B2B marketing involves the kinds of strategies and channels that are totally alien to B2C marketers. Many B2B manufacturers rely on RFPs as a primary method of generating new business. Whether public tenders or private opportunities, the RFP process is familiar to most industrial companies. Highly competitive and often tedious and costly to respond to, RFPs can deliver millions of dollars in contracts to your business—if you’re able to win them!
Our agency has extensive experience both responding to and writing for public and private RFPs. We do it for our own business as well as on behalf of our clients. We’ve had many successes (and failures!) through the years. Today, we’re going to share our top ten tips to help you close more RFPs. Let’s get started.
#1: Review the RFP page-by-page
One of the easiest ways to derail an RFP response is to jump right in without any preparation. When an exciting RFP lands on your desk, it can be easy to see dollar signs and skip straight to writing your response.
The problem is, RFPs are complex—sometimes on purpose. There’s a common teaching exercise you may be familiar with, where the instructor passes out a long list of instructions: fold this paper twice, then write your name on the back, then draw a cat on the front, etc.
The very last instruction will be something like “disregard all previous instructions and hand in the paper as-is”. The lesson? Read the instructions fully before you get started.
In our experience, RFPs include important details in seemingly unimportant places. It can be easy to miss a requirement or misunderstand an instruction if we aren’t thorough about assessing the RFP.
Whenever you receive an RFP, take the time to scan it thoroughly. Take notes as you go. Turn those notes into a document outline. It’s boring and time-consuming, but effective. You’re far less likely to miss something important if you commit to a review process.
#2. Do a background search
No, not a criminal background search. At the end of the day, RFPs get evaluated by people. People are messy bundles of bias, personal preference, and opinion. Knowing who is likely to read your RFP (and what makes them tick) can help you prepare a response that speaks to them.
If it’s a private RFP, do some LinkedIn research and see if you can identify the leadership team most likely to read your response. If possible, tap your mutual connections. See if you’re friendly with anyone who can give you the inside scoop on the organization. You’d be amazed at the insights you can glean from a 10-minute phone call with someone “on the inside”.
For public RFPs, it can be very easy to find who’s evaluating your response, or very difficult. For example, some public RFPs for municipal projects list exactly who will be responsible for scoring and evaluation. In other cases, it’s easy to infer from a staff directory on their website. For military, state, or federal contracts, it can be difficult or impossible to identify stakeholders. Still, do the best you can.
#3. Spy on your competitors (then SWOT yourself)
The other factor in every RFP response is competition. In many cases, public RFPs will include a list of companies that have downloaded the RFP documents, submitted a response, or requested information. During your background search, you may hear from a friend of a friend which companies are bidding, or even who the front-runner or existing contract holder is.
Even if you can’t get any competitor data, you can often infer who you’re up against. Which companies have established relationships with the RFP issuer? Are there any local service providers or major brands that are likely to be interested?
Once you have a real or imagined list of competitors, perform a SWOT analysis on yourself. Consider the prospective client’s needs in relation to the service offering of your competitors. We’re looking to understand how we can best stack up against competition. That means downplaying weaknesses and threats while emphasizing strengths and opportunities. This exercise ensures your selling propositions and value adds stand out among the competition.
#4. Score and prioritize opportunities (before you start writing)
One of the most common issues we’ve seen companies struggle with when responding to RFPs is a poor selection process. Wayne Gretzky might say you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, which is good advice for most things. Not so for RFPs. A single RFP response might take a team a week to prepare—sometimes more, sometimes less. There is a heavy cost to be paid when pursuing no-win RFPs. What’s a no-win RFP? It’s any bidding opportunity where you estimate your chance to be chosen or shortlisted is less than 10%.
When the pipeline starts running dry and the sales team gets desperate, every RFP looks like a home run. Just keep in mind the opportunity cost of bidding on the wrong jobs. Not only will you not win the RFP; you’ll waste the resources of your response team, burning through budget that could be applied to fewer, better opportunities.
#5. Spend more time on less writing
No, you don’t want to submit a minimalist response that barely answers the issuer’s questions. No, you don’t need to stay within some strict page or word count to deliver an effective response.
But you do need to balance brevity with thoroughness. You must focus on delivering a quality, cogent argument for why the issuer needs to work with you specifically.
As we established in our previous point, it’s best to focus on relevance and winnability over volume. This is true for identifying opportunities, but it’s also true for content production. Research shows that the average RFP response time is over 30 hours. Some large companies spend 40+ hours writing each response. This is the level of investment, care, and attention required to achieve high win rates. Note that an increase in time spent writing does not correlate with an increase in document length. A 50-page response written in 40 hours will be more thoroughly edited and vetted than the same length document written in 20 hours, all else being equal.
It can be hard to justify the expense of a 30–40-hour RFP document, but remember what you stand to win. In the B2B manufacturing sector, many RFPs are worth hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars. You only need to win one or two more RFPs than you would have otherwise to justify the high cost of submission.
#6. Codify your content
Motor enthusiasts might be familiar with Toyota’s 22R engine.
The 22R was the last engine developed in Toyota’s long-lived R series, first released in 1982 before receiving an overhaul in 1985. Believe it or not, it’s an engine still in demand among Toyota enthusiasts. Well known for being near-indestructible while offering decent power and fuel efficiency, the R series of engines was in continual production for over 40 years. 40 years!
Toyota identified a winning formula and stuck with it, making slow and steady improvements over nearly a half a century to compete with newer platforms. This is how you should treat your RFP content.
If you’ve won RFPs in the past, hold on to those responses. See if you can interview anyone from the review team to find out what made you come out on top. Collect and standardize top-performing RFP response content so you can use it again later!
Too many inexperienced RFP teams start from scratch for every new response. Unless you’re responding to a completely new kind of RFP, you should lean on what’s worked before. It may not look “fresh” to your experienced eyes. Just remember that your audience will be seeing it for the first time.
#7. Compete on more than just price
Some of the more pessimistic RFP respondents out there believe that it all comes down to price. No matter how shiny and new your response is, if you aren’t competitive on price, you aren’t competitive at all.
In our experience, this isn’t true. Early in our business journey, we started responding to lots of RFPs. Some we won, most we didn’t. At that stage in our business, we were confident that we weren’t just competitive on price—we were typically the cheapest vendor by far. Combining a low hourly rate with a keen desire to prove ourselves, we undercut expected bids just to build our portfolio.
And it usually wasn’t enough. We’d lose to huge agencies on the backs of their purported industry expertise—companies we knew for a fact were charging many times our rate.
When we won, I’m sure price was a factor. But it was far from the only one. We’d hear from RFP issuers about the quality of the design of our document, or our unique and personal approach to addressing their challenges. Ensure your response team has access to design resources, quality photos, and other visual enhancements to ensure each document they send is fully optimized for the reader.
All that to say, if you’re neglecting design, personalization, or other subtle value adds in your responses, you’re leaving money on the table—regardless of what you’re charging.
#8. RFP responses are a team exercise
Many of our clients are small and mid-sized businesses that don’t have the luxury of running a whole department for RFP management. Where large companies might have a team of up to ten people working on RFP selection and response development, many small companies have one person whose job responsibilities include (among many other tasks) responding to RFPs.
Regardless of the size of your team, it’s important to introduce more oversight and feedback in the response development process. An RFP is a complicated document; a response equally so. Find other people within your organization that can review the response with your writer. That could be company leadership, sales, or anyone else with a keen eye for detail and strong knowledge of your company. You never know what mistakes you may uncover, or what optimizations might be revealed by including more feedback.
#9. Ask good questions
Most RFPs, particularly public RFPs, offer a question period for respondents to seek clarity about the project so they can bid accurately. This is a twofold opportunity for savvy bidders.
First, clarity is great! You have a chance to better understand the ins and outs of the project. You’ll hear from the issuer, in the issuer’s own words, about exactly what they want and need from you. This can give context clues about the selection committee—what’s the tone of their response? Are they thorough in answering questions, or brief?
Second, it allows bidders to get their name and contact information in front of the selection committee early. Asking good questions shows that you’re paying attention. In a sea of rapidly assembled templated responses, you’re looking to customize the solution for their exact needs. What RFP issuer wouldn’t want that?
Ensure your questions are logical and double-check that they aren’t answered in the text of the RFP. Asking a question that could be answered by reading the text is a good way to look sloppy in front of a prospective client. Try to ask leading questions with a strategic/value add angle. Ask about wish-list features or propose more effective methods to complete the task.
There’s little risk in asking questions, but the reward—whether it’s better intel to write a great response, or better brand recognition when it comes time to shortlist applicants—is well worth it.
#10. Know where you’re going (and where you’ve been)
Many businesses submit a response…
…then move on to the next one. No follow-up, no post-mortem. Get responses out the door en masse and hope for the best.
It’s okay to follow up, even if you lost the bid. You might get ghosted, but you’ll often get a response back with some details on where you scored poorly. In fact, it’s a great way to optimize future responses.
Speaking of which, if you don’t know where you’re coming from, you don’t know where you’re going. Tracking performance over time is the only way to ensure you’re getting better and making the right adjustments.
If you don’t use a CRM, you should. If you do, you should consider creating pipelines and records for RFP responses, including follow-up procedures and detailed outcome reports. This empowers you with data. If you’re a manager trying to get more out of your team, you can show them that win rate is lagging and show them where you’re falling short. If you’re the response writer yourself, you can use data to validate and justify your company’s investment in RFPs—or even ask for a raise!
None of these recommendations are earth-shattering revelations. I’m sure many readers do most of what we’ve listed already. But if you’re reading this, it’s because you’d like to win more RFPs. Follow through on these ten recommendations and you will see an improvement in win rate. These are the ingredients for a great RFP response.
It’s time to get cooking.
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