How to Read an RFP for greater sales success

Chatting to a friend last week who gets involved in big RFP’s from a sales side raised an interesting point: do sales teams really understand what an RFP is for?

At a surface level, there’s a bunch of questions that the procurement team are asking, but it’s important to understand what is driving those questions. Much of the design of an RFP can be understood by considering a series of thoughts, which give can give the overall context and flow of both the reasons for the questions, but also the flow of answers which are required to maximise success in the RFP process.

Here’s a series of ten areas which, if used well, will reveal the inner workings of RFP design.

  1. Assess the quality of the RFP as a whole, and the process it is being used in.
  2. Read the whole thing if possible ( note: some on-line systems completely prevent the development of context, much to the detriment of the process)
  3. Understand the context of the RFP within the customer as a whole
  4. Why were you asked to participate?
  5. How will it be assessed?
  6. What’s the business need or want for each question?
  7. Who’s on their team?
  8. What’s the process going forward?
  9. What does your procurement department say?
  10. What’s the depth of answer needed?

Lets look at these in more detail:

  1. Assess the quality of the RFP as a whole, and the process it is being used in.

As a starting point, how does the RFP feel?  Good ones stand out from bad ones in significant ways, both in terms of the way it arrives with you and is positioned, and in the way it is written in general. Anything that smells heavily of cut and paste should be regarded with a degree of suspicion, particularly as soon as questions become entirely irrelevant. Examples include industry specific irrelevance,  (e.g. FDA compliance questions if you’re selling steel..), clearly wrong geography. However, also think about the quality of the process; if you’re given a very short period to complete a complex document, what is that indicating? If a poor quality process or document is suggested, consider how the rest of the process will go, and if that qualifies out the effort. If you’re keen to progress, then it may be worth checking quality / timings with Procurement senior management, although there’s a risk of self exclusion within that.

2. Read the whole thing if possible ( note: some on-line systems completely prevent the development of context, much to the detriment of the process)

Getting a sense of the overall direction and approach being used gives a sense of the narrative which you’ll need to be delivering within the RFP. Questions are sometimes repeated, or reinforced; sections might be written by different groups with no cross referencing; something surprising might be hidden in later sections. For each, make a note for yourself of the general approach to answering the question and the amount of detail needed. Once you’ve got to the end, then you should be able to tailor the edit to both minimise input time but optimise the story being told. The caveat here is system; some RFP systems won’t help you do this. See if you can get an Excel version of the whole thing to peruse to make it easier.

3. Understand the context of the RFP within the customer as a whole

Although there may be a discrete introduction, there may not be. How does the RFP fit into the recent history of the business, such as profit warning or increased orders, new territory activity or contraction, new brooms sweeping clean; if you have that overall arc of narrative clear, you should be able to link your replies back to that to make more sense of the whole.

4. Why were you asked to participate?

The sub-context here is ; is this a complete surprise? It helps to feel that you’re a likely competitor in the marketplace, or are you there as a make-weight or a stalking horse, aiming to draw a better price out of your competition. Now we’re getting into the realms of game theory: if you’re there to help pressurise an incumbent, is this an opportunity either to win the work ( with the costs of change associated with that) or are you now in a position to hurl a completely curved ball at a competitor? If it feels right and wholesome, then perhaps there is a real competition going on, particularly if it looks like the business is ready for change and challenge, and it’s a high quality process. Big indicator here, though. If the RFP process is cheap and shoddy, the chances of big change happening are remote, as the procurement capability is unlikely to be able to get a big change to happen

5. How will it be assessed?

This is a beauty. RFP’s need to be designed to be assessed. As such, they must be both readable and scoreable. If there is no way of analysing and weighing your answer to a question, likelihood is that it won’t be taken into account. If it feels like there is a way of assessing the answer (besides weighing the amount of print) then make sure you’re answering in a way that impacts that score. Bear in mind that sometimes the assessment is along the lines of ‘they sound like they are really thinking about this’, so being erudite and coherent is always a good policy. Beware questions that are so badly written that ‘yes’ is an entire reply.

6. What’s the business need or want for each question?

Grab your hats. this is the core of the issue. Each question should be targeted at a specific need the customer has, and therefore, analysing that need or want will help you understand the underlying thrust of the RFP. As an example, questions about consignment stock are unlikely to be there for amusement; a core drive to stock elimination is in place and answers which allude to that both directly and indirectly help. However, there needs to be a balance maintained, as some requirements will have more weight than others. Trying to build a picture of that balance, and getting your story to match, is a key to this.

7. Who’s on their team?

If you can, work out who’s been involved in assembling the RFP. Knowing the key players gives you a sense of how the evaluation might be done and the way in which the answers need to be structured. It also balances against your view of priorities developed from understanding their needs and wants. If it all ties together, you’ve got a direction. If there’s something that stands out as odd – try to test why what is.

8. What’s the process going forward?

Understanding what happens next is key. The RFP is going to be read in depth by a small number of people; one is a possible answer here. So, going forward, there will be some level of assessment, a reduced group is likely to be invited to a beauty parade, and that’s what you need to get to. If that isn’t the process, this may be your only chance to impress ( actually, even if it is the process!). Try to get some idea of steps and timings, which allows you to build answers that both allow an evaluation but also provide a hook into your next presentation, and the key areas you want to address. The big issue for sales teams at this stage is often not having in place a way of asking questions of the customer from which a general direction can be identified; this is why RFP analysis is so critical.

9. What does your procurement department say?

If you’re stuck for ideas, go talk to people in your business who do this stuff; walk them through it and get their ideas (or call me!) There may be wrinkles in the whole process that are worth thinking about, so getting an Inside Track may be an appropriate thing to do, and your procurement team are your in house experts.

10. What’s the depth of answer needed?

From all the above, you should now be able to build a picture of what is required, from the direction of response required, through to the depth of answers needed, and the individual take-aways for each section and answer. Remember, the recipients need a way of evaluating the answer and as such, there needs to be an answer that is clear enough for that purpose. Attaching a marketing sheet to the document can work as an addition, but less so if it’s the only thing available.

With all of that to think about, often in limited time frames, it is amazing that good quality RFP’s are created and replied to at all. However, taking time to think about the process which sits behind the RFP, and the way in which the best replies can be created, is clearly core to increasing our chances of advancing a level in the sales process.

Mark Hubbard has worked in Purchasing and Procurement for more than 25 years and thinks about how this and sales interfaces at www.smartbrowndog.com

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About Mark Hubbard

I set up a specialist purchasing consultancy and a business focussing on seeking innovation. I work all over the world with clients, helping purchasing teams develop new ways of delivering value for their businesses. I love thinking about how purchasing works, and how it can be better, and I'd love to share some of those thoughts with you
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