RFP best practices — Content and process tips

Written by
Ryan Kuhn
Ryan Kuhn
Updated on
  16 min read
Write Winning RFPs RFPIO

How to create better RFP response content (and refine your process along the way)

There’s nothing more frustrating than spending hours writing, editing and collaborating with SMEs only to find out you didn’t win. Collectively, your business invests hours into each proposal. So, if your hard work isn’t paying off, it may be time to brush up on RFP response best practices.

This post will provide suggestions for how to improve your RFP response process and content. We’ll also look at common obstacles for RFP respondents and what you can do to overcome them.

How to structure your RFP response process

Here is RFP response process in a nutshell:

  • Qualify the bid. Evaluate if the RFP is worth pursuing by discussing the probability of winning.
  • Understand requirements. Identify what is needed to fulfill the RFP, including content type, production, and approval responsibilities.
  • Answer repeat questions. Use your content library to address frequently asked questions, consulting subject matter experts as necessary.
  • Note due dates and tasks. List all milestones and due dates for content creation, reviews, edits, and approvals.
  • Assign questions for review. Determine who needs to approve the content, covering areas such as sales, product, support, legal, and branding.
  • Review and polish. Enhance your proposal with visuals and ensure it is formatted clearly, using a branded template if possible.
  • Proofread. Check for grammar and spelling errors to avoid negatively impacting your bid.
  • Submit to issuer. Send your proposal confidently, ensuring all steps have been completed.

You can find a more in-depth explanation on this Responsive blog.

How to create RFP response content: a section by section guide

Before we get into the nitty-gritty details of each section, let’s start with the golden rule of request for proposal best practices: It’s all about the customer. In each section and in every response, keep the customer in mind. 

Remember, these incredibly busy people have a problem to solve. Therefore, if they feel like you’re wasting their time, you’ve already lost them. So, as we work through each RFP response section, remember these guidelines:

  • Stay focused on the customer’s problem and the solution you deliver.
  • Keep it short and fluff free ⁠— for the customer, the RFP isn’t an invitation for you to give a sales pitch, it’s a fact-finding mission.
  • Stick to the project scope and remove any information that isn’t immediately relevant, save the upsell for later

RFP cover letter

The goal
Make a good first impression, create a human connection and let the customer know you truly understand their problem.

How to do it
Share your enthusiasm about the prospect of being a part of their future success. Then, restate their known objectives. Finally, paint a picture of how your solution solves their problem and makes their job easier. Make it all about them.

If you’re ready to write a killer cover letter, explore more in this RFP cover letter guide.

Executive summary

The goal
Give a high-level overview, summarize the most important parts of your proposal and prove you’re qualified to meet their needs.

How to do it
Research. Do your homework to ensure your executive summary addresses the customer’s biggest concerns. Find out why they’re issuing the RFP. Did their last provider fail to deliver? Is their business growing? The more you can speak directly to their needs, the greater your chance of winning the project. 

Remember, your summary needs to provide enough information to stand alone if it’s the only piece of the proposal an executive sees. However, it also must be short enough to read in a couple minutes.

Want to see what a stand-out executive summary looks like? Check out this RFP executive summary guide for examples.

Project implementation plan and schedule

The goal
Help the buyer picture themselves as your customer and prepare them for the next steps in the buying process.

How to do it
Be specific. Your project implementation plan and schedule sets expectations. For example, establish milestones and address any concerns the customer expressed. In addition, provide a full project plan outline from purchase to go-live date. Use the RFP timeline the buyer provided and set milestones assuming a start date almost immediately after the RFP’s final selection announcement.

It is also helpful to share key contacts and staff the customer will work with from subject matter experts to project managers. Finally, include what you’ll need from their business to ensure a successful engagement. For example, current process documentation, training timelines, user roles, administrator input and so on.

Contract terms

The goal
Ensure a speedy contracting process that benefits both you and the customer.

How to do it
In this section of your request for proposal response, get your ducks in a row so the contracting process goes smoothly. For example, share what you’ll need to execute the contract and include who will be involved. Then, outline the approval process and required documentation. Consider preemptively providing your standard SIG assessment or security questionnaire as well as terms and conditions.

In addition, offer an overview of how you’ll continue to support the customer after the contract is executed. Include information about their customer success manager, any available self-service tools and who will supervise the delivery of contract terms.

If possible, provide very specific details — how often will someone check in, what will be covered and how feedback is addressed? Remember, it’s all about them. Make them feel confident that you’re in it for the long haul and prepared to be a true partner to them.

Customer references and case studies

The goal
Provide concrete, third-party evidence of the results they can expect.

How to do it
Share the positive return on investment you’ve achieved for customers similar to your prospect. Of course, don’t make them just take your word for it. Also include metrics and powerful quotes provided by happy customers. If possible, offer to connect them with a current customer for a reference call. Certainly, there’s nothing more persuasive than hearing candid feedback from a peer.

Best practices for crafting RFP response content

Beyond hitting the goals for each RFP section outlined above, winning RFPs have great content. I’ve reviewed content from countless winning RFP response examples and they all have a few things in common. I’ve collected these themes and created a list of RFP best practices and examples below.

Insert the customer into your answers

Remember, it’s never about you. Your audience doesn’t care how great you are. They only care about how you can make their lives easier and improve their profitability. All of your answers should support the argument that you will make them more efficient, effective and empowered.

In addition, don’t just explain what you do, but also why it’s important. This focus will help you write an “About Us” and “Background” statement that will make prospects pay attention.

Original RFP response:
Our company improves efficiency and cost savings.

Winning RFP response example:
XYZ solution empowers ABC company to optimize efficiency and maximize savings.

Keep it simple and skimmable

Your evaluators are pressed for time. Write clearly and succinctly. Use proposal formatting to make it scannable. For example, headings, subheadings, call-outs, and bullets make your proposal more approachable. And, remember to keep it non-technical and simple so your responses can be read and understood by anyone.

Original RFP response:
With XYZ solution, which optimizes internal and external collaboration and communication processes, automates RFP management, improves workflows and empowers reporting, our current customers like ABC Company are able to not only respond to complicated RFPs,  security questionnaires and due diligence questionnaires for a comprehensive proposal management experience.

Winning RFP response example:
ABC Company will leverage XYZ solution to:

    • Improve internal and external collaboration
    • Automate complex RFPs
    • Manage workflows and view reports
    • Respond RFPs and questionnaires
    • Centralize procurement and proposal functions

Include visualizations

Charts and graphs quickly convey a more powerful message than a spreadsheet full of data. Use visualizations to help customers better understand your projected impact on their business.

Original RFP response:
XYZ solution’s customer submitted 83 proposals in 2018. More than twice the number completed by their competitors.

RFP response best practices | Spreadsheet Illustration

Winning RFP response example:
XYZ solution’s customer submitted 83 proposals in 2018. More than twice the number completed by their competitors.

RFP best practices | Chart Illustration

Review, revise then review again

Typos, style inconsistencies and abrupt changes in grammatical tense or tone can be incredibly distracting for your reader. Consequently, it’s important to review your responses and make sure they all work together and sound consistent.

In fact, try reading your responses out loud. It will help you catch a ton of errors or awkwardness that spell check won’t. A blog from Proposal Reflections offers five things to watch for (and remove) from your proposals including: long sentences, passive voice, empty words, nominalizations and incorrect words. Follow these guidelines to make your content stronger, more concise and more persuasive. The post also offers this example:

Original RFP response:
Our COTS solution saves the Government time and money.

Winning RFP response example:
Our COTS solution provides the Government with life-cycle savings of $250,000 in software development costs.

Note: The Responsive platform’s leading response management software includes a GPT assistant that leverages the latest AI tools to optimize your RFP responses for readability, comprehension, simplicity, passive voice and more. Learn more here: Responsive integrates GPT.

How to improve your RFP response process

Perfection is unattainable. There’s always room for improvement, even within teams who have tightly refined their RFP process. For example, a highly-skilled and efficient two-person team can respond to one or two RFPs per quarter when working manually. However, after implementing RFP response best practices and RFP software, the same team can successfully respond to 16 simultaneous RFPs in the same time frame. Hopefully these tips will help you achieve the same kind of results.

Every RFP response process follows the same basic steps:

  1. Review RFP: Understand the customer’s requirements, objectives, goals, key deadlines and evaluation criteria.
  2. Assess suitability: Evaluate your organization’s capacity, align your expertise with customer needs and determine project alignment with business goals.
  3. Assemble the response team: Identify key contributors and stakeholders, assign roles and determine responsibilities.
  4. Develop a win strategy: Analyze competitively the landscape, define your differentiators and establish a project plan.
  5. Build your proposal: Gather past answers, collaborate with SMEs to create new responses and customize your proposal content.
  6. Write executive summary: Introduce your company, highlight your value proposition and offer an overview of your strengths.
  7. Review, proofread and submit: Ensure compliance with RFP requirements, review for accuracy and clarity and submit prior to the deadline.

Only answer RFPs you can win

One of the most important (and most neglected) RFP response best practices is the qualification or a bid or no-bid decision step. Far too many teams answer every RFP that comes their way. Unfortunately, that means spending time answering long shots and RFPs you’re not qualified for, while potentially missing or neglecting better opportunities.

RFP qualification considerations

What was your level of involvement prior to the RFP being issued?
If you’re just hearing about the opportunity thanks to the RFP, your chances may be slim. Indeed, odds are definitely better when sales or presales has developed a relationship with the prospect. Alternatively, you may have already responded to a request for information (RFI), which is also a good sign.

Is your solution a fit?
At minimum, it needs to meet the mandatory requirements. Everyone’s agile. Everyone’s flexible. Issuers already know that. Accordingly, you need to be able to prove that you have a tried and true solution.

Does your price match the prospect’s budget?
Of course there’s always give and take when it comes to pricing. However, don’t let that distract you from carefully evaluating the opportunity in terms of dollars and cents. The issuer expects your bid to include everything they need within their budget. So, can you do it and still make the project profitable? 

Is it a strategic fit?
RFPs take a lot of time and effort. But, onboarding and supporting a customer that doesn’t align with your business or product development strategy takes more. There are few things more frustrating than submitting and winning an RFP only to find out that the partnership isn’t a strategic fit for you or the issuer.

Do you have bandwidth?
Too often, this consideration gets pushed to the side. It’s completely understandable to want to respond to more RFPs.

In fact, we found that 72% of companies plan to respond to more RFPs year-over-year. But, simply responding doesn’t mean your team has the time and attention required to write a winning RFP response. Don’t sacrifice quality for quantity. 

Create a content library

If you have to dig through emails, past RFP responses and documents to find answers to questions you’ve seen over and over again, it’s time for a new approach. After all, once you’ve curated and perfected your content using the tips above, you’ll want to use it as often as possible. Indeed, it saves so much time, building an RFP content library is a cornerstone RFP response best practice.

Your content database should be the single source of truth for building RFP responses that are efficient, consistent and accurate. To start, gather content from past proposals. Then, update it to ensure it is flexible enough to be easily customized or used in its generic form. It should all have a consistent voice to reduce editing and review time.

An RFP content library needs a structure that helps with searching. You can organize RFP content using tags, collections and custom fields. Additionally, it’s helpful to organize content to match the structure of the RFPs you receive. What sections do you always see? 

Common RFP sections
  • Company overview
  • Experience and staff biographies
  • Features, functionality and differentiators
  • Training, implementation, delivery and support
  • Security and data policies
  • Case studies and customer results or references
  • Reports, terms and policies

If you’re not using RFP software, organizing your files and documents this way will help reduce the need to chase down or recreate content for every new RFP.

Know your team (and their strengths)

Stakeholders and subject matter experts (SMEs) within your organization are essential to creating compelling content. But, getting in touch with the right people at the right time may be a challenge — especially if they don’t know who you are or what you do. Building relationships is an important part of curating an efficient and effective RFP process.

The better you know your resources, the better your response will be. Get to know the people behind the proposal. Keep track of each person’s area of expertise, preferences and availability — and then respect it. 

RFP software integrates with many apps and channels. So you can approach busy SMEs in the way that works best for them. For example, maybe you have an SME who hates writing. Call them up. As they talk you through the answer, you record it and save it to the content library. Putting in the legwork to build relationships with your resources will pay off at crunch time.

Create a project plan

While RFPs are a team sport, they need a captain. Someone has to own the process to hold contributors accountable to ensure you meet your deadline. If you have a full-time proposal manager they’ll take charge. If not, the process will likely be managed by a sales or marketing team member. Regardless, you need a plan to get everyone on the same page.

Initiate a kickoff meeting for each RFP that includes all key team members. During this session, you’ll discuss your timeline, roles and responsibilities, win strategy, expectations and next steps. Surface any scheduling conflicts, content gap concerns or issues with deadlines to avoid surprises. 

Then, as you progress through your plan, regularly share progress updates, changes and dependencies to improve team visibility. 

Repeat, review, optimize and expand

The great part about adopting RFP best practices is that they’re designed to be repeatable. As you implement improvements it’s also important to review results. As you become more efficient, you’ll find more ways to identify gaps, tighten communications, anticipate outcomes and ensure success. 

Additionally, once you’ve mastered RFP best practices, you can get even more value by applying them to other routine information requests. For example, these principles can be applied to RFIs, requests for quotations (RFQs), security questionnaires and due diligence questionnaires (DDQs).

Common RFP response roadblocks and how to overcome them

Even when you meticulously follow RFP best practices, the process may not be smooth. Here are some issues proposal teams frequently encounter and how to overcome them.

The customer isn’t asking the right questions.

The challenge
The customer missed something key in their RFP. Unfortunately, the gap in information makes it difficult for you to win or might result in the customer selecting an incomplete solution that’s not in their best interest. Either way, it’s worth mentioning. But how do you tactfully make sure the customer has all the information they need without being a bother?

Work through the roadblock
Procurement professionals are skilled at finding the best vendor for a project. However, they’re likely not an expert in the nuance of your particular industry, good or service. Instead, they use stakeholder requirements to customize an existing RFP template. 

This process often leaves gaps in knowledge and results in an incomplete RFP. It also puts you in a tough position of trying to explain additional value you deliver that the customer doesn’t understand and didn’t ask about.

Typically, at the beginning of the RFP timeline, there’s a period to allow for vendor questions. This is a good time to raise the concern. Simply include it in your questions. For example, you can ask: “Have you considered unaddressed factor? Is that an area of need for ABC Company?” Alternatively, you could say, “Many of our customers ask about unaddressed factor, would you like us to include information about how XYZ solution solves this challenge?

Time consuming back-and-forth with subject matter experts

The challenge
One of the hardest parts of creating a request for proposal response is coordinating with your subject matter experts (SMEs). They’re usually very busy people. And, while they’re experts in their field, they likely all have a different writing style. So, how do you make RFP responses from a dozen different sources look consistent and sound cohesive?

Work through the roadblock
Most SMEs are just as excited about winning new business as you are, but they can’t read your mind. Unfortunately, they won’t know intuitively what to cover just by reading the RFP question. 

So, it’s an RFP best practice to be clear about what you need. SMEs are usually happy to provide answers that cover customer hot buttons, written in the company’s preferred proposal format ⁠— they just need to know what that is. It’s usually as simple as providing your SMEs with a company style guide for faster editing.

In addition, make sure you search your RFP content library before asking an SME to weigh in on a question. There’s nothing more frustrating and alienating to a busy SME than answering the same question over and over again. If you find an applicable knowledge record, send the response for review. After all, updating or customizing a response is a lot faster than writing from scratch. Certainly, this is a situation where RFP software that centralizes internal collaboration is an advantage.

SMEs are a key part of your proposal team. So, bring them into the fold and make the importance of their role clear. Include SMEs in proposal kickoff meetings, regular content updates and annual process reviews. Even if they can’t make every meeting, putting in the effort to keep them involved will help them feel invested.

The RFP clearly favors a specific vendor

The challenge
You recognize your competitor’s language in the RFP. It seems like they are the incumbent vendor or are heavily favored. You suspect their capture management team helped craft the RFP. To have a fighting chance, you’ll need to overcome an unfair preference with education and awareness.

Work through the roadblock
Some RFPs aren’t fair. That’s the unfortunate truth. You know your competitors and for the most part, everyone uses the same tactics to try to win new business. For example, we all know how much easier it is to write a winning RFP response when your team helped craft the RFP itself.

If you notice the RFP favors a specific approach or if phrasing is overly specific, that’s a good indication of an outside influence. Use your competitive intelligence to counteract their preconceived notions. Without naming the competitor, explain why your product or approach better addresses their needs.

Alternatively, just ask. Reach out to the RFP contact and look for more background information. Is there an incumbent vendor? If so, why has the project gone back out to RFP? What would sway the decision maker, or what is the competitor lacking that would make the decision easy? Ultimately, addressing the lack of transparency head-on will help you make a well-informed bid or no-bid decision.

The RFP response has a quick turnaround

The challenge
In the world of RFPs, time is typically your biggest adversary. Your proposal timeline can only be compressed so much while still maintaining RFP response best practices and manually completing the RFP makes submitting responses on time difficult.

Work through the roadblock
One of the best ways to fast-track your proposal process is to invest in RFP response software. Not only will it automate your responses by suggesting answers to previously asked questions, but it will also empower you to:

  • Search and find past proposal content
  • See who wrote the content and when it was written
  • Review the revision history
  • Verify when the content was last reviewed and updated
  • Check how often it’s been used

Too many teams spend all their time writing answers but never save or organize them. If your team can’t find and reuse past RFP responses, collaborate on content and easily see team responsibilities and next steps, you’ll end up constantly reinventing the wheel.

Final thoughts

Ultimately, RFP best practices help everyone involved in the sales and proposal process work toward a singular goal ⁠— to win new business. And, for proposal professionals, there is no greater feeling than hearing that your team submitted a winning RFP response.

By following these winning RFP response best practices you’ll start to see all of your writing, editing, collaborating and waiting pay off.


Ryan Kuhn

Ryan brings years of experience in sales, business development, client relationship management and digital transformation to his role as a Regional Sales Director at Responsive. He is passionate about leadership, efficiency and building relationships. In his work, Ryan focuses on empowering professionals with the technology and tools they need to increase their effectiveness and drive revenue.

Ready to see Responsive in action?

Find out why leading response teams across the world turn to Responsive for their Strategic Response Management and RFP software needs.

Learn more about RFP software