Writing a Winning Response to an RFP
How to Gain an Edge in the B2B Space
When it comes to doing business between companies, typically referred to as business-to-business, or B2B, most opportunities and contracts are generated through a process of bid solicitation. Companies looking to contract services or support will often issue what is known as a Request for Proposal (RFP) to seek information from various companies and suppliers who they believe can do the job. In order to be successful at responding to such opportunities, you will want to respond to a RFPs with an effective, well structured, and winning proposal.
There are three main types of contract documents that you will encounter as a business development or product manager:
Request for Information (RFI) – An RFI is typically issued ahead of the time when an organization is exploring supplier options, and plan to establish a contract at a later date. An RFI will often be used to gather information about what can be offered by various firms, notional timing and costs for delivery of the project, as well as to establish an understanding of what prospective suppliers can offer. RFI responses and feedback are often used to help a prospective client revise their requirements or make changes to the scope of work before issuing a more detailed RFP.
Statement of Work (SOW) – A Statement of Work is a document issued by the client that outlines the scope of activities, required deliverables and desired timing to prospective suppliers. In general, a SOW differs from an RFI and RFP in that it will typically outline very specific requirements that must be satisfied by the supplier.
Request for Proposal (RFP) – An RFP is formal document that is issued to prospective suppliers and partners, seeking a formal proposal and pricing for a given project. An RFP may be issued in conjunction with a SOW, or may be a stand alone document to which suppliers respond.
RFIs, SOWs and RFPs are the most common types of subcontracting documents used in B2B contracting. And while each has its intended purpose, you might encounter any combination of them depending on your industry. However, the overall intent of each of them is to understand capabilities of vendors and suppliers, such that the client can gain a comparison of each firm and make a selection. Thus, you will want to put your best foot forward and put together a winning proposal when responding to an RFP.
Responding to an RFP
Now that we’ve highlighted some of the basic types of documents that you’ll encounter in B2B contracting, let’s turn our attention to generating a winning RFP (or a SOW, or an RFI) response. First, be sure to craft your proposal carefully such that it goes above and beyond the basic expectations of the response. You will want your proposal to showcase your company’s capabilities because in many instances, your response may be the only thing that the contracting organization will use to award a contract.
It should go without saying that a well-developed proposal should be organized in a coherent manner and free from typos and other writing errors. Written proposals should carry a formal and professional tone to signify the level of care and thoroughness taken by your firm as a whole. In the eyes of the supply chain or purchasing agent, the quality of the RFP response is indicative of the quality of work they can expect from your firm if given the contract. Moreover, such things as formatting, labeling of tables and images, and overall accuracy of information are highly important as they are direct indications of your firm’s product quality and attention to detail. To say it differently, even the best information packaged into a poorly drafted document will simply weaken your firm’s position when it comes to winning business opportunities.
A Sample Framework for Your RFP Response
In some cases, the SOW or RFP issued from the client will dictate a specific format or means by which the response should be submitted. However, this is not usually the case, leaving it up to you. In the absence of a pre-defined RFP response format, we recommend using the following outline to help get you started.
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The front matter of a proposal should include a Table of Contents, a list of figures and tables, a list of relevant and related documents, and a definition of the proposal’s scope. Defining the scope of your response is critical, as it clearly states the bounds of your proposal. Further, when writing an RFP response, include an overview of your company or organization, as well as examples of your firm’s pedigree and experience with similar projects. Doing so assures new clients that your firm has the ideal skills, experience and resources to do the work, and are able to provide the value they seek.
Following the introductory paragraphs, switch to providing a detailed outline of the approach your firm plans to take in delivering against the contract. Outlining a detailed approach in an RFP response allows the prospective client to better understand how the firm plans to execute the project. Doing so also ensures the client that you fully understand the requirements and objectives, and gives the client a chance to clarify anything that may have not be fully understand by your firm.
The Approach section allows your firm to showcase its expertise and skill. Depending on the size and scale of a project, you should consider including a proposed organizational chart as well as brief biographies (academic credentials, years of experience, types of projects worked in the past) of the employees who will be assigned to the project. Including such information is particularly useful when working with foreign clients who may be less familiar with your firm, and often gives the client confidence in the firm’s ability to deliver a quality product.
Deliverables and Schedule:
Following the plan of action, the next part of your written RFP response should provide a clear statement of the deliverables and outputs to be provided to the client. This will again serve as a mechanism by which the client and your firm can agree on the details of scope and expectations during ensuing discussions.
Depending on your industry, deliverables may include written documents, client-facing meetings and other milestones as appropriate for the opportunity. As part of your RFP proposal, you may want to offer more than the client is asking for as a gesture of your willingness to partner with them. For instance, you may want to offer free hardware for testing purposes, training to the client’s staff, or some other gesture of goodwill as it relates to the client’s needs and the project.
Perhaps the most important of any RFP response and written business proposal are the assumptions made, or exceptions you are taking to the RFP requirements. Towards the end of the document, include a list of assumptions that highlight any open questions and concerns you may have. The reason such a list is so important is because when prospective clients are unable to provide complete set of project details, assumptions help protect your firm from unknown conditions. For instance, if a client were unable to provide a clear timescale in which the work needed to be completed, you should provide an assumed completion date based on the resource plan you’ve stated earlier in the proposal. You should also offer, however, that alternate completion dates are possible, as mutually agreed to by both parties to make sure you client sees you are flexible on your offering.
Depending on the specific RFP, include a section for general recommendations in your RFP response to your client. Again, when it comes to establishing a strong relationship with a potential client, willingness to provide recommendations and initial feedback indicates your firm has their interests in mind and is able to provide real, tangible value to them. Further, the ability to provide some initial recommendations assures clients that your firm can help further define the client’s needs when they are is unsure.
On this point, some business development managers are unwilling or do not prefer to offer recommendations without a contract in place, as such ideas could be taken and passed onto your competitor. While this is certainly true, in more modern B2B environments companies are looking more for strategic and long-term partners. Offering some form of basic advice and feedback, therefore, can help differentiate your RFP response and offering beyond just the price.
In many cases, pricing information is provided as a separate document, typically a cover letter, and serves as an attachment to the formal RFP response. However, you may wish to embed such information in the written proposal itself. The pricing information should provide the fees, both recurring and non-recurring as necessary, as well as payment terms and currency. Depending on the work or the industry, it may also include things like escalation clauses and other assumptions related to pricing a given opportunity.
To summarize for you, winning RFP responses should be professionally written and showcase your firm’s abilities. Further, your written proposals should also indicate a level of flexibility and willingness to adapt to a given client’s needs and express an interest in partnering with them in the future. An effective RFP response will clearly outline your approach, your assumptions and a summary of recommendations for further discussion. Finally, RFP responses should be customized to each of your clients, and be written with the goal of getting to a negotiation table in mind.
So go out there and win some business!