Like a root canal, the request for proposal, or RFP, is a necessary evil for many companies and firms, especially those that play in the nonprofit and government spaces. For many, the initial feeling upon receiving an RFP is often flattery. Someone thinks enough of your company and therefore, they must believe it’s ideally qualified and a favorite to win their business. It’s a feel-good moment that demonstrates positive proof that your organization’s reputation and brand awareness is firing on all cylinders. However, not all RFPs are a harbinger of new business. Intuitively, we know that all organizations that are invited to participate in an RFP do not have an equal chance of winning.

Evaluating the RFP

A range of studies have shown that organizations that receive an invitation to respond to an unexpected RFP have, on average, a low single-digit percent chance of winning. Yet, a huge amount of effort is wasted every year by organizations that are flattered to be invited, believe they are a good solution fit and therefore decide to bid—even though they are likely one of 10-15 hopeful candidates that have similar or matching credentials to everyone else.

The first rule of winning the RFP is to figure out if you have a realistic chance of advancing past the first round. Better to say “no” now than to go through all the hard work and effort it takes to properly execute a great RFP response. To evaluate how realistic your chances are to advance and/or win the business, create a checklist of questions/criteria, that if answered honestly will reveal your chances. Do this before committing resources to answering the RFP. Here are a few sample questions to get you started:

  • Do we have a relationship to leverage?
  • Does our industry experience clearly demonstrate expertise in their industry?
  • How well do we match up in terms of experience, expertise, staff, size, price, geography, and other variables with competitors you anticipate will make it through to the next round?
  • Do we have a strong solution fit against the prospect’s declared functional needs?
  • Is there an opportunity to meet with/call the decision makers and ask questions?
  • Do you believe this is a legitimate opportunity—one you have at least a 50 percent chance of winning?
  • Will the efforts required be worth the potential rewards?
  • Is there enough time to properly respond?

RFP Evaluation Questions to Ask a Prospective Client

If after completing the self-assessment you believe your organization remains a good fit, consider asking the following questions of the prospect:

  • What are the “deal breakers” (i.e., things that will eliminate your firm from advancing if you can’t properly address)?
  • What triggered the prospect to issue the RFP?
  • What are their key business drivers?
  • Who are the key decision makers?
  • What are their decision criteria?
  • What is their decision process?
  • Is there and opportunity to present to the decision team?
  • Who is the incumbent firm, and how strong is the prospect’s relationships with them?
  • What would it take to displace the incumbent?
  • What factors led the prospect to invite your organization to participate in its RFP process?
  • How many other firms has the RFP been sent to?

Preparing the Written Response

Once you’ve assessed the RFP and green-lighted the process to submit a response, consider the following checklist of strategies and tactics to enhance your reply before commencing your written response:

  1. Find a Relationship: Regardless of how well-written your RFP may be, nothing trumps the human factor. A good relationships will put any RFP response into the right pile. Identify who the key decision-makers are, learn how they process information and how they think, then match your response to their style.
  2. Look Beyond the RFP: Understand the prospect’s industry, organizational mission/vision, and overall strategic goals and objectives. The better you understand the company’s market drivers and nuances, the better your response will be.
  3. Go the Extra Mile: Leveraging what you learned about the company (beyond what they told you in the RFP), create a checklist of key drivers the organization holds dear and be sure to include and note these in your response.
  4. Questions Are Key: RFPs rarely are 100 percent clear. As you work through it, compile a list of questions and call the prospect to get clarification. If there is a scheduled opportunity (i.e., meeting or call-in period to ask questions), use that time to demonstrate your interest and expertise. Don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions.
  5. Get Creative: CPAs generally aren’t known for boundless creativity, but people typically respond positively to creativity when they see it. Consider making your RFP stand out by adding customized design elements to match/align with the prospect’s industry or product line.
  6. Assemble a Winning Team: The team needs to be strong, passionate and unafraid to appropriately challenge the prospect if needed. Also, make sure every team member is actively engaged in the strategy and has a clearly defined role.
  7. Keep it Simple, Clear and Concise: RFPs are long enough as it is. Avoid adding length with long-winded sentences and too much “CPA speak.” Keep it short, with concise sentences and phrases. Break up copy-heavy pages with images, charts and graphics. Use call-outs and headers—people typically scan rather than read. Maintain consistency of voice and format.
  8. Organization is Key: Include a table of contents. Be sure that the format is easy to read and that each section and chart is clearly labeled and addresses a requested need. Proofread the heck out of it! And, be sure to check for the fatal “cut and paste” error of leaving a previous prospect’s name in a paragraph from a past proposal response.
  9. Submit Early: Prospects are waiting for responses to filter in and often will take notice of the first ones to arrive. Since most firms deliver within hours and sometimes minutes of the deadline, an opportunity to stand out is created by delivering yours early. Try to do so a day in advance of the designated deadline. Lastly and if possible, consider hand-delivering the RFP and if appropriate, ask if the key decision makers are around to introduce yourself.

For more information and ideas on how to improve your RFP winning percentage, or for other questions specific to business development, please contact Jonathan Ebenstein at (440) 449-6800 or email Jonathan.

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