The Promise and Peril of RFPs

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Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado; photo by the author

Being invited to participate in requests for proposals (RFPs) is a great sign for your business because it means that:

  • Buyer awareness that a product or service like yours is valuable has increased. Your market is maturing into a real category.
  • Your company has strong enough brand awareness and reputation to be sent RFPs in the first place (they’re almost always inbound).
  • Deal sizes are increasing or are poised to increase, since most RFPs come from enterprise or upper-mid-market buyers.

There’s no better standard for “qualified lead” than “received an RFP.” Why, then, do sales teams cringe at the first mention of an RFP? In my experience there are four reasons, two of which are red herrings:

  • They’re worried they aren’t a good fit for the RFP. If true, the solution is easy: decline to participate, just as you would disqualify any other lead that didn’t fit your ideal customer profile. Unfortunately, some companies have RFP fever: a compulsion to respond to every RFP because their big and juicy appearance clouds good judgment.
  • Sales cycles that include an RFP require a lot of time and effort. While true, the presence of an RFP isn’t the cause. Time and effort required primarily is a function of deal size and complexity. RFPs tend to be for larger and more complex deals, hence the correlation with more time and effort. If you want to win big deals, you need to put in the work!
  • RFPs put you in a straitjacket. Communication with the prospect is funneled through procurement (and probably prohibited outright before submitting a response), so discovery is out of the question. The questions don’t facilitate telling your story well. You need to include a pricing proposal even though elements of the solution are unknown.
  • The process for responding to RFPs is terrible. You need to download the RFP, divide it up amongst perhaps a half dozen contributors, copy and paste content from previous proposals, track and merge versions, mess around with formatting to make it look half decent, and upload the completed response via an arcane procurement web portal. Ugh. It’s no wonder little time is left for thinking critically about how to best position your company to win the deal.

Yeah, RFPs can be tough. Here are five suggestions for creating better proposals that also reduce angst.

If you think responding to an RFP is hard, try creating one! To avoid starting from scratch, many buyers borrow an RFP from a prior company, or from a colleague at another company, and customize it. You can help buyers, and shape RFPs in your favor, by publishing a sample on your website. Smartling published a sample translation RFP a few years ago. In addition to influencing many of the RFPs we receive, it’s become a good source of leads.

Every proposal should begin with a strong executive summary. I like to keep it to two pages and assume it’s the only part of the proposal that will be read from start to finish. That means it needs to introduce the company, communicate an expert understanding of the buyer’s requirements, and explain why the buyer needs your unique capabilities.

Labor over the executive summary. Every word should be carefully selected. Don’t use your company’s jargon, which the buyer may not understand. Share it with as many people as possible, especially people that aren’t involved in the deal at all; more likely than not, they’ll be the ones who provide you with the most valuable feedback.

I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but no one is going to read your entire proposal, making it all the more important for you to follow the one sentence / paragraph / page framework.

Go a step further and start your answer to every yes or no question with a one-word answer: Yes. Do you integrate with Adobe Experience Manager? Yes. What about with Salesforce Commerce Cloud? Yes. You may even want to answer YES, so it really stands out, because again: no one is going to read your entire proposal, or read it carefully. If it’s to your advantage to expand on yes, do so only after you’ve said yes.

By the way, I’m not advocating that you say yes when the answer is actually no. If the answer is no, give the one-sentence or one-paragraph explanation of what is possible, or of what additional information is needed for you to assess your ability to meet the requirement.

It’s unlikely that an RFP will include all the information you need to provide a full and accurate pricing proposal. Even if it does you may still want to avoid giving one; after all, you probably don’t know the competitive landscape for the deal or how highly (or not) your unique capabilities are valued by the buyer, either of which might influence your proposal.

Instead, describe how your pricing works (including minimums, if any); give a handful of prices for similar, anonymized use cases (or less effective, a price range); and clearly state each additional piece of information that you require in order to make a firm proposal.

I can’t imagine going back to a time before Ombud, the decision management platform we’ve used for almost two years. It eliminates the mechanical pains of responding to RFPs that I described earlier, freeing our team to write better content and win more deals. We now have nearly 100 employees using the platform, including our product, security, and legal teams.

You should realize benefits from putting these suggestions into practice almost immediately, and see improved RFP win rates within one sales cycle. I’d love to hear about your experience if you give any of them a try.

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Written by

Chief Customer Officer at Brightflag. I write about issues relevant to and situations faced by SaaS companies as they scale.

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