The Secret To a Winning RFP Response
Everyone wants a winning bid. But, of course, the reality is often very different. What really sets apart a winning bid versus a losing one? We sat down with Abhijit Majumdar, member of the APMP India governing board, APMP Professional Level certified, sales enablement consultant, coach, and DraftSpark.ai product evangelist, to discuss the secret of producing winning proposals with greater return on investment. Hint: It’s all about the customer experience.
Q: From a customer’s perspective, what are they really looking for in a proposal?
Abhijit Majumdar: When a customer receives a proposal to evaluate, they immediately look at the executive summary. Their eyes are on whether you understand their problem and what they need to solve. This is your opportunity to get across how you are connected with them and their needs. You need to think about the customer first and foremost.
If you’re just answering the RFP questions without much perspective on their pain points and challenges, then it won’t make an impact. Personalization and expressing your expertise are crucial. After a customer reads your proposal, they should think, “This company truly understands my problems and what I need to do in order to fix it.” That’s a winning customer experience.
Q: How does a proposal team even figure out these customer challenges?
Abhijit Majumdar: There are a few different ways to identify the customer’s challenges. In some cases, the RFP may state what they are doing right now and the challenges that need to be solved. That’s an easy one to address! If it’s a pre-bid query, you can ask direct questions if the vendor has provided the option. Who is the incumbent vendor? What is the current solution and what are the challenges? What are the expectations? This is another easy way to get information directly.
But sometimes you just need to start from scratch. That means Googling and digging into the company and the industry. Follow key contacts and leaders on LinkedIn. Set up alerts for news articles. Read industry analyst reports. You want to know the customer’s customers and get a robust picture of their business. This, in turn, provides the insights you need to really tailor your proposal messages.
Keep in mind that this isn’t a “one and done” exercise. If you know you will be submitting repeatedly to a vendor or it’s a current customer, this should be an ongoing part of the team’s practice as well as tapping into insights from other parts of the organization.
Q: Who else should be involved in this knowledge-sharing of a customer?
Abhijit Majumdar: You definitely want to tap into any subject matter experts within the company. Connecting with the sales and account management teams of existing customers helps to provide a treasure trove of information. By gathering as many insights, intelligence, and research as possible, you will have a more holistic picture of a customer’s particular situation or challenge to address in your proposal.
Integration of the proposal team with CRM systems can also help with sharing this information and identifying where you can source the best person to help with researching and delivering the ideal content.
Q: Even if you’re thinking about the customer experience and “putting yourself in their shoes,” doesn’t it still come down to price in winning a bid?
Abhijit Majumdar: Everyone gets hung up on price. But it’s all about delivering a better value proposition. Knowing the customer’s problems and demonstrating how you can solve them is a key differentiator. Too often, proposal teams just provide their standard value proposition. So a customer receives multiple bids that just reveal what the bidding company wants to express about themselves—not about the customer’s challenges. And everyone is doing the same exact thing!
Of course, a customer will just move on to price because it’s the only differentiator. But if you are actually delivering the real value and proving it to the customer, then your chances of winning are much higher compared to your competitor, regardless of where your price falls along the spectrum of bids.
Q: As we all know, proposal teams are under more time and resource constraints than ever. How can they find the capacity to focus on the customer experience?
Abhijit Majumdar: The technology for RFPs and the bid process is becoming much more automated. Getting to fast decisions about bid or no bid is easier. And when a team decides to pursue a bid, they can ramp up extremely quickly. That’s the great thing about embracing artificial intelligence (AI). The actual bid process and collaboration becomes much easier and more fluid. It frees up the proposal team to focus on what matters, which is tailoring and creating an incredible empathy for customers and solving their problems—all in one winning RFP response.
How Small Bid Teams Use Agile to Streamline Their RFP Response Process
The Agile methodology has become a cornerstone for software development. But, in recent years, other teams—from marketing to bid teams—have taken notice of the tactics of using an Agile method for project management. The reason? A traditional, linear approach is often too cumbersome for today’s teams and an Agile process can provide new, exciting benefits.
Taking an Agile approach is definitely a new departure and way of working for an RFP response team. So what is it exactly? How is it helpful? Will it really make a difference in the RFP response process? Let’s answer those questions and more.
Question: What is the Agile methodology all about and how does it apply to a Bid team?
The Agile methodology all started in 2001 when a group of software engineers created the “Manifesto for Agile Software Development.” From these early beginnings, it has become mainstream for the software industry.
Today, the most popular and well-known Agile process is known as Scrum. By focusing on collaboration and cross-functional teams, this approach enables faster decision-making and a focus on business value. Scrum uses “sprints” to accomplish the product development (more on that in a minute).
But let’s start out with the actual roles and how that would apply to the RFP team:
- Product Owner: The manager for the proposal and who owns it
- Scrum Master: The owner of the proposal who facilitates the actual process and work
- Scrum Team: Everyone else involved, including any stakeholders
Question: How do you develop a proposal development “sprint?”
In APMP’s “Agile Proposal Development Methods” webinar, Neal Levene, Director of Proposal Management at Siemens Government Technologies, shared his first-hand experiences of developing a sprint for his proposal team. A sprint is basically the amount of time for development of an entire proposal project and/or portions of it.
“You start with the project owner who is the master of acceptance criteria for the proposal,” Levene says. “This person creates the proposal backlog with everything that needs to go into the proposal along with the team and the scrum master.
“During the sprint planning session, you determine what and how the work is going to be done,” he continues. “This is going to form the sprint backlog and what will be done during a particular sprint. And it’s important that there’s a clear definition of what ‘done’ means. That then becomes input for a sprint and the period of time where work actually gets done.”
Then it’s time to determine the timeline. According to Levene, one week sprints work well for a typical 30-day response window for a proposal. But that doesn’t mean everyone is left to their own devices for the entire week. A daily scrum meeting is always done to check on the status of tasks or address any roadblocks.
Question: What should a daily scrum meeting look like for an RFP team?
The daily scrum meetings are 15-minute stand-up meetings. It’s really all about a laser focus on status, accountability, what was delivered, what was promised for the upcoming day, and what is blocking any progress, Levene says.
Biggest no-no of a daily scrum? Discussions! These meetings must be short and to the point. If something warrants a deeper discussion, it should be scheduled later with the required team members. For many team members, it can actually be pretty refreshing not to get bogged down in long, drawn-out meetings with irrelevant issues. They can quickly get back to their own work if other team members need to hash things out further and offline.
During the daily scrum, everyone is on the line for accountability—and everyone knows if you didn’t complete your tasks or overcommitted. “It’s kind of like the rules of the buffet. You can take whatever you want, but you have to eat what you take,” Levene says.
Question: How do you know when you’re done?
At the end of the sprint is a “sprint review” meeting to review your product (a.k.a. your proposal). The scrum master will determine if it’s ready to submit or if another sprint is needed.
Of course, the sprint review shouldn’t be confused with the “sprint retrospective” meeting. This is a “lessons learned” opportunity to look at the entire process and how it’s working. “Sprint review is like quality assurance for the products,” Levene says. “Sprint retrospective is quality assurance for the process.”
Question: What are the benefits of doing a scrum and sprints for an RFP response team?
Overall, the RFP team is becoming much less siloed and requires more input and expertise from various stakeholders across the organization—whether it’s sales, subject matter experts, senior leaders, or legal. The flexibility and cross-collaboration provided with scrum and sprints allow for easier, faster ways to make this happen.
At the same time, the RFP process is no longer a linear process. You can’t just start at “Point A” and head to “Point B, C, and D” before you submit. Sometimes you have to skip to Point C before Point B, such as doing a legal review earlier in the proposal process or involving a close sales contact. And the technology that supports the entire RFP response must be able to take an organic, flexible approach to accommodate all of it as well.
Getting Agile With RFP Response
Taking an Agile approach is beginning to revolutionize how proposal teams tackle their workflow. As organizations become more and more cross-functional, the proposal process must do so as well. Adopting an Agile method—along with a scrum framework and technology that can support the activities and deliverables—will deliver greater insights and inroads for successful, faster, and more effective proposals.
To Bid or Not to Bid: How to Make Faster, Better RFP Decisions
6 Questions to Help You Make Faster, Better RFP Response Decisions
Making quick, smart, and strategic decisions on RFP responses are imperative. And, of course, any proposal team would love a crystal ball to ask, “Bid or no bid?”
How often has your team gone down a rabbit hole of what seemed like a “sure thing” only to find the bid probably isn’t going to stand out? Or you’re in the final laps of an RFP response and legal throws you a curveball? If only you could see into the future and know if you’re investing the right amount of time, resources, and investment for a winning bid.
While a crystal-ball solution isn’t quite available, there are several tactics to help predict what may deliver greater chances of success. It’s all about looking through the lens of “Win or no win?” because that’s what you ultimately want to determine. Here are the questions you should be asking—and answering—before deciding on the ultimate “bid or no bid” question.
Question #1: Do we have the capacity?
Answer: Often, proposal teams get in the mode of saying “yes” to everything. This leads to a team that’s maxed out and the quality of RFP responses and the business itself suffers as a result. It’s important to quickly evaluate and eliminate what you automatically know isn’t worth the time or a strategic business decision. “No” is an OK word to use and prioritizing quality over quantity is essential.
Question #2: What is the best way to do a first-pass evaluation?
Answer: Make the proposal team’s lives a little bit easier. While full shredding of an RFP can be intensive and time consuming, many of the latest tools for RFP responses or analysis have some level of automated shredding, allowing you to see quickly what the requirements and key RFP questions might be. This at-a-glance evaluation can provide an initial check whether the RFP is even worth pursuing.
Question #3: Can we successfully answer key questions?
Answer: Answering this question actually means asking more questions! Whether it’s a checklist or a scorecard, key questions need to be answered upfront for a bid/no-bid analysis. Do you have a previous relationship with the customer? What’s the competition like? Is this in your area of expertise? What will this deal mean for your business and investment?
According to proposal expert Tom Sant, the following seven questions will make or break your decision:
- What is the customer’s problem, need, issue or opportunity?
- Why does it matter?
- What outcomes does the client want to achieve?
- Which outcome matters the most?
- What solutions can we offer?
- Which one is the best fit?
- What differentiates us from others who may be bidding on this opportunity?
The responses to these aren’t a solo affair, leading you to the next question….
Question #4: Who should get involved?
Answer: All of the answers to these questions can’t be in a vacuum. Next step is input from stakeholders—that means legal, product and sales teams, you name it. Legal might flag a “no-go” from the very beginning. Product managers and sales reps will be able to spot right away if your company’s product or service meet requirements or if a competitor has an edge. Make the subject matter experts part of the decision before anything is pursued.
Question #5: We decided to bid…now what?
Answer: Luckily, by following the process above, you already have a head start with the quick first draft and getting all the stakeholders involved for input. Now comes the task of engaging deeper to craft a polished and in-depth proposal. Remember to focus on value throughout and keep the writing crisp and clear. And be sure to avoid RFP response mistakes, like being overly sales-y or not keeping an organized content library for all proposals in the past, present, and future!
Question #6: We decided not to bid…now what?
Answer: Writing and sending a personalized and contextual response will go a long way to offerors. Thank them for the opportunity, explain specifics as to why you’re declining based on your analysis, and note your hope for future opportunities to engage.
A decline letter is absolutely critical to actually stay in contention for future RFPs. No responses—or worse submitting a weak proposal just for the sake of submitting—will lessen the chances for future business when the opportunity is right for both you and the customer.
With this process, you can actually have your own RFP crystal ball. Determining whether to bid or not to bid is both a science and art. Embracing collaboration and technology can finally make this decision-making faster, easier, and (best of all) more successful.
Top Trends in RFP Response Tools for 2020
As many Proposal teams wind down this time of year, it’s a great time to look ahead and think about training, best practices, and changes for the coming year. One area to consider is what new technology and tools might be helpful to evaluate now for deployment in the new year.
Over the past 10 years, the progress and advancements in digital tools supporting Bid teams hit new heights. What’s coming next in the New Year as well as into the rest of the decade? Here are just a few of the trends that are happening now and will grow exponentially in the coming year and beyond.
Content Libraries and Repositories
Despite the progress with digital tools for supporting RFP responses, content libraries and repositories for proposal development remain a challenge. According to the 2019 APMP Industry U.S. Benchmark Survey Report, “Access to resources for proposal development (e.g., proposal templates, content libraries, and CRM) is strong, yet many of these tools are not user-ready and require many revisions or are not actively maintained.”
Why has this crucial part of the RFP process lagged behind? Simply because it still takes too much time and effort on behalf of actual team members to do it. And technology hasn’t caught up with the challenge—until now. There is an immense amount of data that is buried in these documents and can be difficult to parse out due to language.
But, thankfully, things are changing. 2020 and the next decade will finally deliver the remedy to the content repository and library headache through new, easy-to-adopt solutions. Not only will content finally be in one central spot, but also easily findable. You can discover any phrase or any text with a single click and insert it into your new proposal. At the same time, management is so much easier with functionality that allows the technology to keep track of content—not you.
Over the past few years, truly collaborative approaches to RFP responses have begun to emerge. Sales teams recognize the need to get the proposal team involved much earlier in the sales cycle—and the proposal team has recognized how sales can contribute their expertise in the drafting of a successful RFP response.
At the same time, collaboration is extending out to even more stakeholders within an organization. Tapping into leadership and subject matter experts brings more perspectives and insights for a strategic bid. However, this trend of more collaboration and voices can also lead to version control issues, bottlenecks, and workflow challenges.
The next step is creating truly organized collaboration. Technology can now enable the RFP writer or manager to simply tag a stakeholder for input with a pre-determined deadline. There is also transparency of the RFP response’s status and where it stands in the review process. Collaboration is core to a winning RFP, but it can only happen with the latest advancements that make it a seamless, efficient process.
Integration of Proposal, Sales, and Support Systems
Organizational silos are becoming a thing of the past, whether it’s marketing, sales, support, product, or legal teams. Overall company success hinges on a holistic approach where departments are increasingly tied to each other for collaboration and communication.
For the proposal teams specifically, collaboration is just one part of the puzzle. There is now a concerted effort to bring together entire systems—not just the process. CRM, CPQ, and more must be fully integrated to provide full views of customers and data. The benefits are pretty apparent: If a proposal team can see the latest information about a customer in the CRM, they can better adapt the bid, or even make the recommendation not to bid. Building an ecosystem of teams and technology systems is on the rise to bring about this new level of information transparency.
There’s a lot of talk about artificial intelligence (AI) across many industries. According to a recent O’Reilly Media survey of more than 1600 respondents, “61 percent, regardless of company size, indicated machine learning and AI as their companies’ most significant data initiative for next year.” But what does the term really mean? To put it simply, AI is a technology that will help you work faster and automate certain mundane tasks. In 2020, it’s going to start making a huge impact on proposals and security questionnaires.
Instead of writing the same content over and over again, AI can help access information from previous proposals or questionnaires and provide the best content right away. This type of time savings helps proposal management professionals and sales teams to focus more on the customization and collaboration required for a winning deal.
There’s one aspect of AI that might surprise you: It actually needs to learn from you. AI doesn’t just arrive ready and out-of-the-box. The more content that is added and the more you work with it, the more the AI engine is able to deliver better and better suggestions as time goes on. Think about it as the admin or assistant you never thought you’d have—and it’s all happening right now. You’ll soon see how AI will save you time and actually open up new opportunities to be more strategic and creative with your RFP responses.
The Future’s So Bright
For years, RFPs and the response process remained rather stagnant. With the cloud becoming mainstream and new document sharing options appearing over the past decade, the digital approach is now the only approach. However, these advancements also brought their own unique challenges. But improvements and new innovations are happening. It’s only a matter of time before these trends are a reality, making even greater impact on the success of RFP responses this year and in the years ahead.
5 Common RFP Response Mistakes to Avoid
When it comes to the sales process, responding to RFPs can be the make or break moment. It’s also a complicated process that isn’t helped by ever-shrinking deadlines and increased competition.
There are some common RFP response mistakes that crop up, whether it’s in a small bid team or a major corporate sales response department. The good news? These can be easily fixed and smooth the way for a more successful proposal development process and end result.
Mistake #1: “Sales-y” RFP Responses
According to Strategic Proposal’s “Buyer’s Views of Bidders” survey, 75 percent of buyers think proposals are too salesy. That might seem like a frustrating statistic—especially when an RFP is all about sales and winning business!
So how do you avoid falling into that trap? Do the homework and collaborate with the sales team and subject matter experts. Make it less about you and more about the customer. Research and tailor the RFP response to how your products or services solve their problems. A laundry list of features or statistics won’t always work—make it believable from the customer’s perspective. At the same time, you will still want to differentiate your offering from the competition. Highlighting a competitive advantage will always be an important aspect for a winning RFP.
At the same time, as Diane Hallock, CF APMP, notes in a recent post on the APMP blog, buyers’ emotions as part of the decision-making process shouldn’t be ignored. Noting factors like your brand strength or security statistics can build trust or ease fears in the buyers’ mind, adding to the differentiation you’ve created with your more strategic approach to writing the proposal.
Mistake #2: Lack of Sales Collaboration
So you’re ready to avoid that first mistake of the overly “salesy” proposal. And, as discussed, a successful RFP response is one that happens with the right number of stakeholders—not in a vacuum. Content can’t be driven by a proposal team on its own.
As most RFP professionals know far too well, they are often brought in at the last minute and scramble to meet the deadline. Instead, the RFP team should be involved much earlier in the sales cycle. The sales team must also be included in the actual RFP process to craft the most compelling bid. There are a lot of moving parts for collaboration and insight sharing, but it must be a mutual relationship.
Mistake #3: Lack of Subject Matter Expert Discovery and Collaboration
Beyond all of the opportunities for collaboration with sales, there’s also the need to work even more broadly across the organization with other subject matter experts—from start to finish. There’s so much internal knowledge that can (and should) be tapped, from legal to the product team.
Taking a new path to discovery in finding the right subject matter experts—and including them in the process the entire time—is incredibly important to differentiate a proposal from the rest of the competition.
To facilitate this early engagement beyond the traditional Bid and Sales teams, adopting an RFP platform with better content management, workflow, scheduling, and collaboration functionality alleviates the headaches and eases the process of gathering input and critical information across the organization. Imagine having the capability to simply assign someone a question, it’s answered, and the proposal is automatically updated. You can work with these varied inputs in a unified environment, adding in the content suggestions early, then smoothing the text in subsequent editing to create a robust, unified document.
Mistake #4: Unorganized Content Library
Organization of content—both past and present—is crucial throughout the process of creating a stand-out bid. Common tactics still include shared folders and Google docs. While these are functional techniques, they certainly aren’t very efficient and can make for a messy—and inefficient—process.
Keeping every proposal and piece of content ever produced in one central repository remedies several different issues. With today’s technology, uploading a new RFP will automatically provide options and suggestions from previous RFP responses. And, if that doesn’t get what you want, you can do even more comprehensive text searches. This not only saves time on writing, but also on finding the content to begin with. As most RFP professionals can attest, the hunting and gathering of past content is often one of the most time-consuming chores in the entire response process. With an organized content library and technology to support it, you can finally keep track of it all and use it to your benefit.
Mistake #5: Order and Timing of Reviews
With the reviews of RFP responses, there are several typical pitfalls.
A typical pitfall is beginning reviews when the proposal is finished and customer-ready. Nothing is worse than running a review process only to have an important stakeholder request major changes and revisions or add input that should have been there before. It happens far too often.
While not every organization or proposal requires the rigorous process of full color team reviews, all organizations would benefit from uniformly using a review when their proposal content is 65-70% complete. The keys to adding this review to your process successfully are to first set a deadline for when this should be achieved within the overall response schedule, then managing your writers to this goal. The most efficient way to communicate this to the team is if your content collaboration environment also supports project management so that all participants are working in one tool that provides visibility to both the content and the timeline.
RFP Responses: The 4 Remedies to the 5 Mistakes
Each of the above mistakes may seem easy to avoid if you’re focused on that single issue, but what about addressing all five? There are really 4 strategies to increase the likelihood of avoiding these pitfalls, and they build on one another:
- Start the process by adopting the customer’s mindset, taking into account their needs, business goals, and also emotions.
- Foster end-to-end collaboration throughout the organization, definitely between the Sales and Proposal teams, but also including your full array of SMEs, whether technical, legal, or financial experts.
- Organize your content centrally, and provide access to all your writers.
- Set your timeline and manage to it, while also making the dates and deadlines clear to the team, preferably in one unified tool to minimize confusion.