Everyone loves writing proposals, right? Responding to those RFPs, PQQs, RFIs and tenders is a vital part of any broadcast and media technology supplier’s sales process. Yet it’s easy to throw away months of sales effort with a poor RFP response. Here are five common mistakes you may be making in your RFP responses and how to avoid them. This is based on a presentation I gave at IABM’s Sales and Marketing Summit on July 5. I’m running training workshops to help vendors cope better with the RFP and Demo process (see here for more details).

1. Talking about YOU, not the customer

How often do you start your proposal with “Acme Technologies has pleasure in submitting our response…” Or you begin by talking about how many years you’ve been in business, all of your big customers, or the superior features of your technology.

That’s irrelevant to the customer. They simply want to know how you’ll solve their problem, take away their pain, how their life will be better with your help. You’re appealing to individual emotions.

Before you write a single word, every RFP process needs to start with a clear understanding and agreement on the customer’s pain points, what’s actually important to them, and what is your unique value proposition to solve that. That creates a clear message and win theme that must underpin the entire sales process: RFP, product demos, every meeting, every presentation.

2. Writing a boring executive summary

Let’s face it, even though the customer has asked you 250 questions and you’ve put together a 100-page pack of documents and information in response, very few people are going to read the full thing.

Yet the buying decision is going to involve multiple people – users, operational managers, finance people, senior management, lots of different departments. However good your sales process, lots of these people you haven’t met, and their first exposure to your company’s message is through the executive summary.

Far too many salespeople leave the exec summary till the last minute, or it becomes a copy-and-paste job – with the risk again that it starts talking about you, not the customer.

So START with the executive summary – start aligning it to the customer’s pain points and win themes that you already identified in step 1. Make sure it’s easy to read, clearly structured, with lots of headings and pictures.  And make sure it really is an executive summary – explaining exactly how your solution will solve the customer’s problems, and how you’ll ensure their success and de-risk the customer’s change.

3. Taking too long, costing a fortune

Poorly-organised RFPs take far longer than needed – and end up costing you a great deal.  Every organisation should be paying close attention to their cost-of-sale, and having an efficient RFP process to create consistently great RFP responses is part of that. It’s a case of having three things in place:

  1. Effective resource and time planning from the outset with clarity about who’s doing what, and when.
  2. Using collaborative tools to speed up the process.
  3. Capturing the output of each RFP in a way that makes it reusable, and quickly adaptable for new customers with new requirements.

So nail that win theme at the start, and align all of the content to it as you go – this avoids managers demanding last-minute changes. Set early deadlines in your project plan to ensure there’s plenty of time to review. And use cloud apps to speed up the process. Project tools like Trello help you plan and keep track of process. Google Docs and Sheets are invaluable for allowing multiple team members to work in a document together. Google Groups (really) is a neat way to manage content and make it searchable and reusable quickly.

4. Being too honest in the Excel matrix

This one’s a bit controversial. Of course, your RFP response needs to be accurate.

But there’s one area where it – sadly – pays to be as optimistic as possible, and that’s the dreaded Excel matrix. This is a truly terrible feature of RFPs, and I have no idea why it is still used. But, if you have to respond to an Excel matrix, make sure the odds are stacked in your favour.

The trouble is, your solution doesn’t quite fit the requirement, so you select “partially meets requirements” and write an elegant explanation of how your solution actually does it in a different, and much better way.
The problem is that customer never reads this. They just put all of the Excel responses into a scoring sheet and see who comes out top.  That’s right, they pick the least honest vendors by only shortlisting the responses with the highest score.  I told you the RFP matrix is a dumb idea in an RFP.

So sadly, if you want to get through to the next round, you need to … shall we say … err on the side of optimism in your scoring responses. Just make sure you can genuinely back up your responses with a valid explanation (and that your dev team can deliver what you’re saying they can). Otherwise you will be found out, and it will be messy.

5. Poor qualification: the no-hopers

I’ve left the most important till last.

You know the scenario. The pipeline is looking a little empty, and you’re a bit behind meeting this quarter’s targets.  And then on Friday afternoon, the surprise email lands in your inbox. A potential customer is running a project, and they’d like you to respond to the RFP.  The deadline is a full ten days away!

The only trouble: the last time you spoke to this customer was two years ago, and you had no idea that they running a project, let alone launching an RFP.

It is all so often tempting to think “well, we’re a good fit … if we do a good RFP response we’ll be in there with a chance to close the deal.”

Wrong, wrong, wrong. There is only one place for these RFPs – in the trash.

Go away and question your sales process, not your RFP process. Why weren’t you aware of that opportunity? Why were you not in their positioning the value of your solution, and understanding the stakeholders and the decision-making process months ago? What are your more realistic opportunities to invest in instead?

Related, if you’re being kept at arm’s length from the decision-makers by their consultants, really really think about whether you want to play that game.

You will NEVER win an opportunity by submitting an RFP response in this scenario for three simple reasons:-

  1. No-one really buys on the basis of the RFP response. They already decided on their preferred solution, and the RFP is there to keep the procurement people happy. (though you can still LOSE a deal badly with the wrong RFP response!)
  2. Your competitors HAVE been all over the customer for the past six months and have a huge head start. You’re unlikely to make that up.
  3. And coming full circle, you have no idea of the customer’s real business need and pain points – so you have no chance of writing an RFP response that meets those needs.

Some training can help

Focusing on these five gotchas will help improve your success rate with RFPs right away. There’s a lot more that can help though – espcially around qualification, managing the RFP process, building the win theme and writing well-structured creative text that jumps off the page.

You might want to come along to the RFP Masterclass and Demo Masterclass training I’m running in partnership with IABM.  More details are here.