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Episode #224
Lisa Rehurek

How Consultants Can Win More Request For Proposals (RFPs)

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For complex projects that require subcontracting, a Request for Proposal is a great way to winnow out what companies to partner up with. An RFP, however, isn’t just a simple document that you send off and forget about. It requires a lot of groundwork, foresight, and mindset before you even start working. So how can a consultant ensure that they win more of these? Michael Zipursky looks into the nuts and bolts of consistently winning RFPs with author and consultant Lisa Rehurek. Lisa walks us through the mechanisms of a winning strategy and what you need to do to ensure success.

I am very excited to have Lisa Rehurek joining us. Lisa, welcome.

Thank you, Michael. I’m so happy to be here.

You are an author, speaker, Founder and CEO of The RFP Success Company where you help organizations to win more RFPs. No surprise there given the name of your company. It’s very clear and direct. You have been featured in many places in the media, Fox News, ABC, NBC, all that good stuff. You run your podcast called The RFP Success Show where you help people learn more about the world of RFPs and how they can navigate it.

That is why I’m so excited to have you on because RFP is an area that many consultants find themselves considering or they are deep into. It can be a pretty murky place with a lot of dangerous gators and all kinds of other swamp creatures and big logs that could hit you over the head as you are trying to navigate those murky waters. You help people to avoid common mistakes and, at the same time, to achieve a lot more success in the world of RFP. I’m excited to have you on. Lisa, a big welcome to you.

Thank you, Michael. I’m excited to be here too. I’m probably the only person in the world that can say that I love talking about RFPs but I love everything RFP so I’m ready for you.

I do want to get into that meaty stuff to make this a very tactical actionable episode for people who either are already in the world of RFPs so that we can help them to be more successful but also for those who are considering the world of RFPs as well as those that should never even get close to touching RFPs for one reason or another. You can help to illuminate what those reasons may or may not be. I always like to get started earlier in your career with those guests who come on and where they got their beginning. Take us back to before you started your company. What were you doing?

I have a bit of an assorted past. I have a long past because I tried so many different things in my life but I started in the hotel business. I got a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management. I worked in hospitality in hotels for a while. I got my fingers in the pot a little bit of RFPs. I thought I knew everything there was to know about RFPs in the hotel business but in the hotel business, it’s like, “Tell us how many rooms you have available, the rates, and a little bit about your amenities.”

You wouldn't go out into the world and start selling without any strategy. You've got to have a business development strategy, and RFPs fit into that. Click To Tweet

I went to work for a global consulting firm, Mercer. They asked me if I had ever worked in RFPs. I was like, “I know all about them.” They drop this 300-page RFP on my lap. I was like, “That is not at all what I was used to.” I worked in that global consulting firm in numerous different capacities, including RFPs, for about eleven years. I left there to start some businesses with an ex-colleague. I worked in those businesses for three years, including employee benefits and some discount benefit plans. I decided to go out on my own and here I am.

How did you end up selecting RFPs to build your business around? You could have done many different things. You could have gone off than more employee benefits or some other general consulting work. You narrowed in. You said, “I’m going to be the RFP person.” Why do that?

I did a lot of different things coming out of the other businesses that I had because I wanted to be a general consultant. I am a jack of all trades. There are a lot of different things that I can do. That is what I tried to hang my hat on but it didn’t work. It’s hard to get business that way because nobody knows what to hire you for. People need tangibility. They need something they can seek their teeth into. I was struggling. I had a nice high-level consulting firm that had hired me to do jack of all trades stuff but then they called me one day and said no more. I was out of business.

I was calling myself back and people kept calling me from my past, saying, “Can you help with this RFP? Do you still do stuff with RPS?” I’m like, “I’ll do anything.” I needed work. I remember being out to dinner with a friend and she said, “You keep talking about finding a niche. It might have found you.” I started testing the waters and sure enough, there was a need out there for it. I branded the RFP Success Company and the rest is history.

Did you have any hesitation or fear of narrowing into such a specialized level, saying, “I’m the RFP and that is the direction I’m going to go.”

There is still fear because we continue to niche even further. I have the same thoughts. When I look back to the fears that I had before, it’s laughable. My first irrational fear was that there wasn’t enough business. There is enough business out there, which is ridiculous because there is, but when you are in it, you can’t see it. Every year, we continue to hone in on who our target is and how we can get even tighter with it. I’m scared every time we do it but I know it is the right thing to do.

Narrowing on an ideal client and being very specific is one of the most challenging areas for anybody in the business. What you hit on is so important for all of our readers and community to know and they likely heard this many times before so no surprise. It is the evolution of business that very rarely will you find a successful business that has the same clients now as they had when they got started and offering the same thing at the same price point. The business naturally evolves. Asking yourself that question all the time is like, “Do you need to get more focused or specialized? Is there a segment of your ideal client base that no longer is ideal?” These are things that we as business owners always want to be asking ourselves. That is great that you are sharing that you are still going through that as everybody is.

CSP Lisa Rehurek | Request For Proposal


I like what you said about evolution because, for whatever reason, we believe that there is a destination for it. Someday, we will have this nice, pretty document that lays out exactly who we serve and what we do. It is a continued evolution. Hopefully, you are not flipping the script every single month or quarter a year on everything. You have to evolve and tweak it as you go because we learn more. I like the word evolution.

Is RFPs a numbers game?

Some people think that or people will think, “I can go make $8 million if I win this one RFP.” It is a tool in your sales tool belt. It is another way of selling. You can’t do a cold. If it’s a numbers game and you are going for quantity over quality, you are going to lose 100% of the time. Maybe you will get lucky but probably not.

Often people think that RFPs are a numbers game. One day, you are going to hit the jackpot and it will all be worthwhile. If we dive deeper into that, what would you say are the most common mistakes that consultants and those you work with in the world of RFPs or have seen people make? What are the big errors that come up so often?

The number one biggest mistake is that you don’t have a strategy to go with it. You wouldn’t go out into the world and start selling without any strategy. You have got to have a business development strategy and RFPs fit into that. If you bid cold, you have less than a 5% chance of winning. Why would you do that if you didn’t have a strategy around who is your target audience and where your solution best fits? Start building those relationships. People think that because anybody can get ahold of this RFP and you can respond to the questions, you have a leg up but you can’t get the content down in a compelling way.

All you are going to be doing is answering the questions and you are going to be level-set with everybody else. You are going to be meeting the qualifications and capabilities but unless you have a strategy that has relationship-building in there, you get to know the client and their hot buttons, you understand their environment and the competitors and what you have to overcome from a competitive advantage and what your differentiators are. How can you write to any of that if you don’t have a strategy around it? That would be the number one thing.

When it comes to the content itself, there are a million things people do wrong. People rarely answer the question. It is shocking how often people don’t answer the question as it was asked or they don’t answer all parts of the question. They make it all about them instead of the solution they provide and how that will help the client. I’m sure that you have that conversation a lot around sales. It is not about you.

You've got to know who your target clients are and start building that relationship long before the RFPs hit your desk. Click To Tweet

You talked about the cold RFP. What are the different categories? Cold is one. Is there a progression? How do you think about the different types of approaches or categories of the RFP business?

There are four. The first one is cold. You don’t know anything about them and they don’t know you. You don’t have a relationship. The second one is warm, where you have had some involvement or interaction with them. They know who you are but it is not necessarily a super intimate relationship. The third is where you have involvement in helping them craft the RFP. That is a beautiful place to be. The fourth would be the incumbent. You have the contract and you “have to win it back.” Those would be the four categories that I put it into.

For those who are in category 1 or 2, the buyer does not know you very well, if they know you at all. I often hear the concern from a consultant or small consulting firm that we are working on this RFP or want to go after it but we don’t know the decision-maker and we don’t have access to them. It’s a group or body. It is not one person. What should they do? How can a consultant start to build a relationship with the “buyer” if they don’t know who the actual buyer is? How do you counsel people to navigate that?

For whatever reason, we get in our heads that it is different. It is not any different than any other sales avenue. If you are going to go out and sell direct to somebody, what do you do? You figure out who the decision-maker is. You find out where you might be able to access them or you find an internal advocate, somebody on the buying team or has influence over the decision-maker and then you start to build a relationship. In procurement, a lot of times you have a couple of different avenues. You should be talking to decision-makers and building those relationships like you would not in any other sales environment but you also have the procurement arena especially in the public sector.

In the public and private sectors, you can go to the procurement people and start to build a relationship with them. With the procurement folks and this is the same in regular sales too, you don’t want to call them up and say, “I have something to sell to you.” You want to build a relationship, give them some value and get them to know you. There is a third avenue in the private sector. If you are a diverse small business, there is supplier diversity in a lot of companies and it is becoming even more prevalent. Their job is to advocate for small, diverse businesses. In some ways, you have even more avenues than you would if it was a general sale.

You are saying don’t be lazy. Don’t say like, “I don’t know who the buyer is. This is not going to work.” You are going to have to do a bit of homework. You might be searching on LinkedIn for who are the different executives or the most likely buyers. Maybe you ask questions. I’m interested to know what you have found are the best practices to go about building these relationships. Let’s take the example if you want to put an RFP and you don’t have a relationship. There might be a person in procurement that is the point of contact for that RFP but you don’t know beyond that person who the decision-makers are. Your mind is telling you that if you ask to find out who the decision-makers are, the procurement person will say, “I’m the point of contact.” How can somebody go about building a relationship in that situation?

When the RFP hits the desk, it is all over. You have no time to build a relationship anymore. This is why it goes back to that strategy. You got to know your target clients and start building that relationship long before the RFP hits your desk because then you can’t build it if it’s too late. I love how you said don’t be lazy. You have to get out there and do the work. It is not easy. It is long. It will take you a while but if you want the business, that is the game of business and sales. You have to get out there and do it. Do not send a salesy email on LinkedIn. Do not go for the kill right away. You have to build relationships. The best way to do that is to let them know who you are and what you do like, “I would like to stay connected.”

CSP Lisa Rehurek | Request For Proposal


Send them some valuable information, “I have best practices white paper that I think your team would like,” or, “I saw this article that might be relevant to what is going on in your industry.” You have to be very purposeful and strategic about it. That is going to win the race. There are very few people that do this and do it well. You will be ahead of the game. I talk to procurement people all the time, supplier diversity people, buyers and they tell me, “People don’t know how to do this well. They send us their capabilities brochure saying I do this. Call me when you are ready.” They expect that they will get a call and it is not going to happen.

If you see an opportunity for an RFP but you do not have a relationship with that organization or the key people there, that RP is already out, meaning people can bid or go through the process. Are you saying that the consultants who are in that situation should probably not spend their time to try and go after that RFP because it’s too late?

The consultants should not expect to win that RFP because it might be an opportunity to strategically position yourself to let them know you are there and get in front of them. The chance of you winning is going to be very small. We have seen it happen before but I would not count on it. It could be a strategic reason to do that. Depending on the time and resources you have to do that, it’s your choice.

How can people go about determining whether an RFP is worthwhile for them to spend the time on? What should they be looking at? Are there some criteria and factors that you find are key in them doing that evaluation?

We suggest to every company, big or small, have assessment criteria laid out. It is going to be different for every company. Some of it is what are your deal breakers? There are limits of liability clauses and terms and conditions that you won’t work with. Sometimes they require a performance bond or the insurance requirements are too high. You need to look at things. Do they require staff on-site in a state across the nation when you don’t have staff over there? There are a whole bunch of things you should look at. Can you deliver on the services? Do you have the resources? Is this the type of client you want to work with?

I was working with a client once. This was so frustrating. It was a huge arduous RFP. I remember the leader of the company saying to us, “We should not even bid on this because we don’t even want this work.” You are like, “Why are we bidding on it then?” Those things that you should have a checklist and you go through that and say, “Yes or no. Are you going to bid on this?” It helps guide the whole team into whether it is the right type of project.

I want to explore the mindset. I’m always fascinated by mindset in business and so many aspects of our lives. Is there a mindset that you found that is key to being successful in the world of RFPs or if RFPs are going to be a good portion of your business?

Don't treat your proposal team like the ugly stepchildren. They are part of your sales team. Click To Tweet

One of the biggest mindsets is quantity quality over quantity, not going after every single thing that comes across the desk. Understanding the strategic piece, the strategy behind why this is a good client for you. Understanding your target audience to only go after that type of work. You know how hard it is for companies to stick to that because it gets exciting. Especially in an RFP where you can see this is worth $400,000 or this is exactly the work we want to do but the client is not in alignment. There is a mindset there. We talk about culture. Our clients that we love to work with that are the most successful have a strong winning culture mindset in four areas.

It is what we call our 4X4 Framework and its strategy that I keep talking about and harping on. Are you committed internally to having a process that works for everybody you respect and are inclusive of everybody on the team and then the people, which is also don’t treat your proposal team like the ugly stepchildren but are part of your sales team? You have to have that philosophy. Finally, content and having the right mindset around being succinct and focusing on the client instead of yourself. There is a mindset around all of that that creates that winning culture. If a company is not willing to do that, their mindset is not quite where we want it to be.

Is there a situation in terms of the stage or size of a business where going after RFPs or even thinking of them as a path for revenue growth does not make sense? Take a solo consultant who might be generating a couple of hundred thousand or $500,000 a year. Maybe revenue is or is not a big factor in your mind. If it is a solo consultant or a small consulting firm with 1, 2 or 3 employees, does it make sense for them to even be thinking about RFPs? Do you need to have more people? Walk me through what you have seen in terms of success and best practices and where and when you would suggest that somebody does not think about RFPs.

I’m going to answer this in two different ways. The first one is it goes back to your target audience. When you have your business development strategy and you say, “Our target audience is state governments for whatever reason,” you are going to have to go after RFPs. I have a couple of clients that do Medicaid consulting. That is going to be the state government. They are going to have to go after RFPs. That is a given. On the corporate side, if you know who your ideal clients are, you call their procurement department and say, “Talk to me about how you buy these types of services.” They will be able to tell you whether it is going to have to be RFP or not. It is all over the board.

Some companies say, “Anything under $100,000, we don’t have to go out to RFP for. We can sole source.” In a lot of large companies, if you are looking at Disney, Verizon or Comcast, there is going to be an RFP involved depending on the size. That is when you have to know who your target is and then get to know their environment. The third piece that if you, for some reason, are looking into the Federal space, it is a whole other ball of wax. I am speaking specifically to the US. Those small businesses can go and get what is called an 8(a) certification.

They get very excited about that. They think I can get this 8(a) certification and work for the Federal government. They look for RFPs. The best bet there for a small consultancy is to find a partner that is already in the trenches with the Federal government you can partner with. Your role would be to build that relationship with the partner and get in that way versus chasing after RFPs in the Federal space. Usually, they are too big for small people anyway but some people get excited about that. It is a recipe for disaster.

Where is the best place to be able to find these RFP opportunities? Are there certain databases or websites? What are some of the best places for people to explore this if they are interested?

CSP Lisa Rehurek | Request For Proposal


For Federal, it is FedBizOpps, which I feel like they changed their name. We don’t do a lot in Federal space but you can go to FedBizOpps. In the state space, you can go to FindRFP or BidSync. In the corporate space, there isn’t anything so you have to go to them. Know who your target audience is and call them. Call the state agency if that is what you are going to go after and say, “How do I find out about your RFPs and get on their list?” You are building relationships with people and when they call you and say, “We have an RFP on the streets who wants you to bid on,” that is the best-case scenario. It’s the same with corporate. You get on their vendor lists. It is another reason to call them and get to know them. You are on their vendor list and they will send you the RFP.

Let’s say somebody decides, “I am interested in moving forward with trying and generating more business coming from our RFPs.” What have you seen as the most common timeline? How long does it take to typically go from, “I’m going to start trying to build this RFP business,” and being able to win a considerable amount of RFPs?

A couple of years. It is going to take you six months just to get like, “Who are we going to target? How do we get on their vendor list? How do we start seeing the RFPs that are coming out?” Generally, they have contracts with a lot of stuff already. The contract you want somebody might have that already and it’s not up for renewal for another year or two. It will take a couple of years to get into the groove with it. We would love for people to not ever have to respond to an RFP. The best-case scenario is that you build a relationship with your target, work that, sell it and you don’t even have to go to RFP. The fact is a lot of companies and entities require them. It is a long game like any of it.

What about understanding your competition? How important is it in the actual RFP when you are responding to address the other competitors and people that are likely also responding to RFPs?

You don’t want to address their shortcomings or what they don’t do well. Understand your competitors enough so you know what they are going to come to the table with. You can come to the table with a better solution or you can speak to it in a way that you know your competitors cannot. It gives you that edge. That is that differentiator that you are speaking to. If you don’t know who your competitors are, how will you know how they are going to present their experience? How many years of experience do they have? How many team members do they have that specialize in XYZ? It is important to know that.

You would not call out and say, “ABC company or XYZ company is bad at this that is why we are better.” You would not talk negatively about anyone. If you understand and know that ABC might be deficient in a certain area or that XYZ tends to overcharge, you couldn’t work in some language that would help the buyer to see the shortcomings of other organizations or competitors without naming names but opening up their mind and eyes to positioning your offer or work in a better light.

We suggest things like, “We are the industry leader. You will find that other firms in our industry don’t approach it in this way and here is why we have chosen to do that.” Especially if you are trying to unseat an incumbent, meaning there is somebody in there that has this work already and you are trying to take it away from them that you plant seeds of doubt. We like to do that in the way of questions that we know we can answer yes to but our competitors would not be able to answer yes to. There is a lot of strategy behind that. If you are not in there and don’t know your potential client well enough, it is going to be hard to do that.

Don't just go for the kill right away. Build relationships, and the best way to do that is to let clients know who you are and what you do. Click To Tweet

The other question I had for you is in terms of delegation or the actual spending time. RFPs take time. You don’t have to sit down and write a 1 or 2-page proposal, which is what we often like to help our clients do is to get the proposal process down into three pages or less and ideally in a way that takes less than an hour if you have some good productized offerings or things of that nature. RFPs are a very different beast. There is a lot more work that goes into it. Is this something that if I’m a consulting business owner and have a team, should I be, from day one, trying to have a team member to learn and own that skillset so that they can be the ones to do the RFPs. Is it saying that you find the founder or owner of the business should be doing it themselves?

I don’t think the founder or owners should do it themselves. You are going to get an RFP response that has anywhere between 10 questions at a minimum of up to 50 to 75 questions. You have to have somebody tactical that can manage it, pull it all together, read the requirements, have that attention to detail and make sure that they know how they are going to lay it out. You have subject matter experts that are going to help fill in all the answers to those questions. We always recommend a more strategic focus on it, which is what the owner, the managing director, founder or CEO should be looking at like, “Have we positioned ourselves correctly?”

On the front end, what theme do we want? What is our win theme? What is our bidding strategy? On the back end, “Let me read through what everybody has done and make sure that we positioned ourselves appropriately and that we have differentiated ourselves.” That is what the role of the CEO should be. You should have a couple of other people in there running interference, making sure everything is getting done. There is a lot to managing an RFP response and you have to have somebody who has attention to detail that can be the sheepherder to pull everything together.

I love the way that you are sharing this because it would be easy for somebody to say, “RFP has worked for everybody. They are great.” The reality is there is a lot of work and thought that needs to go into it, like many things in life. That is what will create a great result for you in the future. For those organizations where an RFP approach makes sense, it can be a great investment into their business but it does take time and preparation. If you are playing the long game, it certainly might make sense. Is there anything that we didn’t talk about yet from an RFP perspective and best practices, mindsets or tactical stuff that you want to share with people you think would be important for them to know if they are considering or already in the world of RFPs?

You have to understand how this will fit into your overall business development strategy and whether it’s worth it because you have to have the right mindset. It doesn’t start when the RFP hits your desk. There is this whole strategy about building relationships. When the RFP goes out the door, there is a lot of work to be done. How do you debrief to make sure that you understand why you won or lost? How do you debrief internally to make sure that the process is working well? You have to have a pretty solid process internally if you are going to manage it unless you are going to outsource your RFP responses to somebody like us.

You still have to have skin in the game. It can’t be a second thought. We have had plenty of clients come across that are like, “We can do this. We want to do it. We want to outsource the whole thing to you.” You can’t do that either. You have to have a commitment to this being part of your business strategy and how that will play out. There are a whole lot of moving pieces that go with it.

In terms of your business, you work with many different companies, helping them with the RFP process and helping to win more RFPs. What is working for you to generate more leads, inquiries and business for your company?

Understand your competitors enough so you know what they're going to come to the table with, and you can come up with a better solution. Click To Tweet

Referrals are always a beautiful thing but we do have a couple of lead sources. One out of the UK does a lot of lead generation for us. They are probably the second largest one. They source through LinkedIn but they don’t message through LinkedIn. They have a slick process. We have another person that we hired to do some lead generation for us in a little bit of a similar manner. Repeat clients and those referrals are always a beautiful thing.

When it comes to referrals is there anything you are doing specifically like any intentional, proactive approach strategy to the actual referral process or is it more you doing great work where people tend to refer people to you?

It is a little bit weak but it is on our radar to make it better. When a client ends with us, when we finish an RFP with them, for example, we send them a questionnaire and as part of that questionnaire, we ask them if they have any referrals. We have ongoing clients that we do diagnostics for. We do all their RFPs for them. We don’t send that questionnaire out to them every time. Those people would not catch enough of it, it is a little bit weak but it’s not non-existence.

In terms of your work, managing your company and team. For you to be able to perform at the highest level, make progress consistently and achieve success, what are 1 or 2 things that you do on a regular daily basis whether it is a habit, principle or practice that you feel contributes to the impact they are able to have?

One is self-care meditation. I like to meditate, not in a super traditional way. I like to clear my head because, as business owners, we get so much stuff in our heads. I love to read. I have a business coach and a business cohort that helps keep me thinking bigger so I don’t get complacent and that we continue to look for ways to improve the team internally and improve what we deliver to our clients.

You mentioned reading, which is a perfect transition to my next question. What is the best book that you have read or listened to? It can be fiction or nonfiction.

I only read nonfiction. I read a book by Tim Grover, Winning. I enjoyed that book. We are all about winning. That is our mission here at the RFP Success Company. I always like to read anything about winning. That was a great book. The book I’m reading now that I picked up is called Everything Is F*cked. It is a book about hope. It’s a polarizing book but so far, I’m loving this one.

CSP Lisa Rehurek | Request For Proposal

Tim Grover’s previous book was Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable.

I like that one as well and this one just as much.

He reminds me at times a little bit of David Goggins, just the mindset, not at that level. David Goggins is at a whole other level. If anybody has not read David Goggins’s book, don’t read around any of your children. Don’t listen to it if you don’t like any vulgar words. It is filled with those but it is a very powerful mindset book. I highly encourage people to check that out as well if you have not.

Lisa, thank you so much for coming on and sharing so much RFP knowledge here. This was a lot of fun. I’m hoping it will be quite valuable to many people that are reading and checking this out. I want to make sure that people can learn more about you and your work. Where is the best place for people to go?

Go to our website, Follow us on LinkedIn, connect with me on LinkedIn. I’m Lisa Rehurek and I’m the only Lisa Rehurek out there. We are happy to help and connect in any way we can. Michael, I appreciate having the opportunity to be on your show.

Thanks for joining.

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About Lisa Rehurek

CSP Lisa Rehurek | Request For ProposalAt The RFP Success® Company, we help you Do Better. Win More.
We’re shaking up the popular opinion that “you win some, you lose some”.
(And, despite popular opinion, it isn’t just a numbers game!)

In these interesting & unprecedented times, capture managers, managing directors, business development leaders, and proposal directors need an objective expert to help develop an overall long-term RFP win strategy.

So what’s the key to winning MORE RFPs?

In the highly-competitive RFP arena, you must ensure that all of your capabilities and qualifications paint you & your firm as clear industry experts.
– You must have the right team that is motivated and committed to the vision for the win
– Your systems and processes must support the win, and not bog people down
– You must have a clear picture of your competitors and their strengths in the marketplace

The result? More wins, greater team engagement, better ROI.

The RFP Success® Company specializes in connecting the dots from Capture to Proposal to Results. It’s not enough to focus on the RFP that’s on your radar today; the best companies have a well-rounded culture and mindset that permeates the entire company. That’s how you create a high win percentage.

The RFP Success® Company specializes in:

– Strategic RFP function planning
– Capture Planning
– Bid strategy
– Current proposal enhancement
– Content writing/revision to get you the score you deserve
– Response assistance
– Team training & development
– Process and procedure assessment
– Systems and process improvements

Are you ready to WIN MORE. DO BETTER?

Book a call to learn more:

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