How to respond to an RFP with no fear
Request. For. Proposal. RFP.
Do the words above strike fearful in you? Or do you see them and feel inspired, recognizing an opportunity to grow your business?
If the former is true for you, it’s perfectly understandable. But no one should be afraid of an RFP, because each one presents a great opportunity to not only secure new business but also to refine your business proposal writing skills.
Before we switch to the practical tips on how to respond to an RFP, let’s explain what these letters mean precisely by answering the questions “What is a business proposal?” and “What is a request for proposal”? It should come as no surprise that these two concepts are closely related.
A business proposal is a document in which you offer a product or service to your client and show the value it can bring to their business. Business proposals are mostly used by B2B companies, and they include:
Where you persuade your client that you understand their pains and challenges.
A detailed explanation why your product or service can help as well as a plan of action.
Pricing, deadlines, details on third-party involvement, etc.
Usually, you send the proposal to a company when you think they might need your help now or later. However, businesses often release a request for proposal (RFP) when they’ve already encountered a problem and require an immediate solution.
In this case, they want you (or somebody else) to respond to their request with a business proposal and tell them how you are going to address their issue. An RFP seems like a slam dunk to win a new client quickly with little effort. And actually, it is.
But there is a pitfall: not every response is meant to win. You’re not the only one who will send a proposal to the company, so you need to make sure your company stands out and is the top dog in a heap of competition. Your primary goal is to convince the RFP issuer that you are the best fit for their needs.
To succeed, your RFP proposal response should be informative, valuable, and transparent. Don’t include a pushy call to action or boast too much. Instead, add detailed descriptions of your understanding of the client’s goals and your methods to achieve them.
Focus more on the client’s needs than on your own experience, but don’t forget to include some social proof that illustrates your professionalism and ability to solve their particular issue. Tip: it’s great to provide the RFP issuer with some example of your past work which resulted in the success of your previous client.
So with that in mind, let’s take a look at how to make the most of each and every RFP that comes your way with twelve sweet tips.
Check out PandaDoc ready-made request for proposal template to better understand the main points.
Tip 1. They want you to respond
When a company or organization issues a request for proposal, they are looking for the best provider to come forward to handle their project. Out of the whole wide world, the issuer of the RFP is after the best fit for their unique demands. And that’s where you come in.
You have to respond accordingly to the RFP with a great business proposal. You already know your industry, and you will know right away if you can fulfill the requirements outlined in a given RFP. Once you’ve decided that you can meet the obligations described in the RFP, the challenge becomes convincing the prospective customer that you can deliver what they need.
In a completely hypothetical (wink, wink) example, say you’re a web developer, and you stumble on an RFP to help fix an entirely broken government website, and you’ve got the skills needed to fix it, it’s up to you to put your name in the hat.
In short, if your skills match with an RFP, half the battle is won. Put aside your fears because it’s time to start planning your business proposal!
Tip 2. They want you to be competitive
Even though you know you’re the best fit for a project, a request for proposal is open to anyone. Entities that post-RFPs are looking for options. By nature, then, RFPs are a competitive engagement. This puts added emphasis on competitive analysis in composing your proposal.
You need to have a keen insight into the market – to know who will respond and what their approach will be. If you’ve ever seen the Mad Men Season 4 episode “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword,” you have seen the competitive side of RFPs played out dramatically. Of course, that brings to mind another point: always play by the rules. (If you haven’t already done so, you’ll have to watch the episode to know just what we mean).
RFPs are usually quite explicit about the requirements they expect in a winning business proposal. The requesting body is looking for an earnest explanation of how you can satisfy all of the requirements. If you spot a challenge, the prospect is probably aware of it too, so the best practice is to acknowledge those challenges in your business proposal. Glazing over difficulties (a la Cutler, Gleason, & Chaough on Mad Men) can potentially send a wrong signal to the prospect.
Tip 3. Don’t boast, but tell them you’re financially solvent
One thing you might not have given much consideration to is the fact that prospective customers want to do business with companies that will be around long enough to see the project through to completion.
If you’re a Web marketing firm and you respond to a request for proposal calling for a yearlong campaign, the prospective customer needs to know that you’re not a fly-by-night, here-today-gone-tomorrow outfit. This does not mean you need to reveal your cash-on-hand balance, necessarily.
But you should be perfectly willing to disclose financial standing in a general way. Likewise, if you’ve been in business for a decade and have seen exponential sales growth, that’s the kind of thing to state in your business proposal in response to an RFP. This is done merely to ease the prospective customer’s mind so they will feel that your company is a safe bet.
Tip 4. Don’t let an RFP bid bankrupt your business
This is one of the glaring flaws of the RFP concept.
The next necessary admission in the world of RFPs is that you still need to stick to your guns and preserve your rates when tendering an RFP. Because you are forced to engage in competition, by nature, in responding to a request for proposal, you may find yourself alongside second-rate competitors who are willing to operate on a shoestring budget.
That doesn’t mean you should stoop to their level. If the fixed budget doesn’t realize a return for you, deal yourself out of the bidding right away. If the prospective customer responds asking for a lower price that will hurt your business, you’ll want to politely bow out of the running.
Do stand your ground and work to make sure RFP business is worth your while. Don’t waste your time on responding to RFPs that won’t be worth it.
Tip 5. Confirm that all specifications can be met
RFPs, ideally, are as specific as humanly possible. Pay careful attention to the small details in laid out in the request for proposal. If you’re a Web developer and the RFP calls for a maximum simultaneous user threshold of 30,000 visitors per hour, make sure you mention in the proposal that you can deliver a website that can handle that level of traffic, as an example.
The devil is truly in the details, and your prospective customers are looking for you to indicate that you can nail down all the little things that matter. Sometimes, leaving out a response to one tiny, nuanced detail can cost you the winning bid, so don’t let it happen to your business. Carefully read and re-read all RFP requirements and make sure that you respond accordingly.
Tip 6. Mirror the RFP’s structure in your response
In the past, we’ve detailed the major parts of a typical business proposal that you should generally stick to in most situations. But proposals sent in response to RFPs can be one of the few times when you go off the script to respond in a way that mirrors the structure of the request for proposal itself.
With high likelihood, the organization offering the RFP will front-load factors in order of importance. So, if they request a certain budget upfront, ahead of other factors, your business proposal should broach the issue sooner rather than later.
Whatever the organization of the RFP is, your proposal should reflect it. If you were to read most any instructional document telling organizations how to write an RFP, you would find that they often encourage putting careful thought into the structure of the request. If they’re thinking about it, you should be too.
Tip 7. Always respond on time
Each and every request for proposal comes with a due date for proposals. It may seem obvious, but it behooves you to be on time with the RFP, as late ones will automatically be rejected and will send an unprofessional signal. Timing is everything in business, and you want to show the prospective customer how much you respect the need for timeliness.
Getting the RFP in on time also lets the customer know that you can complete the project you are vying for in the time frame expected (and thus, on budget). This tip is one you can’t afford to miss.
Tip 8. Understand the selection criteria
Another aspect of the request for proposal that you will want to pay careful attention to is the selection criteria. Many RFPs will disclose how responses will be “graded.” This is a lot like the rubrics you might have seen in your college days telling you how essays would be graded. And you should use selection criteria as such, just as you would have made use of those rubrics to improve your essay scores.
Make notes of all parts of the business proposal process as outlined in the RFP and work to put a nice, big “check” beside each selection criterion.
Tip 9. Respond in the correct format
This is another tip that may seem a little obvious, but it’s one that companies sometimes miss.
Your business proposal needs to conform to the correct format. If the request for proposal came by snail mail and demands that any response is to be made by the same means, you will want to kindly oblige. In the digital age, you will most often receive electronic RFPs and will, of course, want to respond in a digital format, too.
Always pay attention to the format your prospective customer expects your business proposal to fit.
Tip 10. Send the proposal directly to the decision maker
Here’s another seemingly obvious tip that is often overlooked, unfortunately.
Your business proposals are always most helpful when they are in the hands of a decision maker. Usually, the RFP will just ask for the proposal, implying that you should send yours to the general address of the business.
But research is essential to any successful business proposal. A little rudimentary investigation into the prospective organization will help you get the proposal directly to the decision maker with authority to award you the business. Once you have determined just who that person is, you can address your proposal to them by name, “c/o” the company, of course. This applies to snail mail as well as digital delivery.
On a corresponding note, make sure you designate one person to be the point-of-contact with the other company and try to establish one person on their side to communicate with throughout the proposal process.
Tip 11. Assemble your team, sooner rather than later
Your team members will be essential to the completion of the project you are bidding on. As such, it’s often wise to involve them early in the business proposal process to make sure they are apprised of all the expectations outlined in the RFP and that you accurately describe the work they will perform should the proposal be accepted.
The core team that will execute the project will also be ideal personnel to provide authoritative research and other contributions in writing the business proposal. The sooner you get your essential team involved, the better off you will be.
Tip 12. Emphasize the value of choosing you
As we’ve already covered, responding to an RFP is already a competitive exercise. You can’t always stand out above the pack based on pricing alone, because you can’t afford to cut your prices down to the point where you get nothing in return, as your competitors may be able to.
But the one thing you can do is emphasize the value of choosing your proposal.
What makes your offer different? If you can’t complete the project for less money, can you do it faster, or with better quality results? These are the kinds of questions you should be asking yourself as you start to draft your business proposal.
Your unique offer can overcome aggressive price competitors, so long as you remember to emphasize the benefits of choosing your proposal over the other guys, adding value to the process.
When all else fails…
PRACTICE! Maybe you will gain your confidence by seeing it from their point of view. Take a gander at our request for proposal template to learn how it works on the other side. How would you respond this proposal? If nothing else, it’ll let you prepare for objections and make sure you’re answering the usual questions which they may be forgetting to ask.
Bonus: 3 requests for proposal best practices to speed up creation
You aren’t a particular case if you want to know how to close more deals as fast as possible. To speed up this process while working with RFP’s, you need to speed up their creation.
We’ve prepared 3 RFP best practices to save you time.
1. Establish a clear-cut response process
Even though the companies you work with are different, the persuasion process is the same. You’ve continued to provide people with the same goods and services over the years, so it makes sense to define the main points which should be present in your response anyway. Aside from using a ready template, review critical parts of a business proposal and apply them to your company’s specialties.
2. Organize your content library
A content library might come in handy when you need to take a look at your previous responses (or even prior RFP’s from clients). You may want to copy a part of the past responses and paste it into your current response. Also, you’ll want to back up your arguments with the results of your recent work, so your content should be well-organized to reduce searching time.
3. Make your documents visible
It’s almost impossible to know the current status of each proposal without using advanced analytics. The best way gain visibility into your documents is to use specific RFP software. Proposal software automatically creates actionable insights and informs you each time your recipient viewed a document.
Are you winning bids in response to RFPs? Are they worth it?
You can say a lot about the RFP concept. In fact, there are some who are declaring the RFP a dead idea in the world of modern business. But for now, in many industries, the request for proposal is quite alive and well, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.
If your industry is one that frequently makes use of RFPs, you’ll want to make the most of each and every one that crosses your path. Every new RFP is actually an opportunity, not something to be afraid of or anxious about. With a healthy dose of confidence and some excellent business proposal writing skills, you can win new business with the RFPs that come your way, time and time again.
What do you think about RFPs? Are they worth responding to? Should they follow the Dodo to extinction? We’d love to know what you think, so please drop your two cents in the comment space below.
Originally published March 4, 2014, updated May 3, 2018