Tag Archives: RFP

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RFP Strategies

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:

Posture

“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.

Trade Offs

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.

Stakeholders

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.

Conditional No-Bid

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.

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Forecasting Accuracy: How to Clear the Fog

In the 1966 film Blow-Up, a London fashion photographer named Thomas unknowingly documents a murder. At first, Thomas doesn’t notice the crime hidden in his photograph. The blurred background accentuated by shadows and foliage make the scene invisible. After he repeatedly blows up the image, zooming in over and over again on what seems to be a minor feature, is the disturbing truth revealed: a terrible crime has been committed and the photograph has made Thomas a witness. The most important thing in the photo had been concealed in the background all along.

I mention this movie because it reminds me of forecasting. Many times the reason for buying or not buying a solution are in plain site, but hidden by the shadows of other priorities. 

One of my client companies sells software to aid in the development of software. They had asked me to analyze a set of loss and no decision outcomes to understand if there were any trends they could get an upper hand on. I first interviewed the sales teams, then I reached out to the buyers for each opportunity. In one particular case, the sales person classified the no decision outcome as a lack of budget. When I talked to the buyer, he told me that the company was growing so fast, and hiring so quickly, they ran out of parking space. It turns out the CEO redirected any excess funds to build a parking garage, pushing many other purchases on to the back burner for sponsor and seller alike.

In this case, the hidden “crime” was actually in plain site. However, to reveal it, the seller needed to ask a few more questions. When I was a young sales person working for a technology software company, I had the pleasure to take Rick, our Senior VP of Worldwide Sales on several high level relationship building meetings with my most important clients. I noticed in every meeting Rick started each conversation by asking about the client’s business… “how’s business?” he would ask, or “I read about the recent acquisitions your company has executed, how are those working out?”, on occasion, being even more direct, “I understand your CEO has announced company wide cost cutting initiatives, how’s that affecting your team?” 

My reaction to his questions varied from wondering why he would ask a senior technical leader about business, to kicking myself for missing the elephant in the room when he had obviously done his homework better than I did. 

After one particularly hair raising insight gained from one of his broad, “how’s business going” questions (my client revealed a merger pending with one of our other customers who had a much better pricing arrangement with us), I began to appreciate the value of his line of questions. He was purposely trying to uncover the priorities of the client both hidden and in plain view. In most cases, the answers provided gave me better insight into the forecast likelihood of the opportunity, both good and bad.

The current business issues of your customers will dictate their buying behavior. When the sponsor goes to the funder for sign-off, the current business issues that have his or her attention will influence their desire to fund or not fund a purchase request. For instance, cost cutting initiatives will put most purchases on hold, while prioritizing purchases that can save additional costs in other areas. A recent merger announcement can also put purchases on hold until the dust settles. Other business issues like changing competitive landscapes,  or changes in federal regulation could be positive for many selling situations. Rick taught me to evaluate my selling opportunity against the current business issues of my prospect to get a better insight on the forecast likelihood of every opportunity.

Kevin Temple guides sales teams to be more agile and improve revenue outcomes. He can be contacted at kevin@enterprise-selling.com. The Enterprise Selling Group is a leader in delivering sales training, coaching and project oversight to improve the agility of sales teams around the world.

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How To Differentiate

Years ago, I worked for a start up company that carved out a niche in the electronic design automation field with a new product. As the only player in this niche it was like shooting fish in a barrel. It seemed like all I had to do was show up and demonstrate the product, then collect purchase orders. (Ok, it was tougher than that, but it was more about need creation than competitive differentiation.)

When one of the big players in the overall design automation market decided to compete with us, our general consensus was we were three years ahead of them on development, so they couldn’t be much competition. Wow, were we wrong!

One by one, all of my largest target customers started talking about the offering of this particular competitor. Not one to stand around, I did my homework on their product. “But…” I would say in my defense, “they don’t have this capability, or that capability.” Unfortunately for me, it seemed like no one was listening. I started losing orders and growing in frustration.

Then one potential buyer helped me out by accident. When he brought up the competitor’s name, I listed a number of important capabilities they were lacking. His response, “So what, why would I care about those capabilities? Their base product does everything I need, and it’s less expensive than yours.” I pointed out several problems he had identified in his current development process, then I connected those problems to my unique capabilities, challenging him to decide if he could do without solving those problems. Long story short, he bought my solution at a 50% premium over the new contender.

His basic question of why should he care, helped steer me to the most important part of the conversation; his problem set. Then it dawned on me, the key to differentiation is identifying the problem, not the capability.  I repeated this process with every new prospect and turned my win ratio dramatically in the right direction.

Coincidentally, during the same time frame, I witnessed this connection from a buyer’s perspective for myself.

On a lazy Saturday afternoon, I took my (then) four year old son along with me to run some errands. I had recently purchased a new television, and now my focus was on a surround sound system to compliment it. We stopped in the local Best Buy store, only to find too many choices. There were probably 15 different models on display. I was trying to make heads or tails of the differences by reading the summary spec sheet listed next to each one, while my son was getting antsy to leave. They had the less expensive models close the floor, with the more expensive models placed at eye level. I was bobbing up and down making notes on a piece of scratch paper, but it was too much information to process especially with my impatient son in tow.

The sales attendant stepped up to me and asked, “trying to figure out which one is the best value?” I sheepishly nodded my head, and he added, “I can help you with onequestion.”  He looked down at my son, then looked back at me. “Do you ever envision yourself entertaining guests on the patio with some nice background music, while the kids are in the family room watching TV?” I nodded in light of the obvious answer. He pointed to one system on the rack and said, “there’s only one system that will let you do both at the same time.” He got me. I walked out with the most expensive system in the store.

The lesson I learned from these two experiences is that no matter how many differentiators you have, the only ones that count are those that can be tied to problems the buyer is, or can anticipate, dealing with in their environment.

If you are a new salesperson, or you’re dealing with some formidable competition, here’s a simple exercise you can run on your own, or even better, with your whole team. Make a list of your top five differentiators for a particular product or solution. Then make a list of the customer problems each differentiated capability can address. Try to word the problems with problem sounding adjectives. Words like, “difficulty with”,  “lacking”, “frustrated by”, and the like. This will insure that you are articulating the problem and not just rephrasing the capability.

For example,

(Capability) I teach sales teams how to differentiate more effectively.

(Problems to surface) Are you having difficulty winning against lower priced competitors? Are you frustrated by your win/loss ratio in a crowded market? Are your new product introductions taking too long?

In your next discovery meeting, if the buyer doesn’t bring up the problems you’ve identified, try to surface them yourself, just like the Best Buy sales person did for me. When you get to the capabilities part of the discussion, connect each important differentiator back to a problem you discussed earlier.  I’m confident you’ll find more buyers who resonate with your differentiators.

Kevin Temple guides sales teams to be more agile and improve revenue outcomes. He can be contacted at kevin@enterprise-selling.com. The Enterprise Selling Group is a leader in delivering sales training, coaching and project oversight to improve the agility of sales teams around the world.

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Sales Agility: How To Tailor A Sales Message

The first quarter of the year is usually a slow start for most enterprise focused sales organizations. But it also tends to kick our behinds into gear as we grasp the required ramp to reach the year end goal. If this resonates with you, I’d like to focus you on one initiative that will produce better sales results, and provide the fuel for your accelerated ramp requirements. The best part is it’s easy to implement, especially for time strapped sales people and sales leaders.

We’ve been hearing it for a few years now. CEB’s research says the top performing sales people tailor their sales messages to their prospects. If you’re not tailoring your messaging, there’s a potential windfall waiting for you.

On the other hand, if your team is using the “spray and pray” model, where one message fits all audiences, you’ll find the result of not tailoring sales messages is a high ratio of “no-decision” outcomes. I’ve run across numbers as high as 60% of the pipeline in some businesses, while the norm is about 40%. As a subset of this, delayed decisions are also costly when it comes to improving sales productivity, and also relate to a lack of tailored messaging. Bottom line, if the prospect has trouble understanding the need to change given their situation, or can’t clearly articulate it to their colleagues, they either can’t make a decision to change, or it gets delayed. Tailoring the sales message around their specific situation is critical for delivering better sales results.

Before we get started, let’s narrow the task down to a manageable and productive thrust. There are several levels of tailoring: You can tailor to the industry, tailor to the company, or tailor to the job title or function. You can also tailor to the individual, but that requires insight into their personal values, focus, passion and more. For this article, I’ll focus on tailoring to a company. This level of tailoring helps with the first step, getting in the door. It also helps the contact identify and more clearly articulate the reasons for change to their colleagues, resulting in fewer no decision outcomes.

The place to start is with the Internet. I start with three basic research tasks:

  1. Identify any recent changes to their operating results, good and bad.
  2. Take a look at their press releases for good or bad news.
  3. Perform a specialized Internet search on their company name combined with a few chosen adjectives.

Recently, I conducted this exercise on a prospect and it took a total of about five minutes. But the results were invaluable.

I’ve decided not to disclose the name of the company that I’ll use to illustrate my results as they are an early stage prospect for my business. I can only imagine the number of my competitors calling them after reading my post, and since I don’t have the contract nailed yet, I’ll take the safe route.

The first place I visited was their “Investor Relations” section of their website. Like most public companies, they post their financial results for their shareholders. Not three days before, they released their 2014 annual report.

I quickly scroll down to page 33 where I find their operating results. The first thing that catches my attention is they have almost quadrupled revenue from $12M to about $44M in one year. That’s impressively good news, but I didn’t stop there. Looking further down, the next eye catcher is operating expenses. The cost of sales has almost doubled from $32M to $62M, outpacing their revenue generation. This also indicates they’ve probably hired a lot of sales people from one year to the next. Their General and Administrative (G&A) costs have also doubled from $9M to $19M: Another indicator of hyper growth and an expansion of employees in other departments.

Since an annual report is a comparison of one year to the previous and may already be out of date, my curiosity compels me to check their current job postings to see if their hiring pace has changed. As it turns out, they are still in a rapid expansion mode. There are over 20 open sales openings listed in a variety of locations with around 100 postings in all categories combined.

I scan the remainder of the annual report to see if anything else catches my attention. As with all public companies, they are required to compare their shareholder return to a general investment in the stock market. The graph catches my eye. It shows their IPO price of a year ago, $40 per share, compared to the current price of $7.81. This causes me to conclude there’s probably a good deal of pressure on the executive staff to address this problem. (Even Elon Musk has to pay attention to this fundamental eventually.)

Next I turn to their news center. This doesn’t turn up anything useful to me. Like most companies, this is more of a marketing take on the trends and opportunities in their industry. It’s not really focused on their issues or problems. However, I never overlook it because sometimes something useful pops up like a recent merger or new regulatory requirements that may impact their business.

Lastly, I perform a problem and opportunity oriented Internet search. I like to use their company name and combine it with positive and negative adjectives. I’ll use words like “problem”, “issues”, “concerns” and the like. If that doesn’t pan out I’ll try some opportunity oriented business words like, “merger”, “partnership”, or “regulations”. I typically look only on the first page of results as any past this point are probably dated. This time, an article dated a few months earlier pops up. It details their announced partnership with a complimentary leader in their market. Although not too interesting to me, it would be interesting to other sales professionals selling collaboration tools. I make a note to pass a lead on to my customer, Polycom.

Not a bad return for a five minute investment. I now know they have a shareholder return issue, which is probably putting pressure on cost management or revenue growth, the latter being my hope. I also know they are spending more on sales than the company is generating in revenue, so I’m confident they should be open to ideas about reversing this ratio. I also found they have scaled the sales organization rapidly and are continuing on a fast clip. Combining this with the diverse locations of their job postings, I’d venture to bet they have a ramp up challenge, something I can help with in many ways.

This simple step arms me to have a productive conversation with their Chief Revenue Officer. Although I could have easily put this person on my standard email nurturing cycle and check in with them after they followed a link to some valuable content on my website, I find a much higher hit rate if I find something compelling and use that to start a conversation directly.

But I don’t stop there. I’ll use this information throughout my sales campaign. In the event I’m invited in to deliver a presentation to a larger stakeholder group, I use it to frame my presentation and drive a dialog to uncover related or additional problems. I also use it to frame my proposals. Even though I specialize in teaching sales professionals how to access decision makers more effectively, I’m also impacted by geographic separation or the calendars of overwhelmed CEO’s or other decision makers. In this event, I want my proposal to sell for me, framing my solution around the global, high level problems every executive in their organization would like to see addressed.

In short, I tailor my message to the issues they currently have on their table.

So why don’t more sales people make this simple investment and improve their results? I think it has to do with habit and an ill placed value on the shortest path to closure. They mistakenly believe the sooner they can talk about their product or service, the faster the decision will be made. However, as in Aesop’s fable, going slower can make you the winner.

If you’re a sales leader, I suggest a simple assignment to prove the value of this minor change in modus operandi. Ask your team to perform this level of research on just three prospects each and share the results at your next staff meeting. Chances are, most will find something compelling which puts your solution in a more strategic light.

LIMITED OFFER: I am offering to demonstrate this process for a select number of sales leaders and their teams using your own prospects. If you’d like to have a web demonstration at your next staff meeting, please contact me with the information below.

Kevin Temple guides sales teams to be more agile and improve revenue outcomes. He can be contacted at kevin@enterprise-selling.com. The Enterprise Selling Group is a leader in delivering training, coaching and project oversight to improve the agility of sales teams around the world.

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The Proposal that Sells Itself

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Even the best sales people can’t get to every decision maker. But your proposal can. Do a check up on your proposal format. Does it convince a sign-off authority to sign the purchase requisition and place an order, especially if you can’t be there?

After reviewing literally hundreds of “standard” proposal formats sent out by a large variety of big and small companies, it’s not surprising why so many sales teams have a hockeystick quarter end. From my perspective, most proposals are little more than a price quote.

I’m talking about the “proposal” that has a nice cover letter thanking the prospect for the opportunity and an overview about how this vendor is the leader in their field. This is followed by a price quote and overly generous discount with a time expiration coincidentally connected to the end of the quarter. Then some sort of terms/conditions agreement, license agreement, services SOW, and so forth.

Now put yourself in the shoes of the decision maker. You have a list of questions you need to have answered before you sign off on the proposal… maybe something like this:

  •         Why do we need this solution? (What business issues is the customer facing and what are the underlying problems that are not currently being addressed by the existing solution?)
  •         Is this vendor the best alternative? (Can we do it ourselves, or is there another vender with similar capabilities at a lower price? Or, what makes this vendor special?)
  •         Do we need to act now? (Versus other alternative uses of the funds or especially with other more pressing issues?)
  •         What’s the potential savings or reward for making this change? (ROI? Competitive advantage? Lower cost of ownership? Or, what disappointing metric will this help us to overcome? Etc…)
  •         Who will this solution benefit? (Are there other parts of the organization that could chip in? If we broaden the purchase could we save/earn even more?)
  •         Can we trust this vendor? (Will it work? Can they support us? What’s their track record look like? Did you try it out? Do others that we respect us it?)

The question is does your proposal help them answer these questions and make a decision? Worse, the first question they ponder that doesn’t get answered gives them the excuse to push back and ask the sponsor to do their homework.

I know what you might be thinking; these questions should have been answered during the discovery and evaluation process. I’d agree, but often times they are not, and even if they are, that doesn’t guarantee the final decision maker was involved in the transfer of this information. That means the seller would have to depend upon their inside champion to articulate the answers to these questions, but we all know hope is not a strategy! Your next thought might be, “the proposal should be delivered to the decision maker by the seller so all of these questions can be answered directly”. Again, I agree, but unfortunately, not the case most of the time.

If you’re sucking wind through your teeth thinking about your proposal format,  I recommend a set of simple changes.

The easiest and most effective way to address your current proposal format in this light is to structure the cover letter to address these questions. I recommend a format for the letter that includes:

  •         The business issues uncovered during discovery. (A quick review of their latest earnings statement or recent press releases can provide some insight if you missed this step during your discovery process.)
  •         The underlying people, process, or technology challenges that are currently impeding the business issue. Word these with problem oriented adjectives: difficulty with, challenged by, or lacking. i.e., “Difficulty with multiple manual processes that are error prone.”
  •         The impact of not taking action. Sizing the cost of, or lost opportunity for each challenge and the associated business issue. Or, identify the current state of the metric they care about, and the potential. i.e., “The goal is to reduce costs by 15%, but it currently stands at a 5% reduction.”
  •         Connecting your unique capabilities to actual challenges the prospect has acknowledged. The only way they can determine if you are the best alternative is to identify challenges they care about that can’t be solved by others as well as you can solve them.
  •         Identifying the stakeholders you have included in your analysis to allow them to confirm the organizational opportunity.
  •         Specific usage example, citing another similar but respected company with similar business issues, similar challenges, and actual accrued results. (This structure of success story is often shortened to simple name dropping, prompting the buyer to take a small pilot step first.)

As the sales leader, I also recommend that you inspect every proposal for this structure. Your inspection will underscore your commitment to making this a discipline, and if your sales people can supply the information for all of these components, they will have undoubtedly conducted a more thorough discovery process. You kill two birds with one stone.

You should see a decrease in stalled decisions or no decisions, a measurable increase in your win rate, and interestingly, a smoothing of your hockeystick. After all, if the prospect’s decision maker has all of their questions answered, and it’s a compelling proposition, there’s no need to sit on the proposal until the end of quarter.

The Enterprise Selling Group helps commercial organizations tune their sales and marketing disciplines to improve revenue results. Kevin Temple is the founder and President of The Enterprise Selling Group.  

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RFP Strategies

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The Enterprise Selling Group

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:

Posture

“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.

Trade Offs

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.

Stakeholders

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.

Conditional No-Bid

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.

The Enterprise Selling Group helps commercial organizations tune their sales and marketing disciplines to improve revenue results. Kevin Temple is the founder and President of The Enterprise Selling Group.