How to Write an RFP Response that Wins Using 5 Proven Strategies
If you’ve been wondering how to write an RFP response that wins—without breaking your back or budget, you’ve come to the right place. Proposal writing, along with the entire RFP process, is often brutal in determination and frustrating in execution.
It takes strong analytical capabilities, detailed project management skills, and excep- tional writing and editing. And if you survey professionals in any field, all will claim they have those abilities. And they well might. But truth be told, few have the expertise—or time—to write a persuasive and, most importantly, winning proposal. Just reviewing an RFP can prove mind-boggling and leave you scratching your head. Many RFPs today are written by committee. Too many are written by lawyers or general counsel resulting in legalistic jargon that has very little to do with the actual needs of the company or agency in relation to the actual RFP. As a result, you find yourself more addressing legalistic and compliance issues rather than the core request outlined in the RFP.
All that considered, we have to play the game by the established rules. The question becomes, how do I win? And winning is why we put the time and resources into the RFP process in the first place. Remember, you have to take critical staff away from their core responsibilities in order to respond to large RFPs. And that means they are not servicing core customers and clients. They are refocused on the new business process; which can become apparent to your existing clientele.
But fear not. The new business development process can be streamlined. Optimized. You can tap into the expertise of your management and staff without compromising their time and day-to-day activities. And it doesn’t entail hiring full-time staff to do it for you. You have a number of options that will pay off myriad dividends far beyond your investment if you go about it wisely.
You can do it all internally as long as it’s not compromising your billings, employee productivity and client service. But if that’s not the case, you may need to consider other alternatives. This column is designed to help you determine the best way of managing your RFP response process—whether it’s internal or outsourced. Either option is fine as long as you’re winning. But if you have not experienced a “winning streak” of late, it will prove of even greater value and import.
1. Standardize Your Processes and Protocols
Too few companies and organizations spend the required time necessary on standardizing their new business and proposal writing processes and protocols. A proprietary process does a great deal to ensure you’re not re-inventing the wheel every time you’re presented an opportunity to respond to an RFP, whether it’s solicited or unsolicited.
One simple tip is to maintain a database of proposals complete with dates, keywords, team assignments, and industry sector information. Be sure that key staff can gain entry to the data- base on a shared drive for easy access to the information. If you’re writing a substantial number of proposals each year, you may want to consider using proposal software, such as Qvidian.
Case studies and award nominations (such as creative, service or technology awards) are important to a successful response to an RFP and are too often not properly managed. Are you adequately maintaining your collection of case of studies and award entries? These need not be written from scratch with each proposal, although they will need to be customized per the oppor- tunity at hand.
By standardizing your processes you can also better budget time and resources. For example, when you’re trying to decide whether or not to bid on a project or client, you can refer to past proposals in a similar sector that may provide an accurate estimate of the time your team will need to complete the proposal. When considered relative to your likely chances of winning, you can make a more informed decision as whether or not to pursue the opportunity; especially during any seasonal crunch times.
Furthermore, you’ll want to make sure that your processes and protocols are understood throughout the company or enterprise, from administrative assistants to your leadership team. The RFP process is collaborative by nature, so ensuring that everyone knows their roles and the stakes involved provides a greater chance of success, allowing everyone to share in the win.
Silo-ed information results in communications dissonance among your team members, which is certain to result in confused and frustrated colleagues. It also will increase chances that your final product will confuse the prospect upon delivery.
2. Know Your Audience
Knowing your audience may seem like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how few companies invest the time in gaining a thorough understanding of their prospects’ industries, people and culture. A thorough understanding of your prospect will help you write a more relevant and persuasive proposal.
To cut through the clutter, be sure to conduct exhaustive research into the RFP issuer. You want to identify any potential leverage points that may be exploited to ensure success. If you can identify the likely decision maker(s) on an RFP, you should have a protocol for a sharing that with your staff. You never know who may have a relationship with the deciders/review team members.
Also, you want to understand the way they talk to their customers and speak about themselves. You want to adopt that language and reflect their brand identity back to them in your proposal. I cannot overstate the importance of speaking to—and about them—in a way that reflects your company’s understanding of their self-perceived uniqueness in the marketplace.
3. Substance Over Style Sure, But Style Still Matters
Of course the final determination in the selection process will come down to how well you answer the specific RFP questions—which will likely be scored by a committee. So substance is imperative, and boilerplate responses that haven’t been personalized rarely make the cut. Even if you have another winning proposal that you believe can be simply dusted off and repositioned, be careful to fully-tailor it to the new prospect and not their primary competitors.
Substance is crucial, but style matters as well. Finding the proper balance between style and substance is something that many people struggle with for good reason. Depending on the prospect’s familiarity with your company, you may want, or need, to show a little razzle-dazzle to demonstrate your full scope of expertise, capabilities and the creativity of your team.
But style means more than just how you treat graphic elements and design your document. It’s also about readability. Large blocks of text reduce readability, making proper use of white and negative space imperative. Similarly, the overuse of citations and footnotes can make proposal reviewers feel as if they’re grading a college term paper. You should always provide attributions and citations, but if they are disrupting the flow of your persuasive argument rather than augmenting them you may have a problem.
4. Brainstorm Big Ideas
A lot of people struggle with the question of how much to “give away” in a proposal, particularly when it comes to sharing a “big idea” that your team brainstormed. But you’ve only got one shot at piquing the interest of the reviewers, so why not take it?
Of course, there’s always the risk that another firm or company will be selected and your idea may be co-opted, slightly altered, and then implemented by the successful bidder. But what have you really lost? As the old adage goes “nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
But how much should you give away? Unfortunately, there’s no hard or fast rule on that. I often propose just enough to spark interest without revealing how it can be accomplished—particu- larly on very tight budgets. That’s where the magic resides. Just be sure you’re only revealing enough to make you stand out without giving away the processes you would use to make that strategy or tactic or technology work.
5. Adhere to the Timeline, Respect the Captain
Detailed timelines developed by your talented project managers are critical. Too often these colleagues are overlooked and can even be viewed as an annoyance. While it does speak to the standardization of your processes and protocols, the project manager is the captain and should always be respected.
A good project manager or coordinator will consider your other work priorities and availability as they develop the timeline. And if you commit to delivery of your sections or elements, it’s up to you to make sure you don’t disrupt the proposal development process by failing to meet your deadlines.
So don’t get annoyed when you receive friendly—or aggressive—nudges from your project manager. You’re only as strong as your weakest link. And you don’t want to be considered that man or woman responsible for missed deadlines and jeopardizing a potentially lucrative opportunity.
I always like to counsel people to adjust the timelines so that a final draft is ready at least a full 24 hours before the submission deadline. Few ever heed that counsel. “I had a client situation and had to re-prioritize,” or “I was out sick” are not valid responses in most cases. You made an important commitment to your team and company and it’s your responsibility to meet the dead- lines you agreed to or suggested in the first place.
But in the real world, unforeseen things occur. We all understand that. It’s still every team member’s responsibility to communicate with the project manager and other colleagues when such things arise. If needed, you can delegate your part to someone else, but it’s an even better idea to ask the captain if your action item deadline could be modified to accommodate your unpredicted circumstances. Remember, new business development and proposal writing are a team sport.
Whatever you do, don’t blame the captain. The captain must be respected at all times.
Summing it all up
Are these tips on how to write and RFP response all-inclusive? By no means. And that was not the objective of this column. RFP MD is a consultancy focused on helping organizations of all types write more effective proposals and win more business. Each one of the tips included in this column can be greatly expanded on and further explored. You’ve likely confronted these issues in your own enterprise. So if we’ve given you some things to consider as you refine and streamline your proposal writing processes, we’ve done what we set out to do.
The author of this post, Keith Romero, is a proposal consultant for RFP MD and brings over 30 years’ experience from the PR and Advertising industry. For more information about RFP MD, call 424.835.4500.