By Ganesh Shankar
For many sales executives, the thought of going through a lengthy request for proposal (RFP) process can be daunting. Was your company sent the RFP because it offers the best solution or were you simply tapped because the buyers want to show due diligence? I think of RFPs as a competitive sport, similar to a car race, where there is only one winner who gets to stand on the podium. Any edge you can find that will give you an advantage, even the smallest advantage, is worth pursuing. It’s a cutthroat business where only the strong will survive.
Before diving into the ways to win an RFP, it’s important to understand why organizations lose RFPs to competitors. From my experience there are three consistent reasons why organizations lose RFPs:
The first reason for losing RFPs is based on time. This may sound simple, but I see it over and over again. Putting together answers for an RFP takes time and requires input from multiple sources. Not everyone works on the same schedule and it’s critical to enlist the help of others in advance to develop the best RFP responses. On the same note, it’s important to respond in a timely manner. Making your response process more efficient through smart collaboration and a knowledge base are keys to managing your time.
The second reason for losing RFPs focuses on the content you’re delivering. RFPs responses can be a massive undertaking and it’s easy to try to use shortcuts such as cutting-and-pasting from previous RFPs. If an answer or example worked in another RFP, it must work for all RFPs, right? No. You must spend time thinking about what the customer wants for each answer. I’ve read many RFP responses over the years and it is easy to spot a response that has been rushed or is incomplete.
Lastly, the cumulative impact of the top two reasons is that the RFP response is deemed not worthy and your company loses the opportunity by default.
Key To Winning An RFP — Build Solid Relationships
Someone once asked me why it’s important to build a relationship with the customer during an RFP. The person felt that every company that submits answers for an RFP is on equal footing and relationships shouldn’t really matter. While that might be true in some cases, on the whole, relationships can make or break a deal.
As my colleague, Konnor Martin, wrote in his blog post This is What it Takes to Win an RFP From Start to Finish, there are three things you should do to help build a strong relationship with your customer:
Having a relationship with a customer before the RFP process ends can help tremendously. It helps the customer understand you, your product or service, and what’s in it for them. They’re not coming into this RFP blind. They will already have a knowledge of your product, personnel, and skills and they can see the benefits more clearly. What’s more, you may be able to influence and shape the RFP itself, positioning your company to come out on top. To be sure, your competitors are planning the same game.
In this model, you prioritize your connection with the customer over all other aspects of the sale. To be effective, you must develop trust by adding value and spending a lot of time with prospects throughout the process.
Research, Research, And More Research
Be diligent in your research. Increasing your RFP win rate involves a lot of homework up-front and it’s clear from my experience that having as much information available as possible can be the key to winning an RFP. As Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google said of information, “It's a tremendous equalizer. Information is power.”
One tactic I use is to find out everything I can about the person or small group of people who are making the final decision. I read the LinkedIn profiles of the key decision makers to see what I can find out about them: where they have worked before, what their goals are, and who they know that I may know, even what school they attended.
For instance, if the person leading the RFP is new to the company, they may be wanting to make a big splash with their first big project. When you do your research, it gives you a few more talking points so you can build a little rapport. People tend to respond better when they recognize the extra effort and it’s also easier to follow up with them later on.
Show That You’ve Done Your Homework
By conducting research on the people, company and goals behind an RFP you can develop detailed questions to help craft your answers. By preparing a list of questions, ones that are tied to specific issues and goals, demonstrates to the customer that you have done your homework and you are thorough in your processes. Asking smart questions also can give you insights you weren’t expecting.
For example, during a recent meeting I asked a fairly simple question to a prospect about their current RFP process to see how our response management platform might fit in. They told me, “We’re moving to a cloud model and migrating all of our content to SharePoint.”
This helped me understand exactly which features I needed to share about RFPIO so they quickly understood the value of our solution. I didn’t highlight features they wouldn’t care about. Knowing these specifics made the conversation worthwhile for both of us. Then, I was able to communicate that sales intelligence to our RFP writers so they could create better content.
After The RFP Is Done, Follow-Up
There are some practical steps you can take to ensure your RFP has the best chance of winning. And, these steps are often missed by organizations because they don’t build a follow-up strategy into the master plan.
This first step may sound like a no-brainer, but I’ll say it anyway. After you submit your RFP, confirm that the issuer received it. This gives you an opportunity to continue the dialog with the decision maker. That quick email gives them the impression you are eager to do business with them.
Sometimes they don’t let you know you have moved on to the second round promptly, so again a quick call can help. Use that time to briefly reinforce how your service or product plays in with their future plans.
As part of the follow-up process, make sure that you have a way to track interactions and share ideas within the team and with the prospect. And be sure to tap software tools that can automatically alert you about different tasks, follow-ups and improve collaboration.
Winning RFPs is significant for your company’s bottom line. If you look at the dollar amount of the total projects you could win, it might be huge if you are consistently winning bids with perfectly tailored proposals. The relationship is an important part of both your RFP process and your sales process. Put some time and energy there and you’ll see the pay-off.
About The Author
Ganesh Shankar, Chief Executive Officer, RFPIO