Some days it feels like responding to a Request for Proposal (RFP) is a roll of the dice.
You spend days, or even weeks, preparing a thoughtful RFP response.
You’re all in on the RFP process, pulling all-nighters to make tight deadlines.
Under the best case scenario, your efforts are rewarded when you win the work.
But if you don’t earn the contract, an RFP cycle is a frustrating affair that can leave your team feeling overwhelmed, demotivated, and exhausted.
Now, there’s a lot of factors that come into play when your enter the RFP race. Are existing/past vendors bidding? Do you have a proven record of results in the industry?
You’re not alone in your struggle to unravel the RFP process.
Study after study has been dedicated to uncovering the best practices for RFP responses.
What if you could stack the odds in your favor?
The good news is there is a way to play to win. A strategy that relies on the strength of your RFP response.
We’ve researched best practices to help you develop RFP responses that close the deal.
What’s Included in an RFP response?
If this is your first RFP, it helps to understand the basics of the RFP process.
- A company issues an RFP for a specific project, e.g., social media monitoring, online marketing, or website development.
- They’ll include details covering the scope of work, price, and other specific requirements.
- Potential bidders, like your company, submit their proposals.
- The issuer scores each RFP response and selects a winner.
Most RFP processes are similar, though some might be more complex, depending on the organization. Your RFP response will usually need to conform to specific guidelines.
Broadly, it should include:
- Your proposed plan
- Timeline and key deliverables
- Previous work relevant to industry
- Answers to specific client questions
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) suggests highlighting a proven ability to perform, understanding of the issuer’s organization, and demonstrated financial soundness.
So, let’s get to the strategies that set you up for success.
How to Draft a Winning RFP Response
A great RFP response keeps the focus on the most important areas of the proposal: your competitive strengths and the buyer’s selection criteria.
Use these tips to draw attention to these crucial areas.
Pick RFPs Wisely
An RFP response demands a significant time investment. One study of 1,500 RFPs found it took an average of seven days before the issuer received the first bid.
But researching and writing a comprehensive RFP response can take weeks or even months. It’s a gruelling activity that can pull your team in all directions.
As if that’s not enough, by the time you come up for air, other areas of the business might have fallen behind.
And that’s exactly why you don’t need to respond to every RFP.
Determine if you have the skills, time, and experience to do the work.
A few starting points to consider:
- Evaluation criteria. Do you meet the minimum criteria? The buyer can, for example, invite businesses that have been operating for at least three years. Companies that don’t tick that box are automatically eliminated.
- Timeline. Can you realistically meet the deadline for the RFP response? And even if you’re able to pull together a quick proposal, do you have enough time to prepare a detailed response?
- Opportunity cost. The RFP will be a major distraction. Assess the value of what you’ll be sacrificing when you throw your hat in the ring.
- Odds of winning the bid. Do you have a proven track record in the issuer’s industry? Is the project the right match for your expertise?
Do an analysis before you commit your team to the RFP process. Remember, there will be several more RFPs to come.
Review the RFP
The first step to closing the deal is gaining a thorough understanding of the project.
- What exactly does the client want?
- What are their expectations?
- What is required from you?
For the U.S Small Business Administration, a failure to understand the RFP puts many companies out of contention. Moreover, you’re also likely to submit an incomplete bid, another disqualifying factor. By contrast, fully grasping the RFP puts you in a better position to communicate how you will meet the client’s needs.
If you’ve studied the RFP and you still have questions, take them directly to the issuer.
One study, focusing on RFP processes in software, found there was usually little communication between vendors and issuers.
Businesses don’t understand requirements so they end up handing in non-compliant bids.
Typically, a specific person is designated to handle clarifications. Keep your questions concise and reference a direct section of the RFP.
Remember that your question and response will be shared with all bidders. So, you don’t want to reveal information that discloses your competitive advantage. On the other hand, if you study questions from other bidders, you might discover details about their strategy.
Read the Evaluation Criteria
Use the evaluation criteria to guide your focus; clients will be scoring bids against these requirements.
Here’s an example from Microsoft’s Surface Hub. The RFP states that bids will be evaluated on qualifications, timelines, and overall ability to finish the project.
This RFP from the Government of Bermuda calls for a company to perform social media marketing. Selection criteria includes experience in the public sector and social media. So, a solid proposal would prominently feature a trending Twitter campaign for a national government unit, for instance.
Prune your list of past projects to the ones that reflect the clients needs, removing irrelevant experience. What you want to do is present your solution and expertise so that it aligns with your client’s priorities.
Follow the Rules
Achieving compliance is key to winning the bid. This means that even if you ace the evaluation, you’ll still lose out if your proposal is marked as non-compliant.
Clients might indicate submission instructions, e.g., delivered by post to a physical office.
Make a careful note of:
- Word counts
- Formatting guidelines
Beyond those specifications, most RFPs contain questions you need to answer. Issuers encourage bidders to label their responses correctly to avoid being disqualified on a technicality.
Some RFPs will specify a structure. For example, this UNAID’s RFP for IT Services contains a proposal structure, plus a list of required contents.
Is the Price Right?
When you’re pulling together your RFP, it’s common to get stuck on pricing.
Great RFP pricing is “saleable, profitable, and deliverable”. Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?
But getting that mix just right isn’t always straightforward.
Some companies go too low, and others pitch unrealistic pricing. Although price is an important factor, you want to avoid the trap of quoting too low.
How can you go wrong by undercutting the competition?
The buyer might think you don’t fully understand the project and might not be able to deliver. Plus, you can’t win a bid on the lowest price alone. One tactic is to quote a higher price and leave room for negotiation.
Another answer is to use value-based pricing that comes with “value metrics” —indicators that prove the value of your service. On top of that, basing your estimations on accurate data is key.
Emphasize your Competitive Advantage
Now costs aside, what makes you better than the rest?
Think about this way: an RFP is a sales document. It’s your chance to persuade the buyer that your company is the best choice for the job.
Maybe you have a way of working that will provide superior results in the fastest period of time? Perhaps you have specialized experience in the buyer’s industry?
Take a close look at your RFP response and determine:
- Is it clear how your solution is different from competing bidders?
- Is the value of your solution evident?
- Is it obvious how your plan will help the client achieve their objectives?
Presentation is another way to stand out from other bids. Create a visually appealing RFP, including images and graphs. Use clear language, and proofread the document to catch any errors.
Establish an Internal RFP Process
Preparing a stand-out RFP response takes a lot of time. Fortunately, you can take a few steps to make the entire process more efficient.
Set up an internal RFP team. These staff members will own the process and pull together all the information you need. Ideally, they’ll follow a documented, default procedure for each RFP response.
Use templates. If you’ve already completed a few RFPs, save and reuse those templates. Templates should include the standard materials, e.g., success rate data, images and graphs, customer testimonials, and team profiles. Store your templates using a cloud-based tool like eversign.
Boost Your Chances by Crafting the Perfect RFP Response
Participating in the RFP process pits your company against multiple competing bidders.
It’s an extensive exercise. One that calls for considerable effort from your team. But the payoff can be huge.
These strategies tip the scales in your favor.
What’s your advice for writing successful RFP responses?