11 Additional Answers
(President, Bristol Strategy Group)
Craig, you're in a tricky position, so I'm glad you reached out for help here. All the advice you've received is excellent - try to read between the lines, figure out how your firm came to be included in the RFP distribution, ask clarifying questions. I'd like to add another insight. Just because you received the RFP is not a sufficient reason to respond to it. You need to figure out whether this company/agency is a reasonable match to your Ideal Customer Profile. Because if they're not, you run a high risk of investing a lot of money, time and effort into a deal that you would be sorry to win.
Don't agree to complete the RFP until you've done a little sleuthing. Find out whatever you can about the company, just like you'd do whenever you have an opportunity to call on a new prospect. See if anyone in your company has a connection with any decision makers at the company; ask for their insights. Maybe you have a second- or third-degree connection with someone at the company. Maybe you or one of your colleagues sold a deal to the company in the recent past. Use these insights to help you assess the company's potential lifetime customer value. And don't overlook some other basics. If you won the bid, do you have the bench strength and bandwidth to deliver on the project?
It's already been noted that RFPs have a tendency to become the sales equivalent of a black hole. They can be very expensive ways to lose a deal.
(Solutions Architect, Perceptive Software)
My suggestion would be to study the RFP and figure read between the lines. Typically RFPs don't have all of the important details listed. If possible, reach out to the organization and ask clarifying questions that will allow your response to contain more detail than your competitors. This additional information will also help you position your product more effectively OR step away from an engagement that with be fruitless because you're not a good fit.
Either way, clarifying questions are usually a good thing. Having driven the production of RFPs for large companies I can tell you that companies who ask clarifying questions get brownie points even before their response is sent because they showed initiative.
(Director, Proposal Automation)
Most people answer the mail when they respond to RFPs and then wonder why they lose so frequently.
There's some excellent advice from Dr Tom Sant here - http://www.qvidian.com/resources/webinars
View the 'Back to the Basics' webinar. Its recorded and free to view. Tom is recognised as the guru of the RFP/bid world and advises major corporations on their proposals.
(President and CEO, Partners In EXCELLENCE)
Craig, good questions, RFP's strike terror into every sales person (and probably a good number of customers). RFP's are a necessary part of doing business in some segments. For example, virtually every government procurement is through the RFP process.
For those segments or companies that use this process, the key to success is getting involved as early as possible. Do everything you can to shape the structure and content of the RFP when it is being constructed (RFI, Pre RFI, etc).
Once the RFP is completed, trying to change it or challenge it will only distance you from the customer. However, as John discusses, you should be asking clarifying questions. You should make sure you really understand the customer's intent behind key issues--the clarifying questions sometimes help them bettter understand it as well.
If you have not been involved prior to the release of the RFP, unless it is written specifically for you, you may wnat to consider whether you really want to respond.
(President, Bellwind Consultants)
It can be very helpful if you also look at other RFP's from the same company or government agency. Become familiar with their standard format so that you can distinguish their standard information from the actual need. Often the real purpose can be almost hidden in the legalese/govermentese language. Study the company, department or agency department to see if you can determine where their needs lay. In many cases information published on websites, press releases or news articles can give you a clue as to the reason for the RFP. For example, the RFP asks for something as simple as replacing locking doorknobs on 100 office doors for some department. You find a newspaper article about issues of security in that department. Now you know that security is the issue and can emphasize that in your proposal.
There are times that even after clarifying questions, you really have no more significant knowledge than you began with from the RFP itself. At that point, the best you can do is to read between the lines and try to figure out what the true need might be and stress that feature. Be sure that you meet all the qualifications, which can be very precise and extensive, to become a vendor to the company or agency. If you don't meet every qualification and requirement then do not waste your time submitting a bid. If you are interested in the possibility of making future bids, then concentrate on how to meet their requirements in future.
Michael A Brown
Hi Craig! We don’t receive RFPs very often either, so our first question is … on what basis did the issuing company decide to include us?
Fortunately, it sometimes has been because of our 25 year reputation … people Google or ask around or see my posts here at Focus and elsewhere.
A few times though, the RFPs have shown up out of the blue. Once, we discovered that an RFP came to us because a government clerk thought it had to … her agency sent the very same RFP to every firm in their county whose web site included the word “training.” (They wanted welder training. We are sales/marketing trainers.)
So I recommend you research how you wound up on the RFP distribution list in the first place. For example, is the organization seeking new sourcing or is there a competitive reconsideration afoot? Then, as other contributors have suggested, ask questions about the procedures and standards for consideration, so you can determine if you would be pursuing a “real deal” v. simply providing “column-fodder” for a 3-bid procurement you have zero opportunity to win. Best wishes, sir!
(Director, Proposal Automation)
Echo the point on getting involved early. Statistically research proves that you have a 5% chance of winning a 'blind' RFP (or for more impact a 95% certainty of losing).
Separate research by Huthwaite International suggests that where a vendor has helped shape/influence the RFP issued then they have a 90% chance of winning.
As an incredibly one-sided exercise the flaws of the RFP process are cruelly exposed in this video doing the rounds http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fh7U04rzz8M
In tough economies sales teams still have to hit their numbers and with fewer business opportunities many are falling into the trap of reponding. Qualify hard - easiest way to do that is to ask for a 2 hour meeting/telecon to discuss the RFP/opportunity. If the client refuses then no bid as you will be wasting your time.
At one point there will be a backlash and we'll all see sense and follow a model similar to that used by the asset management industry in Australia. There's a bank of say 250 questions that a buyer chooses from to ask and you choose say 50 from that list to issue to potential suppliers - you can't go outside this list. The technology currently exists from companies like Qvidian and Proposal Software to simply point a search engine at the 50 questions and then answer them at the touch of a button. Does the job in no time at all. The future?
(Account Director, Global Network Services)
Hi Craig, I've got to say that this situation sucks as a sales person because you know for one thing you've entered the sales cycle right at the end when usually other suppliers/vendors have influenced what is actually contained in the RFP.
Having said that, there may be reasons why you could win but the key thing is not to commit yourself until you know you have some unique business value to bring to the customer. And you're only going to find that out by speaking to them. The RFP should obviously be read and analysed but if you are to be taken seriously then the customer will recognise they have to spend some time with you to answer your questions.
There's a rule that get's promoted in sales circles that you should always 'no bid' these tenders that land on your desk. This is for very good reasons.
However there may be some reasons for bidding but the business being tendered for must be something where you can create some unique business value and it has to be your core business, i.e. something you know you do well. I would also add that the client has to match your 'dream client' profile. Walk away if all of those criteria cannot be met.
(President, FrontRunner Communications)
Craig, reading these replies, I see lots of good advice. As Dave says, 'the key to success is getting involved as early as possible. Do everything you can to shape the structure and content of the RFP when it is being constructed '
It sounds like that time has passed, so analyse the RFP and the customer--to decide if they're a good fit for you. Find out how you got on the RFP list. Ask clarifying questions. Be sure you can comply in every area or your proposal may be a no-go from the get-go.
That said, there I have a few more caveats.
1. Be aware that with many RFPs--especially government--when you ask a question, that question (along with the answer the customer provides) is circulated to the other bidders. Sometimes, that's not to your advantage.
2. If you have no prior relationship with the customer, you may have been put on the list to fill a required RFP quota. For example, they may need 3 proposals before they can accept a bid, but they may have already decided on the vendor they want.
3. RFPs are sometimes used as a sort of 'market survey' so the customer can go back to their preferred vendor and ask them to match it. In other words, it's really a request for information with no intention of buying.
In the end, I'm suggesting you do your homework, as everyone here says, then make a calculated decision on whether or not it's worth the time and dollars you must invest.
Sometimes, it's worth it just to make the connection, begin the relationship and raise your profile so the customer comes to you early the next time.
(President, FrontRunner Communications)
In general, I agree with Shawn but want to respond to his comment, 'Interested in hearing if there are any “we got an RFP out of nowhere and won it” stories out there for anything but a raw commodity.'
One of my clients--a bank--received just such an RFP. It was a slow period and they decided to use the opportunity to respond knowing their chance of winning was slim to nil.
The RFP outlined the need for a particular service my client could easily provide, but the incumbant had been in place for 10 years and was likely to win again. Still, they decided the time spent responding would not be wasted because it would give them a better template for other proposals and perhaps raise their profile with the buyer who might include them earlier in the process next time.
My client wrote the proposal and sent it to me for 'tweaking'. I wrote a killer Executive Summary and improved the 'feel' of the entire document by warming it up and focusing on the human element--the relationship component--and the benefits my client would provide.
They won the bid. It was worth $1 billion--that's with a 'B' over a 10 year period. Nice.
Look at the big picture. IF this is your only lead well do your best and then expand your market place. I understand that situation-it could make or break a company. If not the only lead prior advice is great but get to ROI and how does it effect your company's business value.
David Whipple www.growthconcepts.org