The Role of Sales in Responding to RFPs

The first thing to do when you have received an RFP request is to decide whether or not to respond. This is perhaps the most contentious issue of all. After all, an RFP is an opportunity to increase sales, revenue, andROI. But is every RFP worth pursuing? Keep in mind that every opportunity carries hidden and transparent opportunity costs.

Responding to RFPs can be time-consuming, burdensome, and costly. (If you haven’t done so, try calculating the hourly equivalents of responding to an RFP. The results might surprise you.)

Should we respond to the RFP?

The first step is to perform a SWOT  (Strength, Weakness, Opportunity, Threat) analysis to determine the likelihood of winning the business. Are you in a strong position or a weak one? Do your strengths align with what is being asked? Can you demonstrate the ability to overcome any perceived weaknesses?

Critically, responding to an RFP for which you are not well-suited does not only mean losing the potential business: it risks reputational damage. A competitively weak response can be long-lived and cut you off the list of future viable RFP candidates. Even worse, you might win (maybe you undercut the competition), but risk a very unhappy client. Nothing kills sales like poor execution and a client who never tires(and none do) of telling colleagues at other companies about it. Unhappy clients are more expensive, consume more time, and destroy ROI.

Conversely, a letter to the prospective client thanking them for, but declining, the opportunity and stating the reasons why will be greatly appreciated by the prospective client. It is an opportunity to detail your expertise and core strengths: Honest. Transparent. Client focused. An excellent sales approach.

Sales should have a strong voice in this process. Not only are they well placed to assess the likelihood of a win, but in many organizations the burden of the response falls to the sales rep who must manage and ultimately deliver the completed document, an activity that can take time away from pursuing more winnable business.

Consider: The sales responsible must:

·       Carefully evaluate all criteria detailed in the RFP

·       Gather and manage any needed information and materials from subject matter experts (SMEs)across the organization;

·       Ensure any existing content relied upon (e.g., previous proposals and templates) and anything newly written is accurate, up to date, and made client-specific;

·       Write an effective response that directly addresses each proposal criterion;

·       Compile bidder questions and incorporate the requestor’s responses into the material as needed;

·       Obtain any needed approvals; and of course,

·       Manage the overall response process and ensure submission deadlines are met.

However, if you choose to pursue the opportunity, this list of activities (not exhaustive) – while representing the bulk of effort and time in responding to an RFP – is not the next step. The next step is crucially important and too often given short shrift – if done at all.

Knowledge transfer

Knowledge transfer of industry and any client-specific knowledge from the field to the organization is the first step to an effective and winning RFP response. Especially when input from multiple sources is required. And there is no group better positioned to do this than sales.

Sales (aka consultants, account managers, relationship managers, et al.) routinely hear about client challenges and industry trends, deal with objections, and learn what clients (existing and prospective)consider successes and failures on the part of their service providers.

Requests for Proposals do not happen in a vacuum. Simply reviewing an RFP as a list of questions without this broader context does your organization (and the potential client) a disservice. Incorporating knowledge from the field is critical to demonstrating the organization’s expert understanding of the challenges they face and enhances credibility to the claim that you can provide the best possible solution.

Also, RFPs can include vague, even contradictory concepts, and often contain terminology that can mean different things to different groups.They can lack transparency about the client’s challenges and priorities. It is your knowledge of the client or similar clients in similar situations, the industry at large, and competitors that helps fill the gaps and understand what is often only implied.

Making knowledge work for you and your team

The only way to make the knowledge you have valuable is to codify it. Write it down and make it part of the process.

1.    If you have had sales/pre-sales meetings with the client, what were your takeaways? Your impressions are as important as what was explicitly discussed.

2.    If another group in your organization is providing services (or has in the past), even if completely unrelated, what was learned about the client their culture, processes, and workflows?

3.    What are their top-of-mind challenges and priorities?

4.    Absent any interactions with the prospective client, what do you or your teammates know about similar companies that can provide needed insight?

5.    What have you learned from researching the specific client that is relevant and important? If your organization does not have current industry-specific experience or data, research of the industry relative to the RFP topic is paramount.

In every case, notes should betaken in the form of key points (including your impressions) that are relevant to the products and services being considered, client challenges, and industry trends central to the RFP.

6.    You will have read the RFP when you received it to assess viability. Once you have decided to respond and conducted and compiled the necessary background information, read it again. Carefully and in light of any new information you have learned. Now, list the key points of the RFP that you want to be sure to address. Those most critical to the client (explicit and implied), and elevate any of those that might bump up against a firm weakness.

These activities will help focus your response and ensure the response to each question and criterion is salient and compelling while avoiding any empty boasting or “sales fluff” that turns off the multiple stakeholders dissecting your response.

Importantly, when you require input from an SME (product, engineering, marketing, your fellow sales team members, whomever), their input will be more effective – more on point – if you can provide the context they need.

It is important to note that the research and documenting of your findings do not necessarily consume a lot of time. The efforts should be proportional to the need. The notes you keep do not need to be essays, but rather quickly and efficiently communicate what is important (think bullet points or spreadsheets).

The point of this prep work is not to make the RFP response harder and even more burdensome. Beyond making the current RFP response far more effective, successive RFP responses that can leverage this information will be better and easier as well. In fact, the organization as a whole will be better for it.

Ultimately, a knowledgeable sales force and an organization that systemizes and incentivizes knowledge sharing is not only about winning the latest RFP but also the central way a company learns and prepares its professionals for current and future challenges. Combined with expert execution from pre-sale to post-closing interactions, this is the path to deeper and broader market penetration. The sales force is critical to this effort.

It is how organizations win.

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