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Responding to a request for proposal (RFP) is a bit like playing the lottery. Winning could transform your business... but what are the odds, right?

Well, okay—they're probably not as low as your chances of hitting the Powerball jackpot. But with the average RFP win rate at less than 5%, they're not exactly rosy. To put things in perspective, for every 20 RFP responses you send, you only have a chance of winning one.

Related: How to maintain brand consistency in a sales organization

Here's a step-by-step guide to beating these odds and crafting a winning RFP response, plus some template examples to help you on your way.

1. Decide whether you should respond to the RFP

Wait, what?

It takes an average of 20 to 40 hours to craft an RFP response. So while you might be raring to go, it's worth thinking about whether you should actually invest the time and effort.

Here are four things to consider:

  • Is the project a good fit?
  • Have you successfully tackled similar projects in the past?
  • Do you know enough about the industry and the prospect's needs and goals?
  • Is the issuer even in your target market?

As Adam Boyd, VP of Client Sales at employee rewards platform Beneplace puts it:

"Not all RFPs are created equal, and you don't have an equal shot at winning them all. Know when to say 'This isn't in our wheelhouse, and is too expensive a use of time to pursue.'"

There are more things for you to consider as well. What's the deadline—do you have a good couple weeks to respond, or is the deadline three days away?

If the timeframe is too short, you might have to cut corners. Perhaps you'll skimp on research. Or, in the rush to finish, you might overlook a key detail or make a mistake that'll kick your response to the bottom of the pile.

Is the RFP process genuine?

Sales management expert Jason Jordan recalls spending several weeks scoping out a project only for the client to issue an RFP. But, he continues:

"Despite my protestations and sense of panic, my contact assured me, 'Just sit tight. Give me two weeks, and then we'll pick up where we left off.' True to his word, we were back on the telephone two weeks later rescheduling the project kick-off meeting."

Turns out, the client just needed the RFP to "make it work internally."

Of course, not all RFPs are like this. That said, you should watch out. Check for references to product or service features, or terminology a particular company is known for. This might mean the issuer has already decided.

It's also worth reviewing the issuer's RFP history. Have they picked the same company more than once? Or, perhaps, have they halted the process or cancelled projects altogether?

Do you already have a relationship with the issuer?

Some might argue winning a blind RFP isn't impossible. To which others might reply: "Well, neither is winning the Powerball."

Both have a point.

You might seal the deal on the strength of your offer. But, a pre-existing relationship with the issuer isn't going to hurt. If your name jumps out of the pile, that's half the battle. Plus, you might have access to stakeholders that could help you give the edge to your proposal.

2. Assemble your team

Responding to an RFP is a team effort. So, once you decide to respond, you need to put right group of people on it.

Jason Jordan recommends having an RFP "SWAT team"—a team permanently assigned to RFP responses. This allows you to work on proposals without over-stretching your resources.

Your team should also have procedures and processes they can refer to. In particular:

Get someone to take ultimate responsibility for the proposal

You or someone else on the team should:

  • Take ownership of the process
  • Coordinate between different departments
  • Make sure the proposal is cohesive and consistent (This applies to both look and content. For example, you should stick with the same terminology throughout.)
  • Build a library of answers and supporting materials.

The less time you spend figuring out what to say, the more time you can spend fine-tuning the proposal and getting it right.

You might want to have pre-prepared answers for the introduction. This should include:

  • A brief history of your company, including the organizational structure, company size and the areas you serve
  • Key people, their background, expertise and experience, and their contact details
  • Success stories—how have you helped other clients reach their goals? (Bonus points for clients in the same industry as the RFP issuer or that sell similar products or services.)
  • Your approach and methodology, including how you test and validate results
  • Pricing, policies and other terms and conditions (It might be good idea to provide a range of possible costs, as this will give the RFP issuer more options. Don't forget to outline any additional resources you might need.)
  • If applicable, details of your handover process.

Document every step

This will make responding to future RFPs easier. Plus, you can home in on things that went wrong, learn from past mistakes and make improvements.

3. Make sure you understand the ask

It sounds blindingly obvious, but the key to nailing a proposal is to understand what the RFP issuer wants and to give them just that. No more, no less.

Costs aside, your proposal should detail:

  • What you're hoping to accomplish
  • A step-by-step breakdown of how you intend to meet the client's goals
  • A timeline, with milestones
  • Key deliverables

Try to be as detailed as possible, but don't ramble. Your answers should be comprehensive and specific, yet concise and to-the-point. Think short, snappy sentences and plain language.

Not clear about some aspect of the RFP? Drop the issuer an email. This will show them how committed you are to getting it right.

Here's what you could tell them:

Hi [NAME],

Thanks for the detailed and comprehensive RFP outline.

We're currently reviewing the RFP, and we're pleased to say your requirements are aligning well with what we offer. That said, we do have a few comments and questions and would like to schedule a [30 minute / 1 hour] session with you to make sure we've covered all the bases.

Would your team be available on [Insert specific date and time]? Please confirm and I'll send over a calendar invite.

Thanks and speak soon,
[NAME]

4. Structure matters

Working from a proposal template can save time and make your life easier. It means you have a jumping-off point instead of starting from scratch every time. Lucidpress has an assortment of free proposal templates to suit different styles and needs.

That said, you should always tweak the template and think carefully about how to structure it.

The RFP issuer will probably set out their requirements in order of priority. So, if the RFP starts with the specifications and moves on to price, don't start your proposal with price. Address the specifications first. This makes it easier for the issuer to check your proposal off against their priorities and shows them you have a deep understanding of their needs.

Remember it's about the client, not you

When you write a proposal, your job isn't to talk about yourself. It's to show you can deliver what the RFP issuer wants. Every single point should relate to the ask.

Let's say the issuer, an architectural design studio in Charleston, is looking to improve their social media metrics.

The first RFP response says:

We have extensive experience running successful social media campaigns in Charleston, South Carolina. We excel at boosting impressions through targeted outreach campaigns.

As an architectural design studio, it's unlikely that they understand the finer details of social media marketing. They're probably scratching their heads, wondering what the heck impressions are.

Contrast this with the second RFP response:

We've worked with several architectural design studios in the Charleston area, including [Company A], [Company B] and [Company C]. Our aim is to raise awareness of your brand and increase likes, comments & shares by:
  • Creating relevant content targeted at your ideal customer
  • Posting company-related updates
  • Running promotions
  • Monitoring analytics to measure response and revise our approach as necessary

Now, that's more like it, isn't it? The response showcases the company's expertise by name-dropping three past clients. It outlines exactly how they aim to meet the RFP requirements in plain English.

More to the point, don't try to impress by attempting to "improve" on what the RFP is asking for or going in a different direction.

50% of RFP responses get kicked out for non-compliance. Don't be one of them. The prospect has taken the time to issue an RFP. Clearly, they know what they want. Your job is to show them how you can address those priorities.

Key takeaway

Remember that Mad Men episode? The one in which Don Draper gets rival agency Cutler, Gleason and Chaough disqualified from a Honda RFP by fooling them into breaking the rules?

Doing that might be excessive in real life. But, it pays to be strategic if you want to nail your RFP response and maximize your chances of winning the bid.

A strong proposal persuades the client you're best-placed to help them overcome their challenges and achieve their goals. Once you decide to respond to an RFP, listen hard, communicate clearly and—most importantly—put the client front & center in your proposal.

Now, how about an Old Fashioned or two?

Want to get a head start on your next RFP? Take a look at these sales proposal templates.

Free proposal templates

Author Bio

André Spiteri is an expert fintech copywriter and owner of Maverick Words. You can follow André on LinkedIn and Twitter