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Best practices for Proposal Writers to create winning RFP responses

Most People Don’t Like Writing Proposals

It seems a bit inflammatory to say, I know, but hear me out. Due to the nature of the beast, proposal writing naturally has a negative connotation to it. Perhaps it’s because a Request for Proposal (RFP) can range anywhere in size from 10 to 100 pages. And, whereas some are issued by known and cultivated prospects or customers, many are cold leads, which means the odds of winning can be lower depending on the competition. It’s not uncommon for the timescales to compile and complete your response to be challenging either because of the number of stakeholders involved, existing commitments, holidays or late participation ahead of a tight deadline. This can lead to low morale and hesitation among proposal writers. 

From my experience, I can tell you that there needs to be a cheerleader at the top level to instill a sense of urgency and provide validation that proposals are indeed worth the sweat and tears. 

There also needs to be an alignment of expectations between all the departments/teams involved across Sales, Pre-sales, Service, Solutions , Legal and the RFP Manager. Scheduling time in everyone’s calendar to review their assigned questions can be tricky, so it’s best to give plenty of advance notice. I like to set deadlines a few days before the RFP response is due to give ample time for editing and proofing, with checkpoints along the way to ensure everyone is on track, aligned on any cross-references and to address any concerns. 

Less is More

When writing an RFP, it’s best to keep in mind who your audience is, especially when dealing with government entities. Many times, a government request for proposal will come in the form of spreadsheets or structured templates with no room for deviation. Fluffy marketing copy is not asked for or appreciated. Governments want to know how you can solve their problems not how great your company is. Stick to the questions at hand—there is room to expand on your solution or add case studies in the Executive Summary, or appendix. 

Lean on the Experts

Leveraging the expertise of your team members is a best practice that every proposal writer should follow.  There is no shame in asking for help or additional information when your knowledge of a subject area is limited. For example, questions about product development, system architecture or infrastructure are best handled by your company’s Development or Product Management teams, while questions about implementations, how the solution functions and specific features should be directed to the Solutions team. Sometimes, the answer already exists in your content repository, in which case a simple review for accuracy is all that is needed. 

Build your Content Database

Speaking of content, building, and maintaining a robust database of responses to common RFP questions can save you a lot of time and ensures consistency across proposals. As mentioned earlier, rely on the expertise of your subject matter experts to answer the more specific or complex questions, and don’t forget to periodically sweep the database and request confirmation that the answer is up to date and still relevant. If time permits, having a different person review proposals as simply a proof reader to catch any typos and possible inconsistencies can be invaluable for busy teams. It also provides updates to your existing RFP database content. Remember, the more robust the database, the less you need to rely on co-workers for answers, which will make everyone happy.

Automation comes in handy when trying to build your library. Much of the RFP management software out there has parsing capabilities and analytics built in to help recognize questions and automatically populate answers when appropriate. This translates into less time spent scouring past proposals and reinventing the wheel. 

Find Out Why you Lost a Bid

This isn’t always easy, given the bureaucratic nature of some commercial and Government organizations. In fact, more times than not, correspondence falls into a black hole and follow-up efforts are fruitless. This is especially the case when no previous sales relationship has been established with the client. Sometimes the only announcement that a bid has been awarded is on the client’s procurement web site and no additional information is provided. However, with persistence, a dedicated Sales Representative may be able to uncover the real reason why a bid was lost. This intelligence can then be used to inform future decision-making regarding things like resources, product enhancements, or pricing (which happens to be one of the most common reasons why bids are rejected).  Discovering why a bid was won is equally important when it comes to understanding your company’s strengths and leveraging this information in future bids. 

Make Sure you Comply with ALL RFP Requirements

So, you’ve spent weeks putting together a solid proposal that appears to check off all the boxes in terms of addressing the client’s project objectives, only to find out later that it was thrown out on a technicality. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of following instructions exactly how they are stated in the client’s RFP.  And I’m not just talking about deadlines and submission requirements having to do with the presentation and organization of content. I’m referring to the pages and pages of legal Terms and Conditions that require review and approval along with an abundance of forms that need to be signed and notarized. To manage all of this, you must first review, with a fine-tooth comb, all the contents within the RFP—yes even if it’s 100 pages. RFP management software can help with this as well, as many products come with built-in parsing engines that extract the most pertinent parts of the RFP, including the legal and compliance sections. 

Workflow management is your best friend when it comes to assigning and tracking compliance tasks. And the sooner these tasks are delegated to the appropriate stakeholders, the better, since these can be the most time consuming of all proposal preparation activities. A transparent task management system can prove invaluable for sending alerts and notifications when deadlines are approaching as well as calendar functionality for identifying past due dates. 

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