What do Dr. Suess, Toni Morrison, and winning RFP responses have in common? They all tell their stories in surprisingly similar ways. A great story follows an arc. It draws the reader in, moves the story forward in an emotionally engaging way, and provides a satisfying conclusion.
You might think that comparing RFP responses to great works of fiction is going a little too far, especially because a quality RFP response is proofed and fact-checked to ensure complete accuracy. But fiction, nonfiction, or business proposal, it doesn’t matter.
Why using brand storytelling delivers a better RFP response
A study by neuroscientist and tech entrepreneur Paul J. Zak, funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, found that regardless of the medium, storytelling that captures emotions signals oxytocin—the love hormone—in the brain.
But wait, you aren’t trying to make people fall in love with your company, are you? In a sense, yes. Odds are that your company is one of many that can meet a prospect’s needs. So, how do you make your proposal stand out? How do you make a customer want to do business with you?
You differentiate yourselves by appealing to the readers’ emotions in the hope that you’ll awash their brains in the love hormone. It’s important to note that oxytocin also signals trustworthiness and motivates cooperation, which are both critical factors in closing business deals of all sorts.
“I advise business people to begin every presentation with a compelling, human-scale story. Why should customers or a person on the street care about the project you are proposing? How does it change the world or improve lives? How will people feel when it is complete? These are the components that make information persuasive and memorable.” Paul Zak
Examples of companies that use storytelling to connect with their customers
But what about B2B examples? How can a business document make a reader “fall in love,” or at least emotionally connect with your company? Straddling that line between professional and oxytocin-producing content takes some skill, but these two companies get it right:
Salesforce is the top customer relationship management platform in the world. Tracking customers through sales cycles might not exactly trigger love, so Salesforce took another approach. Their story is as much about their customers’ stories as their own.
KPN is a Dutch telecom company. While their customer success story includes the pain points/solutions specifics you’d expect to find, their customer quotes use emotional trigger words like “happier” and “excited.”
You’ll find emotionally engaging words peppered throughout their customer success stories. Salesforce helped T-Mobile’s customers feel “crazy about its service” and gave American Water “peace of mind.”
You get the idea. You don’t have to pivot away from your main selling points to insert some emotion. If you feel your story could be more engaging, tell your customers’ stories as part of yours.
Is there anything that evokes a sense of warmth and comfort more than the yeasty, buttery smell of freshly baked bread? What about a freshly baked data strategy? Are you hungry yet?
In one blog post, Amplify, a data management company, does a brilliant job of connecting these two disparate subjects to tell a story about creating and following roadmaps, just as you should follow every step of a recipe when baking bread.
In another, the author compares data management to alchemy and even TNT. In short, if data is well-managed, it can turn into metaphorical gold, and if not…boom!
While Amplifi doesn’t rely on emotional statements like “happier” or “excited,” they use clever metaphors to take readers on an emotional journey through the world of data management.
Best practices and examples for writing competitive RFP responses
We probably don’t need to mention that RFP response storytelling is not about making up characters and plotlines. Your job is to use the company’s story to sell a product or service. Write for your audience, not award committees or even yourself.
The academic journal Psychology and Marketing published a study called “Brand narratives: Content and consequences among heritage brands.” The study authors interviewed brand managers, analyzed heritage brand websites, and tested their findings with consumers to pinpoint what customers wanted to see from a seller’s story.
While it is true that their study focused on B2C organizations, it’s always good to remember that human beings spearhead every step in a B2B purchasing cycle.
So, what resonated with consumers?
- Founding date – Interestingly, it didn’t seem as though a long history was important, but consumers still wanted to see how long a company has been in business. Most RFPs ask for the founding date.
- Your unique approach or method – How are you different from your competitors? How does your product or service relate to your company’s core values?
- Linking the past to the present – Even if yours is not a heritage brand, link your vision or product to the past. For example, if your product uses a modern solution, such as artificial intelligence, give a brief history lesson of the challenge before your company addressed it using AI.
The study also examined common storytelling elements that don’t resonate, such as:
- The founder’s story – The buyer wants to go into business with your company, not its founders.
- Your business’s struggles – Readers like success stories. They don’t want to know that your company almost folded in its first year, even if it rose like a phoenix. They definitely don’t want to know about your cultural or product-related struggles.
- Where you were founded – Today’s business world is nearly borderless. Your California location, for example, will mean very little to a company in Europe.
Now that we have the very basic dos and don’ts, it’s time to further break down response stories.
1. Tell your why
As every middle school journalism teacher will tell you, there are six elements to a good story: who, what, where, when, why, and how. It’s the same with RFP response.
“Who,” as we mentioned above, is about your company, not your founder (with an exception we’ll talk about in a moment).
“What” is the product or service. “Where” is less about your location than the product or service (e.g., Where will onboarding take place? Where are your products manufactured?). “When” should outline deliverable dates. “How” is pretty self-explanatory, but what about “why?”
“Why” is an opportunity to genuinely resonate with your audience. Perhaps your company began because your founders were once in the customer’s shoes, or they saw a need that they were in a position to fill.
It might be tempting to include “why” when responding to a question about your company’s founding date or one that asks about product specs, but you’ll run the risk of annoying your customers by using valuable space for what they might see as superfluous information in those contexts. Also, you might have character and space limits.
Unless the RFP offers organic opportunities to present your “why,” save it for the cover letter.
RFP response example:
If, for example, a company wanted to improve efficiency. Here at RFPIO, we might say something like:
“We understand your desire to improve efficiencies in your organization. We founded RFPIO for that very reason. Our platform helps you take back time to spend with your customers, family, and of course, on yourself.”
2. Show you’re human
Individuals and company decision-makers all want to feel good about their buying decisions. Highlight the good that your company does.
RFP response example:
At RFPIO, we’re proud of our workplace ideals and culture. But simply patting ourselves on the back might seem inauthentic. We let our employees speak for themselves. In our RFP responses, we often include something like:
“RFPIO is committed to a diverse and inclusive work environment. Our employees voted this year, and we were honored as a Comparably Award winner for Best Outlook, Best CEO for diversity, and Best Leadership team.”
3. Share a testimonial
Who better to speak for your company’s quality and customer service than your customers?
RFP response example:
We might, for example, use the words of Brian Z. of LinkedIn:
“Hundreds of hours saved in responding to questionnaires and RFPs. RFPIO offers very competitive cost savings over most of the larger RFP software providers. The same functionality at a fraction of the cost of the big guys. Customer support is top-notch — all questions or requests for help are addressed within the same day (or within 24 hours at most). Great, direct support from the management team — no call centers, no outsourced product support. You get assistance from people who helped build the product.”
4. Customize answers with specific deliverables
When an RFP asks about deliverables, the customer wants more than just a timeline. They want to know that you understand their needs. If you sell a product, how long will it take for the customer to receive it? If you sell a service, what is the onboarding process? Sure, it’s easy to answer these questions with dates or predicted time from purchase, but remember, you’re telling a story.
RFP response example:
Let’s pivot from RFPIO for a moment. Perhaps your company offers SEO services. Rather than simply listing timelines, say something like:
“At ____ SEO Consultants, we value partnership with our clients. First, we’ll meet with your content strategists to help devise a plan to leverage your strengths and highlight your values. On average, we will deliver a detailed SEO strategy within X months.
By month X, we will begin weekly strategy meetings with content writers and key stakeholders. Implementation will be ongoing but expect your first results within X months.”
5. Be succinct and real
Most products or services are relatively dry. If you’re in tech, things can get rather *um* technical. If you sell a product, you might have to explain its manufacturing or logistics.
Odds are, the procurement person looking at your proposal has high-level knowledge of what they are seeking, but their eyes might start getting bleary if you go into too much detail, especially technical detail. Avoid jargon as much as possible.
RFP response example:
If, for example, the RFP asks about your approach to project management. Rather than describing your methodology or Gantt chart, say something like:
“Our project management team is agile. We tailor our proven process to each client’s unique needs with the main steps remaining consistent: build, test, and deploy to deliver value.”
6. Make life easier for the issuer
Reviewing a (long) proposal is a tedious enough process, don’t also make the issuer do extra work digging to find answers. Rather than directing them to an attachment or a URL to find the answer they’re looking for, answer their question within the proposal itself. In addition, you can always provide an attachment to expand on your answer or offer supporting evidence for it.
RFP response example:
“We practice secure application design and coding principles. Engineers are required to undergo security training for security awareness and secure coding.
We use third-party services to perform vulnerability/application security scans annually.
The most recent penetration report is attached to this package: .”
7. Elaborate when appropriate
You don’t want to be too wordy or provide unnecessary information, but there are instances where a bit of elaboration is valuable. Sometimes you have to read between the lines to determine what the customer needs. Rather than just providing the most direct answer to the question, try to understand what the buyer is actually trying to learn. If a more detailed response fits better, go for it.
RFP response example:
The customer may want to know how you communicate new features to clients. Sure, you could respond with something like, “Upcoming platform enhancements are communicated to customers via email. You can also access them from the Help Center.”
Yes, that answer is succinct, but does it set you apart from your competitors? Maybe they asked that question because their current vendor doesn’t listen to suggestions or communicate new features. Instead, try something like:
“Our roadmap is heavily influenced by our customers through a feedback/enhancement request feature within the application. Customers can interact with one another’s requests, as well as with the development team. Their comments, voting, and status reports all influence future enhancements.
We then communicate enhancements to our customers via email release announcements. This email will have the major highlights from the release, a document outlining all the release details, and a link to the release details that can be accessed 24/7 in the Help Center.”
8. Say no with style
No one likes to pass up a business opportunity, but there are times when your company won’t be the right fit, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Rather than responding to an RFP and misleading the customer into believing that yours is the right solution, tell them “no” but do it the right way.
A well-composed “no” response might help open doors to future opportunities with the issuer.
RFP response example:
Imagine the customer is looking for a specific integration you don’t currently offer. Instead of a simple “No, we do not integrate with that tool,” say something like:
“Currently, the solution does not integrate with XYZ tool. However, a potential integration is on our 6-12 month product roadmap. We would love the opportunity to partner with you in identifying the best path forward to build an XYZ tool integration.”
More RFP examples and response resources
While we’re on the subject of storytelling, part of RFPIO’s story is that we also respond to RFPs, so we have several experts within our ranks who are always willing to offer sage advice.
RFPIO’s website and blog have multiple resources to help you craft a bid-winning story, such as:
Sample RFP response cover letter
A great cover letter is short and sweet but also informative. Click here for tips and tricks for writing the perfect cover letter. Kelly Barnard, RFPIO’s Response Management Strategist, even included her go-to example.
Winning RFP response examples using storytelling
Are you hungry for more storytelling examples? Click here.
Free RFP response template
Hubspot has a fantastic RFP response template. Click here.
Modernize your RFP response process and complete more winning bids with artificial intelligence
None of these best practices are worth much if you can’t complete each potentially winnable RFP or find time to customize them when you do. To get to the point where you can actively put this advice into practice, you need RFP software that takes care of the more tedious and time-consuming parts of the process.
RFPIO’s advanced response technology includes features that help you create better, faster, more winning responses:
- Business intelligence – RFPIO’s advanced analytics and reporting capabilities let you use data to drive your business decisions.
- Content Library – RFPs aren’t known for their originality. You’ve probably answered most questions before. RFPIO’s AI-enabled recommendation engine finds the best preapproved content, leaving you the option to accept, edit, or reject its suggestions.
- Import and export – Whether an RFP comes as a Word document, Excel spreadsheet, or through your CRM, you can import it directly onto RFPIO’s platform.
- Standard and customized templates – RFPIO lets you create proposals using your favorite templates or one of ours.
- Customization – As they say, every picture tells a story. Add tables, images, and rich text to visually narrate your response.
- Integrations – RFPIO integrates with the most popular productivity and sales enablement tools.
Related: Create proactive proposals at scale with proposal automation software
Create rich narratives that will help you win more business, spend more time in front of customers, and live your life. With RFPIO, you can make that happen. See how with a free demo.