Responding to RFPs – Joint Blogpost with Babette Ten Haken

[This jointly-written blogpost appears also on Babette Ten Haken’s blog, Sales Aerobics for Engineers]

Many Requests for Proposal (RFPs) are well written, and play an important role in the intelligent procurement processes of well-run companies. We both know that to be true, yet sometimes we have to wonder: Why is it that we see so many of the other kind? Is it lack of knowledge on the part of the RFP writer? An inability to alter processes that might have worked in the past?

You know the kind we’re talking about: RFP’s that are written to avoid talking to salespeople, that assume the only relevant variable is price, that are motivated by a fear that salespeople will gang up and collude against the buyer if it becomes known there’s a purchase afoot.  These types of RFPs are written from a defensive position, rather than as a confident and aggressive approach to creating mutually beneficial business relationships and outcomes.

We’ve both written about RFPs before (Charlie in Open Letter to Clients: Why You Should Drop RFPs; Babette in Do You Mean Business?  In this post we want to address how to respond to such RFPs.

Remember: There are good reasons for creating as well as responding to RFPs. Any hurt feelings you might have are irrelevant to your proper reaction. Strive for an objective, reasonable tone, devoid of blaming. That will help the central point you want to make.

A Sample Response

You might consider something like this as a starting draft:

Dear ___ :

I hope this finds you well, etc.

I wasn’t sure how to respond to your RFP regarding objectives, agenda and costs. Here’s why:

• In our initial call, I shared with you a list of objectives that past clients achieved through us.  I was trying to help you defineyour own objectives, rather than presume to tell you what your objective should be.

• We also discussed several alternative program designs, to help you craft your own agenda, rather than us simply proposing one for you.

Basically, I was trying to collaborate on a customized design rather than to sell a standardized product.

What I read into your RFP is that you’d prefer not to engage in a design discussion, but rather go straight to bid.  There is of course nothing wrong with that, and it’s completely your decision.  At the same time, I find that usually means one of two things:

1.     The customer really isn’t interested in customizing, preferring a standardized product; or

2.     The vendor decision has been pretty much made (and we’re not it).

Again, there’s nothing wrong with either one of those. But in either case, it’s hard on our end to justify investing the extra time. We have a mild preference for customized products; more importantly, we fear misunderstandings from purchases based on incomplete understandings.

Please don’t hear anything critical or complaining about this; nobody’s wrong, no feelings are hurt.  I just want to be clear and not leave conversations uncomfortable or unfinished.  I hope I’m not offending by being very candid and direct in this email; my intent is to make it OK for us to be truthful with each other.

Best wishes….

That was a real-life letter, by the way.

If you’re thinking, “that sounds way too direct,” ask yourself how many sales hours you spend requesting people to allow you to respond to one of these cattle-call documents, vs. the time you spend with prospective customers? Because that’s the price you’re paying for an inability to directly confront the issue.

Your goal is to reduce your responses to RFPs whose sole goal is price. That means you need to rethink your customer acquisition strategy too.

Understand whether your relationship with your customer merits strong consideration, or whether you feel you’ve already been placed in the “also-ran” category. If you believe your thought leadership and industry, product or platform expertise is genuinely of value to them, then this is why you give yourself permission to reply directly. Respond from a position of  confidence and knowledge.

What if It Doesn’t Work?

If you are right, they will see it your way and ask you to talk further. If they don’t ask you to talk further, it is because:

a.     It was price-driven anyway, in which case you just saved a lot of time, or

b.     You were wrong, and they actually don’t care about your expertise, in which case you saved a lot of time (and got something to think about), or

c.     You offended them.

If you’re concerned about the last possibility, then we urge you to write a better letter, because you’re still preparing to waste a lot of time.

Meantime, you might want to know the actual response to the real letter above:

LOL! The next steps are in our court.  We need to really look at the links you sent us and come up with a draft of what we would like to see and then get back to you.  I will certainly email/call you if we have any questions along the way. You are still very much in the running.

Was that a worthwhile letter? When was the last time you could have written such a letter? What will you do when the opportunity next presents itself?