Why your RFP Responses aren't Winning As often as they Should
RFPs are time consuming, burdensome, and expensive. Absent an existing client relationship, win rates are notoriously low. And unless you have a dedicated writing and design team to respond to requests, they are exceptionally difficult to put together well in the tight timeframes allowed.
The only way to be confident you’re maximizing their potential is to first define what makes an RFP response excellent. This requires defined processes, quality measures, and clear benchmarks to avoid ad hoc, inconsistent, and subpar proposals.
No method is madness
Throughout my 25+ year career, I have written hundreds of responses to corporations, law firms, and government entities. As a freelance writer, I have written and designed dozens more on behalf of clients who wanted to “up their game.”
What I found is that most companies approach RFPs in an ad hoc fashion, struggle to get answers from their various SMEs in a timely manner, rely on outdated (read wrong) information from old responses, and typically lack the writing and document design skills needed to create the kind of RFP that delivers winning potential. Let alone craft responses that stand up to higher resourced and more sophisticated competitors.
What I discovered
- No real analysis of the RFP, client research, or integration of any sales or pre-sales insights
- Little if any relationship to the structure or criteria of the RFP
- Factual inconsistencies and errors regarding product and service specifications (thanks largely to cut and paste from old responses)
- No defined processes
- No defined roles and responsibilities (RACI)
- No single source of truth
- No consistency between responses
- No agreed document formatting and design elements
- No adherence to brand guidelines
- No compelling narrative or focus, and
- Writing stuffed with sales and marketing fluff and stale templated language
Virtually no expectations or demands at all. Other than getting it done on time and finger crossing. Yes, some of them have won (for any number of reasons) but not nearly often enough. And the cost of losing an RFP – not because of price or a competitor’s better fit, but rather a perceived incompetence – is exponentially higher than the value of that single deal.
These issues plague small, midsized, and large companies alike. Namely, RFP chaos. Not a winning formula.
Improving RFP response outcomes.
While establishing processes, defined roles and responsibilities, and content libraries (single source of truth) is a longer-term project, it is possible to immediately improve RFP responses if you routinely follow these suggested steps and quality considerations.
3 things to do before you write:
- Document learnings and insights (objective and subjective) from any presales/consulting activities with the client. This will provide further context and direction beyond what can be gleaned from the RFP alone.
- Perform client research. Understand their mission, corporate values, and how they approach their clients’ challenges. Look for opportunities to demonstrate commonalities in your approach and alignment of values. If needed, also perform relevant industry research.
- Carefully and thoroughly review the RFP. Highlight critical issues, key requirements, specifications and capabilities, and the outcomes the prospective client seeks. Create a checklist for review to help ensure that each is thoroughly and properly addressed.
Whether the RFP response is a document, a spreadsheet, or an online submission (government or business), this work is crucial and demonstrates that you have been thoughtful, careful, and considered in your approach: that you are speaking directly to the client and their specific needs: not just recycling canned responses.
9 Quality criteria to guide your response
- The RFP response structure should aid in ease of readability and readily track to the RFP’s structure. It should provide the varied stakeholders with a roadmap and context that directly maps to the RFP sections and requirements.
- Responses should directly address each performance and other criteria specifically and completely with as much (or as little) wordsmithing as required. It is nearly axiomatic that the longer the response to a simple question, the bigger the BS.
- When evaluation criteria are provided, responses should directly relate to these criteria. Consider separately listing and delineating how you meet each one – even if you have addressed them throughout your response. This level of restatement works well and aids the client in their submission review and ranking exercises.
- The response to each question – including workflows and other graphic elements – should clearly tie back to the client’s desired outcomes. Answers should go beyond what you do to relate why and how you do it to achieve the outcomes the client seeks more effectively than competitors. This is particularly critical when the prospect indicates a preferred method, and you have a more effective approach.
- As much as possible, each answer should persuasively communicate your experience, expertise, and authority. Your unique competitive differentiators and how they translate into advantages for your client: whether in terms of value, performance, risk mitigation, business impact: preferably all of the above.
- Responses, when applicable, should take into account the varied perspectives of the multiple stakeholders evaluating the response. This may include subject matter experts (SMEs), as well as non-SMEs such as executive leadership, purchasing, and others.
- If you have information that you think is important and supportive of your value proposition but hasn’t been asked for, consider adding it to an “additional information” appendix with references to their value where applicable.
- Cover letters should be part of all RFP responses. They should be brief, to the point, and when introducing your company, free of sales-charged language in favor of highlighting RFP-relevant experience and capabilities.
- RFP responses should include an executive summary. This is not the place for marketing or sales language. The summary should track the RFP requirements and be as brief as possible while communicating the key benefits you bring to each criterion in the RFP.
The visual appearance should be engaging and easy on the eyes. This not only includes the use of graphics, workflows, and illustrations, but also your choice of fonts, use of titles, headers, subheads, hyperlinks, callouts, bullet points, spacing, margins, and other elements. Beyond visual appeal, these stylistic elements aid readability and navigation. Those evaluating your response will appreciate it.
There is much else to consider but following these suggestions — and with the ability to write competently — your RFP response will denote care, thoughtfulness, excellent organization, and attention to detail. Both as denoted by content and connoted by form and visual appearance.