Small Business Trends

How to Respond to an RFP

Published by in Small Business Trends

Responding to a request for proposals (RFP) seems like a basic task, but it could be the turning point in your business’s growth. Proposals are the cover letter and resume for your business. Every time you submit a proposal, you’re effectively applying to a new job.

In the same way that a cover letter beginning with “Hey You Guys” or a resume that includes “Corpy Editing Skillz” can ruin your chances, poor presentation in a proposal can wreck your RFP win percentage.

Today, we’ll look at how to better understand a proposal, how to structure a response (which software can help with), and then we’ll finish off with a few tricks to take your proposals to the next level.

respond to an rfp

A deeper understanding of RFPs

There are basics to an RFP that every business replying will focus on – the scope of the work, timeline, budget, and portfolio of work all jump to mind. This is the same basic list you’d include if you were applying for any job. What can you do, when can you do it, how much does it cost, and what have you done in the past?

I’m going to assume that you can tease these details out of the request, especially since these are almost all labeled in the document.

If you want to start excelling at proposal writing, you need to look at the other sections in the RFP. What does this organization’s history look like? Who’s running things? What are the long-term goals and hurdles evident in the request?

New Media Campaigns has a guide to writing a web design RFP that I suggest you take a run through. Pay special attention to the “Why it’s important” sections that dot the guide. For instance, an organization’s background is important because it makes it “more likely [that the requester will] find an organization that’s a good value fit both for [its] goals and processes.”

That’s not just a tip for the writer of an RFP, it’s a tip for the responder as well. Your business is uniquely positioned to help a business, and explaining how they fit perfectly with you is a big part of a successful proposal.

A close reading of the RFP can also help you figure out how to structure your pitch. Let’s jump back to job applicants for a second. One of the most common interview mistakes I see first-time applicants make is failing to understand what value I want out of them.

They love Capterra’s culture. They like the flexibility. They are super nice. They want to work with smart people. They say these things over and over in the interview, but that’s not what I need out of an employee – that’s the lowest hurdle to clear for employment.

When you draft up a proposal, think about the specific solution you bring the customer, not just about how generally neat you are. They have problem X and they want to solve it. What have they said in the RFP that clues you into how they want it solved? I bet the answer isn’t “They want to work with a neat company.”

Paying attention to details about long-term goals and organizational structures can be the difference between winning and losing.

Plan, plan, and plan

If I had to rename this blog – it’s called Knocking Down Doors, by the way – I’d rename it “Planning for Profit” or something similar. Somewhere close to nine out of ten business issues can be cleared up with some simple planning.

Once you’ve ripped up the RFP and squeezed every drop of insight out of it, it’s time to organize the information you’ve got. PandaDoc says that proposals should be easy to digest and as short as you can manage. I’m going to take a slightly more Orwellian stance and reiterate his claim that “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.”

Keeping your prose clean can only happen if you plan it out ahead of time. Speaking off the cuff is a nice skill to have, but it’s not how you give a presentation. Match your words to the needs of the RFP and feel free to mirror the request’s language. If it says “payment gateway” and you’d normally say “payment processor,” do yourself a favor and stick with “gateway.”

Again, you can’t manage any of this without first understanding what the proposal is seeking to address. To make it easy, here’s a basic layout for your proposal, summarized from RFP365.

  1. Tell them what they want. This is where you prove that you understood the goals of the project and focus in on the things that matter most.
  2. Tell them who you are. This is a resume of who you’ll be bringing in on the project and why they fit the need. Focus on experience that mirrors the needs presented in the first section.
  3. Give an overview of the timeline and costs. Bring in any milestones set out in the RFP and make sure you’ve built a plausible plan. Clearly explain how your pricing and billing work and how payments will be made.
  4. Give them the details. Here you lay out the bigger stuff. Who’s going to be doing what and how are they going to get it done? What are the potential problems with hitting the milestones and how can you mitigate them? Be optimistic about your skills but never sugarcoat problems.
  5. Show off your previous work. The resume to your proposal’s cover letter. “Here are the five organizations like yours that we’ve helped in the past.”

If you stick to this basic layout, you can focus your efforts on the content of the proposal instead of its form.

Three tricks to win more jobs

If I had to rename this blog – it’s called Knocking Down Doors, by the way – I’d rename it “Communicating for Cash” or something similar.

If you want to win more proposals on a consistent basis, you can’t just leave it at reading the RFP and drafting up a response. That’s a great way to get a few jobs, but not the way to really grow your business.

Back again to job seekers. If you really want a job, what’s more, valuable than knowing someone on the inside? That friend that can push your resume forward, talk about how smart you are to the hiring manager and tell you what the company really needs.

  • The first step to winning more jobs is to reach out to the organization before the proposal is submitted. Talk to the point of contact, meet with anyone that will talk to you, and get a point-of-contact that you can talk to and get answers from.
    The more you understand the real needs of an organization, the more likely it is they’ll look favorably on your proposal. It’s not going to hurt you to have at least met some of the decision-makers, either.
  • Trick number two, treat it like a competition – it is one. Remember the guy who just talked about how cool he was without understanding the business needs I had? He is going to lose the job 100 percent of the time to the guy who comes in and talks about his awesome ideas for making Capterra a better place.
    That guy knows that I have to choose between him and five other people, so he treats the interview like a place to show off what he knows and to make a case that he’s the one person that can solve my problems.
    A proposal should be designed to get you the job, not just to put your name in the hat. Talking to people at the organization – or in your networking community – can help you get an idea of who else is interested in the job. Overcome your shortcomings before they become an issue.
    Your business is smaller or younger or uses Macs instead of PCs or whatever the discrepancy is. Figure out if you can turn it into a selling point. If you can’t, at least address it and demonstrate that it’s not going to affect your ability to complete the job.
  • Finally, put some pizazz into it. You don’t need to send a box of chocolates or enlist any gimmicks to win a job, but it doesn’t hurt to match your proposal to the business you run.
    If you’re all about your team, include some headshots in the proposal. Add beautiful pictures of your previous work. Lay the document out like you care about it, not like you just downloaded the first template that popped up in Google. Find a way to make your proposal memorable without making it saccharine.

Anything you can do to go above and beyond – meeting people, fighting for the job, putting your best foot forward – is going to help. The more you put into the offer, the more you’re likely to get out of it.

One last step

For the love of dogs, have someone edit the thing. Pay someone to edit it. There is nothing more infuriating than getting a lovely, well-researched, proposal and then having it be riddled with errors. No amount of communication beforehand is going to change someone’s mind when you’ve turned in a “Propoasl.”

Other than that, you should be ready to roll. If you’ve had good luck with any tips you’re willing to share, drop a line in the comments or shoot me an email. Good luck.

Looking for Proposal Management software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Proposal Management software solutions.

About the Author

Andrew Marder

Andrew Marder

Andrew Marder is a former Capterra analyst.


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