I think every vendor has a love-hate relationship with the request for proposal, better known as the RFP. Yes, it’s an opportunity to win new business or land that blue-chip client that’s going to take your company’s reputation to new heights. But if you don’t woo the client, you’ll throw time, money and creativity out the window -- which isn’t part of anyone’s job description.
The unfortunate truth is that only half of RFPs result in a win, though anecdotally we see averages much closer to 25-30 percent. But considering 95 percent of companies still use them, they’re a part of our industry that isn’t going away any time soon. While you may not be able to banish the RFP from your life, you can up your odds of winning new business with smarter, leaner and more targeted pitches. And who knows? Maybe you’ll even find RFPs tipping over into straight-up love-love territory.
Hone your response process.
Before diving into your response, it’s crucial to ask yourself a few questions to determine whether the RFP is worth your time. I know the idea of turning away any business opportunity sounds a little crazy, but when brands only give you a few days (or, let’s be honest, a few hours) to reply, you need to make sure the ask is worth pulling your team away from their current responsibilities. It’s a massive commitment that often requires a lot of time and effort in pursuit of a small chance of success. Do you really want to risk losing an existing client because you were too caught up trying to win a shot-in-the-dark one?
Start by clearly defining the problem the client is trying to solve. Do you have the right people, the right previous experience and the right skill set? Do the timeline and budget make sense? Is this a vertical you’ve had success in before?
If the answer to most of these is "yes," go for it -- otherwise, it’s probably wiser to deprioritize this opportunity. Winning more RFPs ultimately boils down to choosing quality over quantity.
So, before you go after an RFP, make sure you have the appropriate resources to respond. Put together an RFP response crew made up of design minds, marketing whiz kids and account managers -- they’ll cover design, strategy and response -- and give them the specific task of creating a tight response process that conserves resources and time.
Do your homework.
When I was working in experiential marketing in a previous life, we got word that Nintendo was going out for RFP for a new game title. Nintendo had been with the same marketing company for 10 years, so this was a rare chance to win a piece of their coveted business.
We spent our time learning about the product from the inside out and, in the process, made an exciting discovery: This particular puzzle game was actually more appealing to adults, who perceived it as a wellness product due to its ability to stimulate the brain. It was guilt-free gaming. This wasn’t information available in the RFP, and the insight gave us the chance to stand out from the crowd and ultimately win the business.
This is just an extrapolation of job interview basics, though. You wouldn’t apply for a position without researching the company, and the same goes for an RFP. Before you start the mad dash to draft up your idea, dig deeper than the brief itself. If you can present an insight that the client hasn’t thought of themselves, then that’s going to put you ahead.
Respond to all KPIs and objectives -- even if they seem irrelevant.
Vendors often gripe about how much work it is to respond to an RFP, but don’t forget that a lot of time and resources go into crafting the request as well, from writing the proposal to deciding on vendors to responding to questions, evaluating submissions and deciding on a winner. When you don’t address all the things they’ve asked for, not only is your proposal going to be incomplete (potentially disqualifying you altogether), but it could also frustrate the client you’re ultimately trying to impress.
All the agencies I’ve spoken with have stressed that not responding to key performance indicators (KPIs) is the most common mistake they see among respondents. If there’s an objective you don’t understand, ask. Even if there’s a request that isn’t immediately relevant to your business (like radio spots), respond to it anyway with alternative solutions (maybe an engaging podcast program could tap into those same needs).
Keep it short and sweet.
One of the biggest mistakes companies make is spending the first half of their pitch deck talking about themselves. The part of the deck that discusses your suitability as a partner should support your great idea, not trump it. Start by offering a strategy to solve the problem, then follow up with why you’re the right company to execute on that strategy. I’d even go as far as to say pitches are best when they’re under 10 slides. Constraints are good -- look at the length of TED Talks or tweets. Brevity inspires clear, concise pitches that cut through the clutter and get to the point.
Using a predetermined, short-and-sweet template to cover your strategy, deliverables and workback will streamline your response process. After all, your team should be spending more time coming up with great ideas and less time formatting documents.
Ultimately, there’s no quick trick or hack to boosting your RFP batting average. Wins come from doing your research, understanding the client’s needs and choosing where to focus your talents. Glamorous? Maybe not. But if you embrace these principles for every proposal that comes across your desk, success (and maybe even a little fondness for the RFP) is sure to come your way.