Think of the issuer
Having been in the proposal and RFP space for the better part of 20 years, I’m intimately familiar with the pains and challenges companies face when responding to RFPs (and all their variants).
Most companies are focused on responding as fast as they can, hopefully in time to meet the potential customer’s deadline, and see the RFP as a “necessary evil” component of the sales process.
But, have you ever considered the effort required to evaluate various RFP responses from all the respondents? Think of the RFP issuers that spend hours combing through multiple responses to make the right selection.
Over and over, I’ve seen that responses that make the evaluator’s job easier will advance, even if they don’t have the best fit or lowest price. With that in mind, consider the following techniques to help ensure your response is the one that makes the cut.
- Follow instructions
- Make their job as easy as possible
- Use formatting to make key differentiators stand out
- Keep bulleted lists brief
- Provide thoughtful answers
How to impress them
1. Above all, follow the RFP issuer’s instructions.
Yes, sometimes companies will make you jump through hoops, repeat yourself, have you fill out tedious forms and spreadsheets—all of which burns your time and may feel like wasted effort. But read, understand, and make sure you follow the instructions provided in the RFP, just as they were presented in the document. Your prospect has asked for what they need, and will appreciate the responses that match those requirements.
2. Make their job as easy as possible.
When responding to a questionnaire, you may see questions that have already been answered elsewhere in the document. It’s tempting to respond by saying, “See question No. 44”, or, simply including a URL, and moving on. Doing this might make your life easier, but it requires the RFP issuer to jump around in the response document, adding to their workload. Do this too much, and you can annoy them, subconsciously causing them to mark you down. If possible, answer the question fully, everywhere it is asked. After your response you can add a postscript, such as “also see question No. 44”.
3. Use clever formatting to make differentiators stand out.
Especially in long responses, evaluators may need to wade through an ocean of text, drowning out the key information you want them to see—for example, key differentiators or other standout data that will illuminate your company in its best light. My recommendation is to carefully use formatting techniques (bold font, call-out boxes, white space, highlighting, etc.) to draw attention to key points.
4. A few bullet points can go a long way.
Bullets are one of the most prolific devices used in content. Their intention, originally, was to draw readers’ attention to the adjacent content. However, they are almost always over-used. Research has shown that the optimal number of bullet points in a list is three. If you can help it, try not to use more than five. Any more than that, and the human brain tends to dismiss them as trivial, and move on, often without reading any of them!
5. Build credibility by giving thoughtful answers.
Most RFPs contain several straightforward questions that seek to clarify simple facts—e.g. those having to do with the size and history of your company, or key details of your recommended solution. But buried within the list will be the questions that carry the most weight, or will really get to the heart of the solution. When you come across those questions, don’t just answer them factually. Using this three-part structure can increase the persuasiveness of key answers.
- First, restate the question, and make it clear that you understand why it is important.
- Next, provide your answer, clearly and concisely.
- Finally, especially in the case you have made a claim or stated a differentiator, substantiate that claim, preferably with 3rd party evidence. For example, consider including a quote from a customer, or a recognized analyst.
I would be remiss if I didn’t give some credit to Tom Sant—a legend in the RFP and proposal space—for inspiring some of these tips. They have served me well, and are surely to give you an advantage when you’re being evaluated against your competition. If you’re interested in talking more about our solution for RFP response, we’re happy to schedule a demo.