship?
- Do they feel like a price shopper or long term strategic partner?
The next step is to look at their requirements; are you well-positioned to deliver the service that they need? It’s not necessary to be a perfect fit, but if your ability to provide a service is too far adrift from their requirements, it might be better to decline the invitation to tender rather than commit time and resource to an RFP you cannot win.
In some circumstances, it may be damaging to your company’s reputation to respond to an RFP where a client’s needs outweigh your capability to deliver a service that matches.
A well-written RFP will make a client’s goals clear; even if not explicitly stated, areas of interest will be more detailed within the document. Evaluating the RFP documentation will allow you to create a list of ‘hot topics’ and essential requirements; these are the things that are most important to the client, and thus should be at the core of your response.
This evaluation will also give you a clear picture of what internal expertise you will need to bring into the team to create a winning proposal.
Create a Response Team
One thing is sure, Teamwork wins RFPs. Once you have evaluated a client’s RFP document, it’s time to assemble your team of superheroes.
Responding to an RFP can be a labor-intensive task, so creating a team of people from across your business will make light work of the job. A team spreads the workload and ensures you have the right mix of expertise to address all areas of the RFP confidently.
Depending on your industry, and the operational structure of your company, a team could comprise of representatives from:
- Sales & Account Management
- Technical teams
- Senior management
A typical team might consist of:
- Sales who ‘own’ the prospect relationship, and have a vision for the tone of the response, based upon their knowledge of the prospect.
- Technical experts who have the specialist knowledge needed to correctly address the prospect needs, as outlined in the RFP documentation.
- Marketing who will help finesse the proposal, from language to key selling points to creating a polished final presentation.
- Senior management who provide senior-level sponsorship.
Fewer bottlenecks and better quality responses.
Another advantage of having more people involved in the RFP response process is that no one department becomes overburdened by the responsibility of responding. If you are managing many responses to many proposals, it can be tempting to copy and paste standard company information from proposal to proposal or to keep repurposing the same set of examples. As a result, this can lead to stale and over-generalized responses.
However, bring fresh minds to the job, and you’re more likely to get new thinking and bespoke answers. The result will be content that’s richer and more precise, and that might propel you to the top of the final shortlist.
Creating a Powerful Proposal
A good RFP response will address the needs, key issues, values, and goals of a client. To be successful, you need to be responsive to a client’s needs; responsiveness means more than just being blindly compliant.
However, it is crucial to recognize that in the early stages of an RFP, the client is not looking for the “winner”, they are looking for the “losers”; those companies who don’t understand their needs or are unable to deliver a service that meets their requirements.
A good RFP response will consist of several important components:
- A cover letter
- An executive summary
- Your response to the main proposal request
- Any additional content you feel supports your proposal – charts, marketing material, case studies, etc.
- Your pricing
Think of each component of your RFP as a moving part of a larger machine; all of the RFP components are equally important. Combined should create a compelling argument for selecting your company over the competition. Your RFP should be considered a consultative selling opportunity – it’s all about the client.
Your cover letter is more than “here is your RFP response, thanks”, it’s a chance to make a commitment to the client. Show them that you want to be more than just another supplier, you understand their business, and that you’re the right choice for them.
The Executive Summary
The Executive Summary is an often misunderstood part of a proposal.
- What an Exec Summary is not: a ‘TL;DR’ or compressed version of the entire proposal for people too lazy to read your proposal.
- What an Exec Summary is: your chance to show the client you understand their business and their needs, and how your proposal is uniquely positioned above all others to address those needs.
The Executive Summary should deliver a concise management overview of your offer; effectively the bottom line of your proposal, in your own words. To sum it up, it is your best opportunity to reach the key decision-makers and convince them that your proposal is the best option for their company.
During your research phase, you will have identified what is most important to the client; this is a chance to show that you’ve paid attention and have their best interests at the heart of your response.
Use the Executive Summary to restate their objectives. Then link these objectives to the recommendations in your proposition and the benefits to the client. Show the client you have a clear understanding of their goals, and that you empathize with their needs:
- State their objectives as you see them (“you listen”)
- Show that you understand their objectives (“you empathize”)
- Display your expertise and how you can help (“you can deliver”)
It’s also a chance to uncover some of your ‘working’ – how you reached your recommendations and why.
Although the Executive Summary is a selling tool, you should avoid making it a hard sales pitch; you want to offer the client a solution, rather than making it seem like you are merely selling them your product.
RFP Executive Summary Sample Response
Your Executive summary should:
- Discuss the benefits of being a client
- Put your offer in the context of a client’s needs and priorities; this demonstrates your attention to detail and how you can help them
- The key reasons they should choose your company
- How our proposal adds value to their business; link features to benefits and prove your ability to deliver those benefits
- Behaviourally differentiate your business from the competition
- Position your business for a long term relationship, regardless of whether you are selected as a supplier or not; you might get another opportunity to win their business in the future.
You should aim for an Executive Summary that is no longer than 1-2 pages (1000 words).
Your proposal response should provide proof of the value you can offer, in the context of what is most important to the client. However, value is a subjective concept and changes depending on the situation – water is an everyday essential, but it has a higher value if you are stuck in the desert than if you are stood at the tap in your kitchen.
If you can show your offer is contextually valuable to the client, the price can become a secondary concern. As Warren Buffet said, “price is what you pay, value is what you get”.
Pricing should not form part of your primary response; it should be a separate section at the end. A proposal is a place for you to demonstrate your expertise; don’t distract the reader from your message with pricing. If you need to relate to pricing in your proposal, then refer them to the pricing section, instead of putting numbers into your proposal.
As many RFP proposals are written with an open question and answer format, it can feel like the format constricts creativity, particularly if the document contains a lot of closed questions. However, think of the questions as chapters in the overall story; there is likely to be a logical flow to what is being asked, so use that to guide the reader to your strengths and USPs.
You may find that some questions will be probing for answers that determine your ability to satisfy a more substantial need; target this effectively, and the client will empathize with your response on a closer level. Also, don’t be afraid to answer closed questions with open answers.
Case Studies & Examples
According to David Kutcher of Confluent Forms LLC, one of the most effective ways to create a compelling RFP response is to incorporate relevant examples. While the image and graphic assets you include in your answer (which are more accessible for people to find and use, thanks to your DAM) are worth a thousand words, Kutcher says it’s still important to spell out exactly how your past project experience relates specifically to your potential new client’s needs.
You can do this by both relating to appropriate case studies anecdotally in your answers, and by including full case studies as an appendix. However, rather than attaching a case study at the end and expecting a client to understand why it’s there, you should give it context. You can do this by taking your pre-existing case study and giving it a new introduction that explains how an existing client faced the same challenge and overcame it with your help. You can then reference this additional content in the main body of your response.
Digital Asset Management Drives Better Content.
If your firm has a Digital Asset Management (DAM) system, it can help to streamline the creation of your main proposal.
If your architects, engineers, and technical experts are hands-on in crafting proposal responses (which is more likely to happen if you have a DAM), then it enables those experts to get more hands-on with the response.
So who better to write content than the experts who do the work? They know which past projects are most relevant, and how what previous work can directly translate into success for new projects.
Using Digital Asset Management software as a collaboration tool means more efficient working for the whole bid team. Research by OpenAsset confirms this notion. Our survey revealed that, in AEC firms with a DAM, the time marketing teams spend working on RFP responses decreases. This is likely to be because of increased self-advocacy among other teams.
What is interesting is that, while marketers are less involved, firms with DAMs spend more time on the RFP process overall: over 50% of firms that have a digital asset management solution spend a full week or more on an RFP response compared to about a quarter of non-DAM users.
When you consider why that is, and the impact on the quality of RFP proposals as a result of that, it becomes clear that Digital Asset Management benefits the RFP process in more ways than one.
Ultimately, using a DAM can improve your proposals and not just visually. When a firm’s leaders and technical experts can easily collaborate, they can be more hands-on in proposal development.
Proposal Finishing Checklist
Once you have created a final draft of your proposal, go back through the whole response and assess what you have written.
- Answers should be clear and concise, but address the question thoroughly; ambiguity will cloud your proposal and prompt more clarification questions.
- Where appropriate, use diagrams, charts, and graphics to answer questions; some questions are better answered with a visual than explained in lengthy detail.
- Long documents are clearer to understand when they read correctly; check spelling and grammar.
- If you have taken information from the response to a previous RFP proposal, check to make sure you have not left any sensitive information, or other client names, in the text.
- If repurposing an old MS Word document, check the document properties – make sure no other client names or sensitive information is in the document properties.
Finally, look at your response objectively and think, “does this address their needs?”, and “would this proposal convince me if I were the customer?”. Does your response:
- Seem overly generic or feel like a bespoke proposal?
- Comply with most of their requirements?
- Empathize with their needs
- Talk about your business too much in a way that doesn’t connect to benefits for the client?
- Offer an inspired look into what value you can add?
- Offer a compelling story as to why they should choose you over the competition?
Branding Your Response
When it comes to the aesthetics of your proposal, your goal should be to give the client something against which to benchmark the other responses.
It is surprising how many industries still have relatively low standards, in terms of presentation, when it comes to branding an RFP — taking the time to create a proposal document that looks good increases your appearance of professionalism in the eyes of the client.
Proposal branding is where your marketing team can help you create a response that stands head and shoulders above the competition; they might be able to provide services such as creative guidance and copy-editing skills. Marketing may employ a Graphic Designer to professionally set your proposal in a DTP application, such as InDesign.
Think of your RFP response as a piece of long-form marketing literature and use your brand guidelines as a starting point. However, it is not always necessary to stick rigidly to your branding; sometimes, it is prudent to think about what the client would appreciate, then create something that feels familiar or resonates with the client.
If you are required to provide a hardcopy of the RFP response, you should look to have it printed at a print shop on higher quality paper, for example, at least 100 g/m2 weight and a matt/satin finish.