When it comes to responding to RFPs, there are a lot of moving parts. Between developing messaging, collaborating with subject matter experts and meeting tight deadlines for big opportunities, it’s easy to lose track of what’s going on. Luckily, a strong proposal process transforms chaos into managed efficiency. In addition, it enables you to answer more RFPs, improve your win rate and grow your business.
Whether you’re new to RFPs, or looking to brush up on best practices, you’ll find everything you need to know here. To start, we’ll cover key definitions and team roles. Then, I’ll share a step-by-step proposal process guide and an overview of challenges you may face. In addition, throughout the post, I’ll share resources you can explore to learn more about each topic. Finally, to conclude, you’ll learn some quick tips to continually improve your proposal process.
Proposal process basics
What is the proposal process?
The proposal process, sometimes called the request for proposal (RFP) response process, is the organized approach a vendor follows when they create a proposal in response to an RFP issued by a buyer. Within the formalized process, you’ll organize the people, information and steps that must come together to create a successful proposal.
As you might imagine, the proposal process is different in every business. Indeed, there are countless variables that can impact the steps and details involved. However, the foundation of the process typically remains the same. Defining your unique process enables consistency from one RFP to the next. Subsequently, you can examine and optimize your proposal process to improve response speed, accuracy and effectiveness.
Who is responsible for the proposal management process?
Generally, RFPs call for a wide range of input and expertise from departments throughout your business. The input from each contributor must be collected, organized and compiled together to create a compelling proposal. With so many steps and people involved, having a single person responsible for overseeing the project is absolutely essential. This person serves as the proposal manager or proposal coordinator.
While large organizations may have a full roster of dedicated proposal managers, small- and mid-sized businesses often don’t. In these cases, a salesperson, marketing team member or business operations professional may take on the role in addition to their primary job function. Regardless, the proposal manager acts as the project leader and main point of contact throughout the proposal management process.
Who else is involved in the proposal process?
From competitor research to unique industry expertise, there are many people in your business you’ll need to work with during the proposal process. Each of these professionals is a part of your proposal team. And, each person performs a crucial role.
Again, large businesses may have one or more people dedicated to each of these roles. Conversely, small- and medium-sized businesses may have one person performing tasks from several of these roles.
Before you receive an RFP, the capture manager is already working on winning it. Indeed, they develop a capture management plan with research, win themes and customer insights to give your organization an advantage.
Subject matter experts
The bulk of your proposal content will come from subject matter experts (SMEs). When it’s time to answer in-depth industry and topic-specific questions, these are the people you turn to. In addition, they verify that knowledge library content is accurate.
Proposal development consultant
When a high-value RFP opportunity comes along, you may want the advice and assistance of an external advisor. A proposal development consultant delivers valuable proposal support, messaging review and industry insights.
The executive-level approver is your proposal’s last stop before it goes back to the buyer. With the big picture in mind, they ensure that the opportunity aligns with the company goals and that the proposal represents the company accurately.
A step-by-step guide to the proposal process
From beginning to end, there are a lot of elements in the proposal process. But, don’t worry, it’s easy to master with a little knowledge and practice.
1. Identify an RFP opportunity
Naturally, the first step in the RFP response process is identifying an RFP to respond to. There are several ways to find new, open RFP opportunities. Alternatively, you may use a more focused approach and create a capture management plan to target key accounts.
How to find RFPs
Everyone wants to find more sales opportunities, but sometimes it’s easier said than done. Fortunately, there are a few tips and tricks you can use to find RFPs.
Use Google to find government RFPs
Look for publicly posted RFPs in searchable portals. Many valuable government RFPs are a mere Google search away.
Discover open RFPs on social media
Some organizations regularly post their RFP opportunities on social networks like LinkedIn and Twitter.
Subscribe to an RFP database service
An RFP database collects open bid opportunities and categorizes them by industry. Typically, these services are easy to use and affordable.
Register directly with large organizations
Check the websites of your top target accounts for a vendor registration page. Then, fill out the vendor profile and submit your information.
Catch the attention of a broker or consultant
High-value, specialized procurement projects are often outsourced to brokers or consultants. Reach out and ask to be included in future RFPs.
RFPs through capture management
The practice of capture management is all about gaining an advantage before a buyer issues an RFP. For example, you may know that one of your potential customers has a contract expiring at the end of the year and that they will issue an RFP to explore their options.
By creating a capture management plan, you strategize, gather insight and connect with the customer to demonstrate why you’re the best fit for the business. Ideally, the subsequent RFP favors your company.
2. Decide to bid or not to bid
After you’ve identified a potential RFP opportunity, it’s time to learn more and decide to bid or not to bid. As you can already see, the RFP response process takes time. Each RFP that your team responds to represents an investment of time and resources. Therefore, it’s important to closely examine each RFP to determine if it’s a good fit for your organization.
Considerations when deciding to bid or not to bid
- Organizational alignment: Does this RFP match your business’s big-picture goals?
- Expertise and ability: Can your business meet the customer’s needs?
- Value: Will the return on investment justify the cost of the project?
- Background: Are past proposal responses readily available?
- Competition: Is one of your competitors clearly a better fit?
3. Select a proposal project management approach
Once you’ve decided to respond to an RFP, it’s time to make a plan. There are a lot of tasks, deadlines and people involved in the RFP response process — without structure, confusion runs rampant. Adopting a formal project management approach organizes and streamlines the process.
Common approaches include using a RACI matrix, project implementation plan or proposal timeline. Once you’ve selected and applied one of these processes, share the plan with your proposal team in a kickoff meeting.
A RACI matrix defines the tasks, team members and responsibilities involved in your proposal process using a chart format. Tasks appear on one axis of the chart, while team members are listed on the other. The chart then fills in who is who is Responsible, who is Accountable, who is Consulted and who is Informed for each step. Because the information is clearly displayed, it’s a quick way to get everyone on the same page.
Project implementation plan
Chronological thinkers tend to prefer a detailed project implementation plan. This approach breaks each task down into the individual steps needed to complete the RFP response. An owner and due date accompany each step.
While slightly less visual than the RACI matrix, a project implementation plan relies on details. Each objective is broken down into smaller objectives or sub-tasks. This allows the proposal manager better insight into progress and next steps.
Next, the visual aspect of the RACI matrix and the detailed nature of a project implementation plan approaches come together in a proposal timeline. This method uses a visual timeline to provide an overview of the RFP response process.
In addition to being useful for project planning, your timeline can also be used to quickly create a more granular Gantt chart, onboard new proposal team members, set internal expectations and inform stakeholders.
4. Review the RFP for repeat questions
Now that your team is organized, you’re ready to begin the proposal. Before you answer a single question, read the entire RFP. I know it’s tempting to answer a few quick and easy questions, but seriously, read the whole thing first.
One of the most common mistakes vendors make is not following instructions. Reading the whole RFP, uninterrupted, ensures you don’t miss anything. In addition, it gives you a better understanding of what the prospective customer cares about.
Find responses for previously asked questions
You may feel like if you’ve seen one RFP, you’ve seen them all. While each RFP is unique, there is a significant amount of overlap in the questions buyers ask. Which is why it’s important to capture and catalog previous responses in a proposal content library.
A proposal content library, also called a knowledge library or proposal content repository, is a centralized location where past RFP responses are stored digitally. Then, when another RFP asks the same question, or one similar, you can simply copy and paste the previous response and update as needed.
An organized knowledge library saves you a ton of time and makes the response process easier on the rest of your team. With time, you’ll quickly be able to complete most of any new RFP. Some proposal teams manage their proposal content manually, using a shared document. Others leverage RFP software that automatically identifies and completes repeat questions.
5. Collaborate with SMEs to write new responses
After you’ve reviewed your proposal content library and completed as much of the response as possible, it’s time to engage with your subject matter experts to review your suggested responses and answer new questions. Assign questions to SMEs according to their expertise. Be sure to provide any necessary context as well as the date you need the response back.
6. Perfect the proposal
Next, make sure everything is perfect. To start, review your completed RFP questions. It’s important to ensure that the proposal comes together and reads like a single document, rather than answers from a dozen contributors. Then, read the answers to make sure there are no contradictions, confusing terms or inconsistencies.
RFP response best practices
- Center responses on the customer’s benefits and experience
- Keep responses as brief and direct as possible
- Use plain language and avoid jargon
- Make sure the proposal is skimmable
- Use visuals and charts to illustrate data
Finalize your proposal design
Your proposal format and design should reinforce your brand, professionalism and reputation. In addition, the way your RFP response looks can communicate that your company is easy to work with and understands what the buyer needs.
Review for typos and revise as needed
Admittedly, you’ve probably read this proposal a dozen times at this point in the proposal process. However, don’t skip the final read-through. Grab a colleague and read the proposal from front to back one more time. Ask for feedback and keep an eye out for incomplete answers, typos and grammatical errors.
7. Create the summary and cover letter
After you’ve finished the RFP, write your executive summary and cover letter. These documents serve as a briefing document for stakeholders in the buyer’s organization who don’t have time to read the entire proposal.
Creating these overview documents after the proposal enables you to give a true summary instead of predicting what SMEs and stakeholders will include before the proposal is complete.
The executive summary
This is the very first page of your proposal. Indeed, it is your introduction to the buyer. As you write your RFP executive summary, consider that everyone who encounters your proposal will skim this page before deciding whether or not to read on. So, you need to make it count. Give a high-level overview of how you’ll empower their organization to meet their goals, offer your key differentiators and keep it brief.
The RFP cover letter
We all know that responding to RFPs isn’t always exciting. It’s simply the most efficient way to exchange and evaluate vendor data. Luckily, the RFP cover letter offers a way to create a human connection. Furthermore, it enables your organization to add a little personality, be conversational and make your proposal memorable. This is where you can express your understanding of the customer’s needs, share a customer story and offer your vision for a long-term partnership.
8. Finalize, submit and verify
At last, you’re done creating the proposal. It’s been proofed, reviewed (and reviewed again) and updated. Truly, it’s a masterpiece. Now, it’s time for final approval. Share the RFP response with your executive approver.
Then, when you have the seal of approval, submit the proposal to the buyer for consideration. Remember to closely follow the submission requirements outlined in the RFP. Finally, it’s common for the buyer-side RFP contact to provide a record of receipt, it never hurts to request one. Certainly, the verification that they have your proposal in hand may set your mind at ease.
Before you file away your completed RFP response, there’s one last step in the proposal process: the debrief. This final step, takes all of your hard work and sets you up for success when you receive your next RFP opportunity.
During your debrief, review the proposal process. What worked well? How could your process improve? What new RFP responses or edits to old responses need to be added to your proposal content repository to be reused in the future? Use what you learned to make your next RFP response even more efficient and effective.
Common challenges in the proposal management process
Proposals are fast-paced, high-pressure and occasionally unpredictable. Unfortunately, that means that no matter how prepared you are, you may still run into a roadblock. Here you’ll find a few common proposal process challenges and how to navigate them.
Drawn out decisions to bid or not to bid
When RFPs come in, the clock starts ticking. Often, the only person who can hear the countdown loud and clear is the proposal manager. So, while sales, business operations, finance and executives debate the merits of participating, you’re losing precious time.
One of the best ways to combat this delay, is to use proposal management software to analyze the RFP and determine how many of the questions have already been answered previously. With this information, you can contribute to the bid/no-bid conversation and provide input regarding the amount of time and effort the proposal will take.
Lack of urgency and buy-in from SMEs
Subject matter experts are busy. Unfortunately, that means they can commonly become a bottleneck in the proposal timeline. When this happens, try to remember that they must juggle their full-time responsibilities as well as proposal team duties.
So, try to make the process as easy on them as possible by making educated answer suggestions using your proposal content library. Even if the question varies slightly from a previous version, it’s easier for an SME to review and update than it is to create from scratch.
Competing stakeholder priorities
Creating concise and compelling answers is an art. As a proposal manager, you may need to tidy up, rework or edit the responses provided to you by stakeholders. Naturally, each of them is passionate about their area of expertise, believes that their contribution is perfect as is and will seal the deal. Often, this can result in a disagreement about what information is essential and what can be omitted.
In this situation, refer back to and lean on your established win themes. In addition, share your feedback with the stakeholder and explain why the level of detail they offered isn’t necessary at this juncture. Then, explain how the customer will receive the additional information when they need it if they select your organization for the opportunity.
Quick tips for a constantly improving proposal management process
- Ask for stakeholder feedback and optimize to improve efficiency. Review your proposal management process to identify gaps and opportunities.
- Make your proposal process transparent to your proposal team. Share updates throughout, review next steps and follow up with stakeholders.
- Collaborate on proposals and answers in a centralized, cloud-based location. This avoids siloed information and tedious rework.
- Schedule regular reviews and updates of your proposal content library to ensure confidence in the accuracy of your answers.
- Explore RFP response tools and proposal automation to improve efficiency and empower you to participate in more RFPs.
- Track your win rates and return on investment (ROI). Don’t be shy about highlighting your value to the company.
Admittedly, the proposal process is often complex and time-consuming. So, if you’re feeling a little overwhelmed, you’re not alone. Manually managing the proposal team and process through Word, spreadsheets and email is exhausting. Luckily, proposal management software, like Responsive, streamlines the process from beginning to end.