How to Successfully Respond to an RFP
Oh, RFPs — what a love/hate relationship we have. We love them because they’re an opportunity to secure new business relationships, specifically with public agencies we might not otherwise be able to prospect. On the flip side, proposal responses can be cumbersome to create, and, unfortunately, there’s no guarantee of winning the bid.
Prior to joining Act-On, I garnered extensive experience in responding to RFPs (Request for Proposals) — frequently creating up to five proposal responses each week for government agencies, nonprofits, and other public organizations. In doing so, I learned that when a potential multi-million dollar contract is on the line, you have to know what to do and what not to do when creating these responses. And if you want to win the bid, you must draft a response that helps you stand out in the sea of submissions, which is not an easy thing to do.
I know these proposals can be daunting, so I want to equip you with the tips, tricks, and best practices to help you navigate the RFP waters and draft effective responses that help you close more business.
What Is an RFP?
Requests for proposals, qualifications, or information are invitations to enter your company’s hat in the ring to win potential business. RFPs, RFQs, and RFIs are essentially the same with varying levels of detail, so for the purpose of this blog post, we’re sticking with the term RFP.
RFPs are business documents announcing newly needed services — whether for a specific project or a long-term partnership. Companies that submit proposal responses are “bidding” for the business of the RFP provider, which is most often in the public sector — such as a government agency or nonprofit organization. RFPs are almost always required for complex projects and services for these public entities because they level the playing field among competing private companies to make the process fair and keep costs low.
So, how do you effectively respond when an RPF comes your way?
Vet the RFP
Just because you’re delivered an RFP doesn’t mean you need to respond. Before you even begin, you should ask yourself the following questions:
- Would this generate a worthwhile ROI for my company?
- Are our values aligned and would we be proud to work with this organization?
- Does the scope of services firmly fall in our territory?
If you feel like you’ll have to dance around more than one or two line items, move on. If you don’t recognize your limitations or a bad fit early on, the organization reviewing your response probably will as soon as they recognize you can’t (or won’t) provide exactly what they’re looking for.
In short, you should value your and the reviewers’ time by only submitting if you’re fully able to deliver the requested services and actually want to work with the organization requesting the RFP.
Prepare Your RFP Response Early
It might seem like you have plenty of time to complete your response, but there’s no time for procrastination. Many times, RFPs can take much longer to complete than you originally think (especially if you have to perform outreach to other departments and organizations), so it’s best to start the process as early as possible.
As soon as you receive the RFP, read the entire document line by line. Highlight anything you don’t have readily available, and begin seeking information that might take time to retrieve. Do you have the requested amount of case studies and customer references relevant to the RFP? Does HR need to pull employee numbers? Do you need a notary for attached forms or your CEO’s signature (who happens to live across the country)? Do you have a clarifying question that you need to submit before the cut-off date?
Some RFPs are straightforward, with the goal being to simply show them what you’ve got. Others are more meticulous and request excessive information that makes you scratch your head. As soon as you receive the document, read it in detail so you know exactly what to expect and how to prepare it in a timely manner.
Follow Every Guideline on the RFP
The deadline is the deadline, and that’s that. Your requester will ask for very specific information, and your job is to provide it clearly, concisely, and on time. If they request a four-page response, you give them a four-page response. Font size 17 with two-inch margins? Seems silly, but sure. Digital file with an exact name, or one-inch binders with six tab dividers? You get where I’m going with this. Following your requester’s guidelines is mandatory!
RFP guidelines exist for two reasons:
- The proposal reviewers are comparing multiple submissions side-by-side, and it makes their job easier when everything is formatted and answered in the same way, allowing the actual content to shine through.
- To test your attention to detail and ability to follow instructions. Think of your RFP response as a first impression of your potential working relationship with the vendor; that’s how they’re viewing it.
Read and re-read every word of that RFP to make sure you’ve covered everything. Give them exactly what they ask: no more, no less. It’s not the time to get creative or take chances. Do as your told, and you’ll remain in the running.
Stay Organized With Boilerplate Copy and Templates on File
Responding to RFPs gets easier and faster after you have practice writing a few proposal responses. Once you spend some time writing your scope of services, company background, case studies, etc., you can refer to these for use in future projects. The key to repurposing these assets is organization; your life will be much easier with clearly labeled documents saved in designated folders.
Store previous RFPs for future reference and create templates for streamlined formatting. Most of all, keep generic content (i.e. cover letter, detailed scope of services, industry experience, and company background) ready to plug into the proposal. RFPs share common requirements, so a quick copy-and-paste with minor editing saves hours, even days, of additional work.
Use RFP Language and Make Your Descriptions Stand Out
You know how resume best practices say to insert the job description’s keywords? You should use the same approach when drafting your RFP response by including language from the original document throughout your work. Align your values by using industry-specific verbiage and stick to their scope of services terminology. Doing so adds a personal touch that shows your dedication to this proposal, and the reviewer will better relate to your proposal if you’re incorporating their lingo.
On a related note, it can be challenging to distinguish your scope of services from competitor submissions. After all, you’re going up against other businesses within your vertical. Keep the jargon to a minimum and reach beyond buzzwords to draft simple explanations. Highlight what separates your services from the competition, and make a real case for why your company is the best for the job.
A good test of whether your description stands out is to check your competitors’ websites. If you can swap your RFP answers with their webpage content, you’ve uncovered a major red flag and need to head back to the drawing board.
Format Presentation Is Important, But Not That Important
Yes, you want your proposal response to be visually appealing and stand out as more than a Word doc. However, the content matters more than the presentation — although many respondents get hung up in the visual details. Again, format templates are a big help, so ideally you only have to create the whole branded proposal one or two times. (I personally love using Adobe InDesign for proposals, but advanced Word skills can come in handy here as well.)
Unless the guidelines state differently, make sure your proposals are formatted for consistent branding and are easy to read. When in doubt, less is more. There’s no need to cause unnecessary design confusion for the reviewer or make their eyes strain from bold color or font choices. There are more efficient ways to spend your time than putting most of your energy into the proposal’s presentation.
Determine Your Worth
Like any negotiation, you don’t want to lowball your services out the gate or make an offer that’s unreasonably high. However, pricing is a critical factor in the RFP decision, so it’s important to determine your worth and present with confidence. Work with your leadership to determine a good middle ground that leans slightly toward the higher end. This will give your business wiggle room for negotiations while exhibiting the value of your services.
Remember that the agency issuing the RFP doesn’t solely base their decision on price, but part of the point of an RFP is to get the best bang for their buck.
Submit Before the Deadline
There is rarely any mercy for a late submission, regardless of whether you’re dealing with a physical or digital proposal. Even if there was, you don’t want to start off on the wrong foot.
Whatever the deadline, you should move it up at least two business days to allow yourself buffer time. There are too many reasons for this to count. For example, the email address for submission could be wrong, forcing you on a wild goose chase to track down the correct address. Or maybe your file is too large to deliver online, so you have to create a contingency plan on the fly. What if FedEx tried to deliver your proposal before the agency opens in the morning, and by the time they return with your delivery, it’s 30 minutes after the RFP deadline? (Yes, all are real examples, sadly.)
Bottom line: save yourself the anxiety by planning to submit the completed proposal two days before the official deadline.
Winning Your Next RFP Bid
Winning an RFP is an accomplishment in and of itself, and it sets the stage for a well-suited business partnership that can open more opportunities — particularly in the public sector. While RFPs sometimes come down to little more than a numbers game, proposals can really help you stand out when your content matches exactly what the organization is requesting, the format is visually appealing but not distracting, and your pricing is a win-win for both businesses. Following these best practices not only increase your odds of winning that bid; they also help you keep your sanity as you produce more proposals with more efficiency in the future.
If you’d like to read about a real example of how drafting an amazing RFP can help you come out on top, check out our blog post with Sharp Europe to learn all about their marketing automation selection process.