When I worked with American Express we would respond to a lot of Requests for Proposals (RFPs). We were often sent an statement of interest directly as there was a limited number of companies who had the national coverage we did.
Most of these responses would take weeks, or even months, to complete, and always required multiple people from multiple departments.
With one we had 6 weeks from receiving to response and I put together a team of 12 people to help contribute to the possible solution. From an hours worked perspective I put in at least 120 hours and required an additional 40 hours per team member. This one response took over 600 hours to complete!
Although we came close, we didn’t win. It was the incumbent who ultimately was awarded the deal in the end. It was a lot of time dedicated to one client who ultimately chose the same solution as they currently had. There is no prize in sales for second place. You’re officially the first loser.
From that experience we changed several things with the way we chose to respond and how we would use a better strategy to improve our chances of winning more deals (whether they were in an RFP format or not).
Go or No Go?
When my new sales manager at American Express started looking at all the time we spent in request responses. It became clear something needed to change.
In many cases some of the salespeople were spending months of their year solely in RFP responses and ultimately putting all their time in only a handful of potential clients. He told our team going forward we would never respond to another RFP where we didn’t already have the client relationship.
Our team went crazy. Some of these RFPs were multi-million dollar contracts. Like the lottery, how could we win if we don’t play? How ever would we win a response if we don’t compete? We were shown the list of the total number of RFPs we responded to in the last 5 years, and isolated to the ones where we didn’t have a relationship prior to responding. It was clear how many we won in those cases – zero. A lot of work with no payoff.
But the thing that was most painful to hear wasn’t that we were losing, but someone always won. By choosing to respond to an RFP without a prior relationship we were helping our competitors to win.
Our hours of work were working against us!
The moment we decided to no longer reply to RFPs with no relationships, something incredible happened: the companies who wanted us to reply as the “get honest” submission started calling us. “Why haven’t they seen a response from us?”
We now had the upper hand in the request for proposal. We politely declined the opportunity and let them know in the future we would be happy to respond when we have a greater understanding of the client’s business, what else they are looking for, and how we will ultimately be able to help in a long-term relationship beyond what is simply outlined in the scope.
Outside of the relationship there are other Go or No Go decisions that need to be made:
- Do we have a relationship?
- Did we know about the RFP before it was issued?
- Do we have the capabilities?
- Does this fit within our vision of our company?
- If we spent the time on this solution (regardless of winning or losing) would we be more profitable than if we spent our time doing other activities?
The last one became a clear one for our American Express team to focus on next. The opportunity cost of choosing to devote time to this solution. Could we generate more business doing other activities?
If an RFP took several weeks and if we spent that same time building 4 or 5 different relationships, would we be better off focusing on one or many?
Create your criteria of go-or-no-go. What other questions would you answer to know whether to bid or not? How will you estimate the time it takes to bid? What else can you do with that time?
How to write the request for the client
When you have an early relationship you can easily set yourself up to maneuver the client questionnaire to be written for you.
We would often seed-plant and ask leading questions that spoke on the value of the solution we could provide.
Leading questions move the listener to associate an emotional status with an outcome through the use of a question. They are powerful in having the client associate positive feelings with us and negative feelings with everything not us.
In the commodity space, such as credit cards, there are very few differentiators between one vendor and the next. But those few were the ones we focused on more than anything else. We asked our client questions which focused on the positive emotions, or ease, of using our services.
Questions such as “how would having better reporting help you manage your cash flow better?” or “how has your current vendor disappointed you in the last year?”
When the client seemed open to our conversation we would then offer to submit standard questions to them via email they could use in the upcoming RFP.
Since we knew reporting was our differentiating factor we would submit questions to the client before the RFP was issued that would say “Tell us how your reporting is superior and how that will bring us more time into our day” or “How does your reporting allow us to automatically reconcile transactions?”
We would phrase the questions in a particular way, and when we opened the bid request and saw our questions printed we knew the RFP was intended for us.
What are your differentiators? How would you be able to phrase that in different types of questions? Start submitting your questions to the potential clients before the RFP (after you have a meeting with them, of course).
What’s your story?
After you choose to move forward with the bidding process, get your team together and plan your strategy. Beyond what the client is asking for, what is the future plan? What services would you be able to provide after this project is finished?
If you were providing a solution for an unsolicited proposal, typically we want the client to go on a journey with us. We want to show them the possibilities of the future and what would happen in a long-term relationship.
Just because the client sets out the criteria in which they want to have the responses delivered does not mean we have to abandon the 6-slide proposal formula. We still want the client to see the results of the solution and go on the journey on how we will help them to achieve their long-term goals by choosing to go with us.
Questions we should ask in the strategy session before choosing to respond:
- What is the client’s overall goal? What do they want that is bigger than this solution?
- Why is this client going to market?
- What are they hoping you would be able to solve for them?
- How will they know this solution (and provider) was a successful choice?
- How do they feel today? What would they like to feel in the future?
By taking time to understand what the bigger impact the client will want to experience from this solution you’ll be able to string a narrative in your executive summary that showcases you understand the bigger picture.
And if you have any questions you’re unsure about the answer, this is a great time to ask them in the question period
What is the ultimate journey the client wants to go on, with or without you? Research management discussion and analysis (for publicly traded companies) or submit questions that create a better understanding of the solutions and the vision the client sees coming as a result of your solution.
Using the question period to sell, or at least throw others off
In many cases once the request for proposal is officially open, there is no more time to engage with the potential clients, except for the question period.
In most cases this is a lost opportunity. Responding companies will ask questions about the details of the scope. Many ask for clarification on the specifications required, but how often are you using this as an opportunity to sell, or at a minimum set yourself apart?
I was given an opportunity to respond to a government contract. Everything in the proposal was exactly what we could provide. Training services and bringing new skill sets to underprivileged communities. The RFP was simple enough, but it also indicated that there was an incumbent. In this case I didn’t have any relationship with the awarding committee, or any insight into the department that issued the RFP. From a Go-No-Go decision, it would likely lead to a lot of work with little reward to respond to this RFP.
Using the question period we were able to make our case in the direction we wanted to take the solution. We asked questions that asked if the department was open to different possibilities, longer term solutions, and delivery methods. We asked if the trends they were currently seeing around population decline and higher than standard unemployment rates were expected to continue. We also asked if they were open to income-generating opportunities or specifically jobs in remote communities. We knew we couldn’t bring them jobs, but we could train them in virtual selling and help to match them with companies seeking sales people looking for that skill set.
Similarly we did the same when I worked with American Express. Not only would we ask questions surrounding the solution we wanted to provide, we would also ask questions around solutions we didn’t want to provide, if only to throw off the competitors to our strategy. At American Express we would ask around the likeliness of international travel and how having a vendor that offers 5 or more services would help the company to grow and prevent future proposals.
All participants in the RFP process receive the same list of questions and when you receive a new answer sheet that shows the potential client is open to new strategies and solutions than the ones outlined in the RFP package, it completely throws off your competitors’ game and will often lead to inconsistencies in their response.
Not only that but the moment the client receives these questions you are immediately setting yourself apart. Do you think the client will spend a little more time on the response from the company who challenged the ways of thinking?
What is the standard solution you want all your clients to say about you and your services? How can you frame those in questions for submission? What solutions do only you provide and how could you phrase those questions to speak within the scope of the RFP?
These three pages are the only ones that matter
Of course you will spend plenty of time determining the right solution and creating the full implementation plan, but ensure you are spending quality time on the three pages your client will read first: cover page, executive summary, and pricing.
Your cover page should talk about your relationship with the client at this point.
Your executive summary should talk about the vision the client has for their future and how by connecting together you will be able to accomplish more.
Your pricing should show options on how you will be able to provide them their vision for the future easier and better (at different price points) along with the competitive pricing you would like to present.
Take time and ensure with every proposal, competitive or not, you’re using your sales strategy to ensure you are winning more and selling more. faster.