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Guest Post: Sympathy for the Devil…RFP Readers Need Love, Too

Today we have a very special guest post from author and consultant Tom Searcy of Hunt Big Sales. Tom has just released a new book called “RFPs Suck! How to Master the RFP System Once and for All to Win Big Business” and today he is treating us to special article all about RFPs in business and consulting – check it out and enjoy!
>> Read Tom’s full bio here

When you submit an RFP response, what do you imagine the RFP readers look like? I never used to think about it much. We’d send out an RFP response, (seven copies, one cover letter, blah, blah, blah), and then wait for the phone to ring. I guess I thought the package with our carefully-crafted responses (read: “cut and pasted responses”) would just show up in some bureaucratic cave where pasty people with thick glasses and jaundiced eyes would read them.

Over time I’ve met a lot of the people who read RFPs, and they have a similar mental image of those who write the responses they receive. They often ask me this question about the RFPs they read: “Who writes this stuff?”

An request for proposal is not only a document, but also a rather strange process. You might even compare it to an opera, at the end of which, the fat lady sings and a monumental decision is made. Unfortunately, this opera usually has an unhappy ending. So how can we rewrite the ending in our favor?

If you’re willing to consider that the readers of your response are simply trying to make a good decision using a bad process—one that’s often clunky, incomplete and frustrating to them as well—you might just be able to make their lives easier along the way. And trust me; making their lives easier is half the battle when writing a winning response. In other words, it’s our job as the respondents to figure out the readers’ needs and make their lives a little easier—and easier serves us in the end.

There are usually four types of readers of your RFP response—buyers, compliers, deniers and payers:

  1. Buyers – These are the end-users of your product, service or system. They are the ones seeking the benefit you’re promising in your RFP response. When reading, they’re asking themselves this question” “Will the solution described in this RFP work better than our current one as well as the others being proposed?”
  2. Compliers – Procedural reviewers whose responsibility it is to ensure that company policy is followed in the approval and selection of a vendor. They are asking themselves this question, “Do the RFP response and the company that wrote it both meet our defined procedural requirements?”
  3. Deniers – These are the current and future process owners who are most concerned with how the new solution will affect current systems, i.e. will it break them? Deniers are considering integration issues, implementation issues and unintended consequences. They are asking themselves the question, “What could go wrong if we implement the solution described in this RFP response or work with the company who wrote it?”
  4. Payers. Obviously, these are the folks who want to know the total cost of ownership. Always the same question from these folks, “How much will this cost? Really? That much? That’s too much; can we do it for less?”

Of course, some of the readers actually come from more than one of these perspectives, but all of these perspectives are represented among the readers.

rfpssuckIn my book, “RFPs Suck! How to Master the RFP System Once and for All to Win Big Business” I cover a lot of ground on the topic of responding to RFPs successfully.

Here are some key points on writing specifically for the readers:

1) Tell your story; don’t just fill in the blanks. Sure, there are places for basic facts, organizational charts, unit pricing and so on. In those places where all that is required is data, put in the data. But many of the RFP questions require a coherent story, and stories include characters, context and motivations. For instance, if the RFP contains the question—“How would your company approach the handling of quality control on this program?”—it’s because the reader needs to hear why you designed your quality systems the way you did, and how you will apply them to the program.

2) Chunk the message. Your readers will not read the entire RFP. I used to believe that the RFPs I received were broken out into sections to make them more organized and logical. Wrong. They’re broken out into sections so that the readers will know which sections they can skip because another reader has that section to read. When you ‘chunk the message’ you are making certain your most important points about your company are worked into every section of the RFP. Yes, it’s a little repetitive…to you. It won’t be to most of the readers—they’re only going to read your best stuff once.

3) Respect the rubric. Many of the RFPs that are sent out today include a rubric, or the scoring template that its readers will be using in their process. This may include a weighting system to tell the writers what parts of the RFP response and what qualities of the responding companies are the most important. When you answer the RFP, weight your time, effort and size of response to match the rubric.

4) Skip the dead words. The war of superlatives needs to end. Phrases like “highest quality,” “deepest commitment,” “a recognized industry leader” and so on are just dead words. The reader can’t measure these and does not have a context for understanding their importance. Focus on language that is factual and verifiable. A recognized industry leader will have received an award. Include that award. A company with highest quality will have been awarded a certification. Include that, too. Give your readers context and verifiable facts, or leave out the dead words. Remember to show, not tell.

5) Write for an outsider. Your RFP readers may have a limited understanding of some of the more detailed parts of your response. True, if the buyer is reading that part, he or she probably will understand your jargon and industry accepted terms. But what about the denier, the complier and the payer? It’s highly possible that they won’t. A good rule of thumb is to write your RFP response so that a sophomore in high school could understand it. Plain language, clear explanations and low on empty jargon.

RFP readers are people trying to do their best while on stage, just like you. Often times they feel as befuddled by the process as you do and as frustrated by its limitations. Make their jobs easier by writing your response with them in mind and you will increase your chances immensely.


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3 thoughts on “Guest Post: Sympathy for the Devil…RFP Readers Need Love, Too

  1. Good post. Putting in an RFP bid however may get you to the short list, but the main objection is to get in the door and sit in front of the decision maker/s. There are always questions, further queries and more negotiations to be done. It’s also important to find out who the competition is.

  2. Gloria, I enjoyed Tom’s post as well. I’ve seen too many RFPs that look so thick and daunting that you’d almost rather not open them. The ones that stand out, speak directly to the reader, convey emotion and provide proof of results have always stood out.

  3. Ronnie says:

    Good post. Would like to however, know what is the best practice to submit an RFP response. Can I use a template of my own or should I use the prospect’s document with their template to provide responses?

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