“You have to have a plan, or else you’re just creating a recipe for chaos.” ~ David Brooks
What is your first instinct when an RFP lands on your desk? Do you push it aside in favor of more urgent matters? Do you dive right in, or do you already have a strategy in place?
New York Times columnist David Brooks might not have been talking about RFP management, but as with many things, having an RFP management plan, a strategy, can mean the difference between winning your bid and chaos.
What is RFP management?
At the highest level, RFP management is about managing the process of responding to proposal requests from start (even before receiving the RFP) to finish. Responsibilities vary from organization to organization, but the goals are the same, which is to win new business.
At their core, RFP response is about answering how you will address a prospect’s requirements, but a good response goes far beyond giving rote answers. Using carefully curated and fresh content, the response should tell a story demonstrating that you understand the customer’s needs and how to best address them.
RFP management includes leveraging company resources, such as subject matter experts (SMEs), existing data, and of course processes. If you consistently provide quality answers to RFPs, your win rate will increase. Below are the best practices we and our customers use to drive revenue and elevate win rates.
Bid for RFPs strategically
There’s strength in numbers, right? The more RFPs you answer, the more you’ll win, right? Probably not. Some of the RFPs you receive aren’t a good fit for your company, so why waste time and resources on those?
Tools such as the Responsive platform’s AI-powered content library, which answers up to 80% of an RFP’s questions, makes answering an RFP much faster and less resource-intensive. But if you know going in that you won’t win the bid, or you can’t service it, you’re still wasting valuable time and resources. Is the bid winnable? Follow these steps to make a bid or no-bid decision and narrow down which RFPs you should respond to.
- Do you have a preexisting relationship with the customer? Did they specifically choose to send it to you, or are they using a buckshot approach? A previous relationship—or when the issuer has done their own research—will dramatically improve your win rate over the RFPs that are automatically sent to everyone in your industry.
- Is your company a fit? If you can’t service the customer’s needs, there’s no reason to answer their RFP.
- Can you address all of the challenges presented in the RFP? Or at the very least, the most important ones?
- Is your pricing within the customer’s budget? No, money isn’t everything, and often, features and ability to meet the RFP’s challenges will win out. However, if your solution is far outside of the customer’s budget, it’s a tough hill to climb and efforts will be best spent elsewhere.
- Can you meet the prospect’s timeline? Can you meet the submission deadline? What about each deliverable? Can your organization fulfill all of the requirements on time?
- Do you know why the RFP was issued? This could help determine the customer’s pain points.
First you should identify and consult with your SMEs. If you haven’t won similar bids before, or if you’d have a difficult time fulfilling the requirements, you might be better off passing on that particular opportunity.
Have a clearly-defined RFP team
Regardless of whether your organization has a proposal management team or proposal management is the purview of the sales team or even a single person, there should always be a person who’s ultimately in charge.
From there, the team might vary depending on the customer’s needs and your company’s organizational structure. Titles are often used interchangeably and can mean different things to different organizations.
The Association of Proposal Management Professionals (APMP) membership roster includes more than 1,300 different job titles. You might have a dedicated proposal management team, but they may need to involve additional SMEs and stakeholders such as the executive team, legal, HR, information security, training and implementation, sales, customer success, account managers, IT, operations, finance, etc. Each organization is different, but proposal management team roles might include the following:
- Bid (or project) manager — The bid manager leads the proposal management team and is involved in every stage of the bid process.
- Proposal manager — The proposal manager works on a more granular level than the bid manager. Proposal managers oversee the entire process.
- Proposal writer — The proposal writer is responsible for responding to the customer’s requirements in a persuasive style that includes relevant information such as case studies and other differentiators.
- Proposal coordinator — The proposal coordinator is responsible for the administrative aspects of the response, including coordinating the internal flow, schedules, security and integrity, and directing submission of final documents.
- Proposal editor — The proposal editor ensures that the writing is high quality, persuasive, and maintains a consistent voice. They also check grammar, spelling, punctuation, and format consistency.
- Content manager — The content manager is responsible for adding to, maintaining, and periodically reviewing the content library.
In many organizations however, all of these roles are being filled by only a few individuals or even one, which means those individuals often wear a lot of hats. Be sure to have actionable deliverables to ensure that each person contributing to the response has clear expectations. This applies even if there’s a single contributor.
Fully understand the customer’s expectations
There’s no such thing as a cookie-cutter RFP or customer. It’s critical to fully understand a customer’s specific wants and expectations before attempting to answer their RFP. For example, don’t mention features that don’t matter to the customer, such as niche certifications that don’t apply. Start with what interests the issuer and then tailor your responses to those interests.
Read between the lines in trying to understand customer pain points. For example, if a customer asks a software developer if they offer user-based pricing, rather than answer “yes” or “no,” ask yourself why a customer might ask that. Perhaps they’ve reached limitations with other systems, or there’s a competitor that offers a more appealing pricing structure.
Determine how you stand out from your competitors, which of course can include cost, but it can also include product or service quality, expertise, customer service, and overall reputation.
Manage and organize RFP content
As baseball icon Babe Ruth once said, “Yesterday’s home runs don’t win today’s games.” Similarly, yesterday’s answers don’t win today’s RFPs, even if you’ve won that exact same RFP for the exact same customer in the past. Why? Because as your business changes, so should the content.
When you search your content library, you might find hundreds or even thousands of relevant Q&A pairs. Weeding through them might seem overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. Managing and organizing your content library should be an ongoing process, but there are some things you can do right now to help whittle down your Q&A pairs. The key is to focus on quality rather than quantity. You should regularly audit your content library for:
Accuracy – If, for example, you inadvertently lowball the bid, you could be contractually obligated to honor that pricing. Additionally, if you erroneously claim regulatory compliance, your organization could be held responsible for data breaches, etc. In other words, accuracy is critical, as is regularly auditing your content library to archive outdated information and update as applicable.
Content availability – RFPs are bulky and time consuming, and most organizations are stretched thin. Finding the correct answer quickly is critical. An updated content library lets you easily find the right information without having to sift through thousands of documents and megabits of data.
Naming and tagging – Establish a standardized naming convention for each project. Not only does that make the content more accessible to each team member, it helps you find customer-specific content for future requests. You can further narrow down the content by tagging. How you want to tag is up to your company. Many choose tagging by industry or general requirements. This can help dramatically narrow down your content.
Keep content up-to-date
The best way to get around content bloat is to avoid it in the first place. Perform regular audits to keep your content fresh.
- Is the content still current?
- Is the content accurate?
- Are the answers relevant to your customers?
- Is the content well-written?
- Does the content match your company’s voice and tone?
- Is the content easily accessible?
Regularly scheduled audits might not be enough, though, especially if your company goes through pricing, service, or regulatory changes.