11 Tips for Navigating RFPs

Don’t blindly bid, hoping to win a few proposals now and then. Instead, use these lessons to be more selective and more successful.

It’s a fundamental trait of every salesperson: a desire to win every order, every time. But, as Kelly Stone has learned, some clients are worth pursuing, while some just aren’t – and that goes for RFPs, too. “Everybody wants to hit a home run, and people always try to when they see the RFPs. But you really need to dig through,” says Stone, owner of The Idea Box powered by Proforma (asi/300094). 

It’s critical to grasp what specifically is involved in an RFP-related project, so you can determine if it’s worth your effort. “Find out if you’ve got the bandwidth to handle what they need, and make sure it’s going to be profitable for you,” Stone says. “You’ve got to be able to make a living at it, too.”

With that advice in mind, here’s an array of tips to help you figure out what RFPs to tackle and – if you go all-in – how you can gain a winning edge on other bidders.

1 Read RFPs Thoroughly
It sounds simple, but Danon Middleton, vice president of merchandising and program accounts at distributor Summit Group (asi/339116), is amazed at the number of people who respond to RFPs that they probably shouldn’t spend their time on. What’s their big mistake? Glancing at RFPs instead of studying them.

“In the event that you’ve never worked with this client before, you want to read through the RFP and do some research on the client, because if you make the decision to move forward on the RFP, you’re going to invest a minimum of 40 hours, and that’s a lot of time and resources,” she says.

If you could better spend those hours winning sales elsewhere, take pause. “We all know that, in this industry, time is money,” says Middleton. “So many people have that reaction that they think, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to respond to this.’ Well, you don’t have to respond to it. Make sure it’s a good fit before you invest that time.”

2 Don’t Be Afraid to Pass
If you don’t have the right resources for an RFP project or if you’re unsure you can make a reasonable profit, Stone thinks you should move on. “I’ve definitely passed on RFPs where the requirements were just absolutely ridiculous, at least in my eyes,” she says. “What’s it going to take to make it work and make it profitable? At the end of the day, we all have to make money.”

3 Ask Yourself Tough Questions
Besides measuring profitability, Scott Gingold, owner of Gingold Greater Business Solutions, believes distributors should consider other factors, too, in deciding on RFPs. Here are some questions Gingold suggests you ask yourself: “Are you a small company competing with mostly large competitors? Are you on the same level? Can you provide all of the services required in the RFP without straining your company, or over-promising?”

After that, there’s one final crucial question Gingold recommends asking to ensure the wellbeing of your company going forward: “Will securing the business from the RFP really help your business?”

4 Build Relationships
Mike Michalowicz, author of Profit First and founder of Profit First Professionals, says who you know is just important to a successful RFP as the numbers behind it.

“Build a relationship with the key influencer. All things equal, people work with people they like – and when things aren’t equal, in many cases they still find a way to work with the people they like,” he says.

Stone suggests using every networking tool at your disposal to open the RFP dialogue. “Look at LinkedIn and see who some of the salespeople are. Look at industry publications. Get in touch with a few people within the company,” she says. “If you have the additional resources within your organization, definitely tap into their insights and their expertise. They always say it takes a village. That’s very true.”

5 Dig Deeper
Through his experiences, Michalowicz has seen times when RFPs offer up conflicting information. Never ignore inconsistencies. “Dig into questions that go beyond the RFP parameters. Ask details about some of the specifics. Make sure there’s clarity on all the elements,” he says.

Ken Thoreson, president of Acumen Management Group, says prying for specifics won’t just help you get a better idea of what the client is looking for – it’ll be a relationship builder. Clients will quickly see you’re working hard on their behalf.

“The purpose of the questions is to give the sales organization an opportunity to build a relationship with the client, and to show the client that you’re working diligently on the document,” he says.

6 Go Beyond Yes & No
Middleton believes answering questions beyond the minimum requirements will benefit both you and the potential client.

“If the question is written in a way that could be answered with just a yes or a no, don’t just say yes or no,” she says. “There may be some situations where all you can do is say yes or no – but if you’re responding via a Word document, you want to just provide a couple of sentences.”

7 Use the Client’s Language
If you want to win an RFP, you need to show clients you can relate to them. Using the right terms can only help. “Speak their language by using the language specified in the RFP,” Michalowicz says. “An RFP, particularly a technical one, will have unique and specific language.”

For example, you may typically use the term “rotating coupler,” but your client may prefer the term “modulating coupler.” So, in your response, “make sure that you refer to it as a modulating coupler, and then specify the details,” Michalowicz says. “If you exclude their language, they won’t realize you are offering what they need.”

8 Make Your Response Pop
Michalowicz thinks distributors have to find a way to make their RFP responses pop off the page. Appearing ordinary or average is a losing formula. “An RFP doesn’t need to be a dry, mechanical document. Make it engaging. Use graphics and images. Make people want to read it,” he says.

If you’re proposing services, for example, Michalowicz suggests including pictures of the team that will be providing them. You should also include high-res photos of the promo products you’re sourcing. “Also, produce graphics around things such as performance parameters, improvements and rollout projections,” Michalowicz says.

Thoreson believes adding stylish touches through cover materials, a colorful first page and even a screen shot of the client’s website will help your RFP response stand out. “A lot of RFPs are sent out in a form with five pages and 25 questions that need to be answered,” he says. “All the documents look identical. Your job is to see how you can dress it up by showing some extra work, some extra pictures – that kind of stuff.”

9 Reference Previous Successes
Stone says referencing “champions” within your response – especially those connected with the prospective client – will help boost your chances of winning the order.

“You can speak to successes that you’ve had within the company, and when you’ve got somebody to attach that to, it just quantifies your statement,” she says. “You want to find as many coaches and champions within the account as possible. They know and trust you. You really want to tap into as many of those people as you can.”

10 Don’t Compromise On Costs
Gingold recommends that distributors avoid the temptation of offering discounted goods and services in order to win an RFP. “When you compromise from the start, it becomes an expectation throughout the relationship,” he says. “The only acceptable compromise might be something like a shift in hours of operation or point of contact.”

The bottom line: While a discount for pre-payment is one thing, “a discount to try and beat a competitor is another, and a bad thing,” Gingold says. Your main goal in an RFP should be to differentiate your business based on customer experience, quality, products and services.

11 Perform an End-of-Year Analysis
Gingold believes evaluating your RFP success, or lack thereof, at the end of each calendar year is a must in order to budget your time more effectively heading into the next 12 months.

“Every December, look back at the year and see how many RFPs you responded to, and how many you won,” he says. “If it is not at least 50%, think twice as to how many RFPs you will respond to in the new year.”

Shane Dale is an AZ-based freelance writer.