Organizations issue requests for proposals (RFPs) because they have a problem that cannot be fixed internally. A big problem. That will cost lots of money. This isn’t calling a plumber to fix a clog. This is soliciting bids from multiple contractors for complete remodels, or to construct full-on additions.
RFPs are issued as questionnaires of up to thousands of questions and requests for specific content. If your company has a solution to the problem put forth by the issuer, then you respond with a proposal that includes all the answers and requested content. Depending on the size of the RFP, it can take you hours, days, or weeks to prepare a response. As long as you submit your completed RFP response by the deadline, then your solution will be considered.
Now here’s the rub. The issuer compares your RFP response with all of the other RFP responses received from your competitors. Sometimes, lowest price wins. Other times, best solution wins. Much of the time, the winner results from the best pitch — an umbrella term that includes the RFP response, relationships built with sales and subject matter experts (SMEs) during the process, pricing, reputation, and a variety of other factors. Then there are the times when winners are selected based on prior or existing relationships between the two organizations.
No matter what the deciding factor between an RFP win or loss, the ultimate truth is that you have to compose an RFP response to have a chance. Why not put your best foot forward?
How to respond to an RFP
The RFP response process is cyclical, not linear. I’ll get into more of that in the best practices section. For the sake of getting a proposal out the door, you need to follow these eight steps after you first learn about the RFP.
- Qualify the bid — Is this worth going after? As I mentioned earlier, RFP responses can take weeks to compose. Starting off with a Go/No-go checkpoint gives you an opportunity to evaluate how your solution measures up, the financial viability of the project, availability of resources you’ll need to submit a response by the deadline, and any other factors that will impact your business during the response process. Essentially, building a proposal is like investing in your future. Every investment requires close scrutiny.
- Understand requirements — What do you need to get it done? This ranges everywhere from content to who produces the content to who is responsible for signing off on the final proposal. The list can be quite lengthy, but it must be comprehensive to make sure nothing falls through the cracks.
- Answer commonly seen questions — Pull from your content library to fill in answers to commonly seen questions. If anything needs to be reviewed by a subject matter expert, be sure to get their eyes on it before submission.
- Assign due dates and tasks to key collaborators — Whose expertise do you need to get this done? After you determine requirements, you’ll identify all the milestones. There’ll be due dates for content, reviews, edits, and approvals for multiple collaborators. The trick is respecting everyone’s time while driving the process forward.
- Assign questions for review and approval — Who needs to sign off on this content? Likely, this will not be a Caesar sitting in the stands giving thumbs up or down. You’ll have multiple approvers to sign-off on content related to sales, product, support, legal, branding, etc.
- Polish — Make sure you’re telling the story you want to tell. Add visuals or other supporting content to tell your story better. This is where you can nail the competitive differentiation. If you have the good fortune to have a dedicated proposal team, this may fall on writing and design specialists within that team. It may also be someone from branding or marketing — someone who puts eyes on anything that your organization produces for external audiences. Ensure your proposal is in a clean, easy-to-read format. Or, even better, put it into a branded template.
- Proofread — Don’t let poor grammar and typos be the reason you lose the bid.
- Submit to issuer — Push send with no regerts (See? Proofreading is important!).
Best practices for responding to an RFP
Build the right team
Proposal managers lead the proposal team. I’m talking about more than just the proposal “department,” if you have one. There, leadership is more about mentoring, training, delegating, and establishing a reputation within the organization. It’s certainly important, but this is the team that drives the process. The proposal team I’m referring to is made up of the individuals you rely on for prospect and customer interaction, subject matter expertise, brand messaging, IT support, and all of the other details vital to creating a winning proposal.
Even a one-person proposal department needs input from internal or external SMEs to build a high-quality response. Proposal managers may think of themselves as the director of a motion picture. After that “Directed by” end title flashes, another three minutes of credits roll by.
Whether you have a dedicated team of stakeholders from each department or you assign a new team for each project, what matters most is that everyone in the organization recognizes that they have skin in the game. RFP wins, proactive sales proposals, and fast turnaround on questionnaires equate to revenue and may determine whether the company grows, shrinks, or offers an extra percentage point in next year’s retirement fund match.
Only respond to RFPs you can win
As part of your bid-qualifying at the beginning of your RFP response process, add a Go/No-go checkpoint to ensure that you only respond to RFPs you can win. Whether it’s a scheduled team meeting or a checklist, you need to answer:
- Is the RFP the right fit for your organization and solution?
- Do you have a comprehensive solution that addresses all of the challenges presented in the request?
- Does your pricing match the budget?
- Do you have an existing or prior relationship with the issuing organization?
- Do you have any insight into why the RFP has been issued?
- Can you meet the submission deadline?
Basing the answers to these questions on data rather than anecdotal evidence will help validate the Go/No-go step as well as your role as a proposal manager. Gathering that data is one of the advantages of working in RFP software.
Respect contributors’ time
If you want SMEs and other stakeholders to feel a sense of ownership for their proposal responsibilities, then you have to respect their time. RFP responses will suffer if contributors end up working after hours and weekends, rushing to meet deadlines. Get their buy-in ahead of time on deadlines and time required for reviews and approvals.
Document your process
A documented RFP response process will anchor your team during the most chaotic times. It’s up to you to own the process, but RFP software will make it easier to automate, execute, and monitor processes from beginning to end on multiple projects running simultaneously.
Conduct a win/loss review
The win-loss review gives your team an opportunity to close the loop. Internally evaluate what worked and what didn’t.
Did you win? Why? How can you repeat it for future proposals?
Did you lose? Why? How can you avoid it in future proposals?
Include the whole proposal team in a wrap-up summary, but make the extra effort to work hand-in-hand with sales enablement so they can bring in the customer perspective.
Remember earlier when I said the RFP response process is cyclical? The win/loss review will inform your new Go/No-go step, increasing your predictive accuracy of which RFPs you can actually win. It helps to have RFP software for a win-loss review because you have everything that went into the response—the planning, communication, content, and the actual response—in one place.
Let technology do the heavy lifting
Speaking of RFP software…it’s the single most effective way to overcome lack of experience. It’s the difference maker that will help you respond like a boss. With only 43% of organizations using RFP-specific technology, there’s a huge opportunity for you to get a leg up on competitors.
RFP software makes it easier to collaborate with an extended team and leverage the power of technology. With automated processes for scheduling, collaboration, and completing wide swaths of massive RFPs using answer libraries, you can blaze through the first pass of a response faster than working without RFP software. You create more time to spend customizing the responses that really matter and focus on differentiating yourself from the competition. And that’s only the beginning! Here’s a quick overview of how RFP software helps each of the seven steps of responding to an RFP:
- Qualify the bid — Check data from past similar RFPs. What took weeks without RFP software may only take hours with it. All things being equal, is this RFP winnable?
- Understand requirements — Let the tool create a checklist of open items based on what remains after the automated first pass conducted at intake by your Answer Library.
- Answer commonly seen questions — RFP technology consolidates all your previous Q&A pairs into an intelligent answer library, so you can automatically respond to repeat questions in just a few clicks.
- Assign due dates and tasks to key collaborators — Assign each RFP question or section as a task to individual collaborators from the project dashboard in RFPIO. They’ll then receive a notification from where they’re already working (e.g. email, Slack, or Teams).
- Assign questions for review and approval — Simplify the review and approval process with automated reminders and cues across multiple platforms.
- Polish — From intake, work within a branded template and support answers with approved content that’s always up-to-date according to the SME in charge of that content.
- Proofread — Still important, but working with already-approved content will decrease how much you have to proofread.
- Submit to issuer — Push send from RFPIO or your integrated CRM!
We recently created a Proposal Management Benchmark Report where we found that 75% of respondents plan to respond to more RFPs in 2021 than they did in 2020. We also found that organizations using RFP software already managed 43% more RFPs than those who do not use RFP software. If you’re looking to speed ahead of the field in RFP response, then gain traction faster with RFP software.
I’ll just leave these other tidbits right here…
Recognize SMEs and salespeople at quarterly meetings. Salespeople are competitive and like to be recognized for winning.
Implement formal kickoff meetings for RFPs. Make them quick and include pre-reading materials in the invitation to hit the ground running. Some organizations combine this with a Go/No-go checkpoint.
Hold 15-minute daily standup meetings or calls as you approach the RFP deadline. Focus on status reports and action items.
Commit to professional development time. Join this LinkedIn group, the response management Slack community, or connect with APMP. This is especially valuable for small shops, where it can be hard to build a network.
If this has inspired you to investigate RFP software, then schedule an RFPIO demo today!