No matter what you call it, RFP, RFI, or RFQ… the success rate for winning unsolicited requests for proposals are dismal. If a buyer sends out 10 bid requests for an RFP, statistically each vendor only has a 1 in 10 chance of winning. That’s much worse than a normal 1 in 3 win rate for most line items on an average sales rep’s forecast. But if the RFP is rigged for a single vendor, then all the other vendors have zero chance of winning.
So, back to the question, do you bid? I’ll say it depends. I’ve helped many companies improve their RFP win rate, usually very dramatically. But the strategy is very heavily dependent upon knowing which RFP request to ignore. The best way to ascertain if you should walk is to test the RFP. Here are a few of my favorite test points:
“As the leader in an industry that is growing dramatically, we don’t have the luxury to respond to unsolicited RFP’s. If you would like to evaluate our solution for your needs, we’ll need to engage in a dialog about your business in a more direct manner.”
One of the best methods for increasing your win rate and reducing wasted sales cycles on unwinnable RFP’s is to posture you way out of the process altogether. Although ideal, this strategy usually only works for the leaders in an industry and has to be truly aligned with a buying frenzy.
One of my clients recently hosted a prospective CIO customer during a headquarters visit. After the VP of Sales gave a very energetic overview, the CIO implied that the next step would to tender an RFP for response. The VP of Sales responded with a solid posturing strategy, “As you know, our technology is in the perfect storm of opportunity, market leadership, and high growth. We don’t do RFP’s, we can’t afford to.” The CIO responded, “Yeah, I can see your point. OK, we’ll skip the RFP and go direct to an evaluation phase.” That’s how posturing is supposed to work.
Test their Resolve and Intention
Of course, not everyone is a market leader in a perfect buying storm, and when a quota has to be met, every opportunity should be evaluated. (Notice I said evaluated, not pursued.) I suggest a series of tests to determine their intentions about your solution and to improve your position should you decide to pursue.
The Shadow Story
I worked with an experienced sales management professional who had a saying, “An RFP is the shadow of the story.” What he meant was when you receive the RFP it’s focused on the requirements. What’s missing are the reasons behind the RFP. What unresolved business issue is driving the RFP? What specific people/process/technology challenges were linked to each solution requirement? How big are these problems in terms of money, lost opportunity or other value proposition?
The first place to test an RFP is to ask the prospect if they can share the story behind the RFP. If they refuse, you’re not on solid ground. But if they agree, you have some indication that you are needed in their RFP process either as their first choice (good footing) or an important price/functionality reference point (not so good).
This is your opportunity to not only understand the story behind the RFP, it’s also a chance to change it. This is where the next test comes into play.
Adding Challenges and Requirements
If you have the opportunity to hear the story behind the RFP, you have an opportunity to change the story. This is where you look for problems or challenges that have not been identified, link to your differentiators, and have value for the prospect. There is always something they overlooked.
If they accept the suggestion to change the RFP to incorporate the challenges and associated required solution capabilities you suggested, you have another favorable data point. If they refuse, you have a negative data point.
Reprioritizing Challenges and Requirements
Sometimes you have a capability that differentiates your offering. Look for the opportunity to get a priority ranking of key capabilities. If you have a differentiator that is low on the list, ask about the pain associated with the challenge it addresses. The more pain the higher it should be on their priority list. Conversely, look for competitor’s differentiators. If they are higher on the list, a review of the pain (or lack thereof) behind the associated challenge could help to lower the priority of a capability that you can’t address as well.
If the prospect engages you in the reprioritization dialog and responds favorably to suggested changes in priorities, you have another favorable data point. If they refuse, note the negative data point.
There will be occasions where you can’t address a capability as described in the RFP, or you address it differently. This is where you request a trade off. You’re trying to get the customer to accept an alternative capability or trade a different capability for the one they specified. If they accept, your position is stronger, if they reject the request, you have another negative data point on your position.
Another test is to request access to the stakeholders that would benefit from the solution. If they allow the request, you have a stronger foothold, and you may be in a better position to influence changes to the RFP. If they deny the request, you have another data point that may indicate your solution is not valued. If you do get access to the stakeholders, that’s your best chance to re-engineer the list of requirements by bringing up challenges they didn’t anticipate. (see above)
Date of Submission
Another good test point is to ask the prospect if you can be late for the submission date, whether you need it or not. If they agree to accept your submission late, it may be an indicator that you are valued in their RFP. If they reject your request, you have another data point that doesn’t indicate a position of strength.
At one point in my sales leadership career, my sales team came to me with a very comprehensive RFP tendered by a large corporation. The sales team wanted to secure a large technical team to spend several weeks assembling our response. I said, “No”. One of our competitors was the incumbent in the account and we had no role in building the specification for the RFP. So I asked for an audience with the RFP committee. My sales team relayed the request and the RFP committee agreed to meet with me.
During the meeting I requested the story behind the story. They declined to share any information. Then I asked if they could extend a longer period of time for our response. They said if we wanted to compete, we had to play by their rules. Then I asked for access to the stakeholders that would benefit from the purchase. Once again they said, “No”.
I walked away from that meeting with the feeling that we were not their favored vendor. When I got back to my office, I wrote a contingent no-bid letter. I addressed it to the CEO of the company.
In my letter, I explained that we were the leader in our industry, that we were excited about the opportunity to potentially add value to their business, and so on. But, I explained that without more information about the circumstance that brought this requirement to the surface, we could not possibly tender a proposal that would hit their business needs as well as we probably could. I suggested that if the circumstances were to change, and they were willing to share the information, we would be happy to submit a proposal, but in the meantime, we had to decline the RFP. This is what I call a contingent no-bid. I leave the door open, but decline under the current conditions.
A few days later I received a phone call from the CFO of the company. He said the CEO had asked him to get back to me personally. He told me that there was no budgeted purchase planned. He also explained that this group of people were in-between projects and were being funded by a training budget until they were assigned to a project. In other words, there was never going to be a purchase. He apologized for the confusion and asked me if there was anything else he could do for me. I said, “yes, there is!” I asked for a meeting with the CEO and the CFO to simply describe how we could address their business challenges better than the vendor who was currently supplying their solution. He said he would look into it. (I eventually got the meeting). More importantly… I asked him to please not share the information he just disclosed with the other vendors involved in the RFP. He laughed and said he would let it run another 30 days before shutting it down.
A contingent no-bid is an effective test for determining if the prospect needs your response. If they do, they will call you back and attempt to talk you into the response. If they don’t, you were not going to win, and best case, you were only there for pricing comparisons. Better still, if worded correctly, it leaves the door open if the circumstances change.
Improving Your RFP Hit Rate
The quest to improve your RFP hit rate is highly dependent upon setting a goal to NOT reply to blind unsolicited RFP’s. If you can posture your way out of responses you’ll save a lot of resources and project yourself as the most attractive solution. But if you have to reply to win, you can use the strategies listed above to improve your position and test the reality of your chances for winning. If the tests indicate a weak position, you should feel good about walking away from the situation before you invest any resources into the response. After all, if there’s no way for you to win, the unsolicited RFP robs you twice. First because you can’t win this deal, but they also rob you of the time you could have spent on any opportunity that you could have won.