Improve your RFP responses by coloring outside the lines

RFP Responses

If you love responding to RFPs, you might want to skip this and go get a cup of coffee instead.

If you don’t, well, I hear you. As an engineer I used to write government or agency RFP responses. I’ve assessed them as a public employee. I talk shop with other people who assess them. And I now consult with clients about their own responses.

One thing comes out as a near universal truth: They are awful to read…and they are usually awful to write.

Let me be clear: In most cases, the responses are technically fine, in that they meet all the requirements stipulated in the RFP. (If they don’t, that’s a whole different issue.)

But a response that just ticks all the boxes is like a like a paint-by-numbers painting.

They’re both technically complete. But neither of them is art. Neither has personality or soul or the ability to inspire feeling or action.

This may not be a problem for a painting you’ll hang in a child’s room. But it is a problem for an RFP response. Because you want to inspire action. You want the committee to pick you.

So, stop thinking of an RFP response as a paint-by-numbers piece and start thinking about it more artfully.

Start thinking of it as a sales document. Because that’s what it is.

But it’s not just a sales document.

A response serves nearly all the functions of a sales cycle—a cycle that might take months or years under a normal B2B customer journey. But the response needs to do it all in a very short amount of time. With a page limit.

If thinking about a response as your whole sales funnel crammed into one document makes you feel worse, it shouldn’t. Because this kind of approach gives you a direction and a focus.

In a normal sales cycle, you:

  1. Start with an introduction to the potential client. Maybe you point out a problem they didn’t know they had.
  2. Begin building a relationship.
  3. Get more technical as they express interest. Continue building the relationship.
  4. Close the sale, after you have earned their trust in you and your solution.

The good news: they’ve issued an RFP, so they already know they have a problem and are actively looking for a solution. So, you can cross Item 1 off the list.

The challenge: the rest of the list. Here’s how to think about it.

How do I build the relationship?

The best place to start the relationship building is—funnily enough—at the beginning, with your cover letter.

Most cover letters follow a similar format. A paragraph about how pleased you are to submit the proposal. Paragraphs about your company. Paragraphs why you’re confident you’re perfect for this RFP.

Boring! Aside from making every cover letter sound the same, there’s a bigger problem:

The focus is on you, not your reader. It should be the other way around.

You aren’t going to close the sale in your cover letter, so don’t waste the space. Instead, use it to show you understand your audience and what they need. Get them interested in knowing more about you because you’re interested in them. Start building the relationship.

Continue addressing their needs and their concerns through the RFP response.

What DO they need?

RFPs and procurement are a pain in the neck for any organization. That means they’re feeling bigger pain elsewhere, so dig into that.

There will be clues in the RFP. But don’t just consider the rational “surface” pain; dig a little deeper.

For example, if the RFP is for a software migration to the cloud, there are a lot of practical reasons to do it. But underlying these practical issues are people. Ask yourself who is losing sleep because this solution doesn’t exist and why. Explain how you solve that problem, too.

Many proposal responses I’ve seen are feature-focused (what you do). The benefits (why the reader cares) are left to the reader to supply. Don’t assume they will.

I know it seems (to you) incredibly obvious what the benefits are to your amazing solution’s features. But if you leave it up to the readers, they might not make the connection. Or they’ll make a leap you hadn’t considered…and it may not be to your benefit. Spell it out for them. Make their job easy.

Who am I talking to?

One of the basic tenets of successful sales copy is to understand your target reader and write to that reader. 

For a normal sales piece, you know—or should know—who this is. Are you trying to reach a CEO? The CFO? The corporate attorney? A project manager? An in-the-weeds technician?

In an RFP response, the approval committee may include all of them.

So, what do you do?

If the RFP doesn’t spell out the make-up of the review committee, ask about it in the pre-proposal question period.

Whether you get a response or not, you’ll still need to make a call on who will most benefit from the solution (or who will have the most pull on the committee). Write mostly to that person… but don’t ignore the other readers.

Start with an executive summary, if the RFP allows it. You can present your understanding of their needs and your solution in the least technical way. And since it’s short, it’s more likely to be read in full by non-specialists.

Then, outline the most widely appealing narrative of your solution. Use that as the base of the proposal. Add in the more technical, detailed, “weedy” sections where needed, but consider how you can offset them:

  • Graphics: If the details are data-based, well-thought-out graphs, charts, or infographics help convey a lot of information in a reader-friendly way. Keep graphics simple.
  • Boxes & Side Bars: Think about a long print magazine article. There are inset boxes or sidebars to share tangential information or to go more in-depth on a topic. They cover important points that that just don’t fit into the flow of the rest of the piece. BONUS: If there’s a part of your solution that might appeal to only one committee member, like the CFO, you can give that benefit its own space to shine in a sidebar—and let that committee member know you get what they care about.
  • Headings & Subheadings: If the requirements of the RFP don’t allow special formatting, you can still separate the detailed parts out under their own subheadings.

Headings and subheadings help on another level as well. They catch the eye and act as guideposts for your reader. And they are especially helpful for the skimmers.

And speaking of skimming, if there’s no way around being super-technical throughout most of the document, realize the non-specialists will skim more than they read.

Using good writing practices to help them absorb as much as possible as they’re scanning. This also helps those doing deeper reading as well.

How do I help my reader?

Recently I worked on a pre-proposal document. The background materials I received had sentences so packed with business and technical jargon they were impossible to understand. I couldn’t tell in some cases what the nouns and verbs were supposed to be. And the paragraphs went on forever.

It was like reading an overly complicated dissertation. Don’t do that to your reader.

The committee is made of human beings. And they have a lot of responses to read. None of them want to read textbooks—not even the technical people. They certainly don’t want to read a lot of textbooks.

Strive to be readable and relatable. The easier your proposal is to read, the more likely it is to be read. And having your proposal read is important to making your case. So:

  • Simplify your language: A Princeton study found that needless use of long words makes you sound less intelligent. Don’t use a complicated word when a simple one will do. Believe me, no one is reading your document saying to themselves, they really should’ve used “disambiguate” instead of “clarify.”
  • Simplify your sentences: Short sentences are easier to understand. And they’re less likely to require rereading.
  • Simplify your paragraphs. Long blocks of text feel tiring before you even start reading. Short paragraphs look friendlier and keep the reader moving along.

If you’re thinking these practices will leave less room for text, they will.

But “more words” does not mean “more understandable words.” If you’re choosing your words carefully and making your sentences count, you won’t need as many words to get your message across.

You might also be thinking that pulling together an RFP response is already a huge drain on resources. And that reframing your thinking and incorporating these tips will take more even more time—especially the first time you do it.

And, you’re right.

But the review committee is going to get a lot of paint-by-numbers responses. And they will all start to look the same.

So, if you turn in a response that shows you understand them, and you present your solution or company a way they can effortlessly read (and understand), well, it will be easier for them to advocate for your company during discussion.

And that, my friends, is art.