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Responding to Requests for Proposals

Building an agency one request for proposal (RFP) at a time is a painful and potentially humiliating way to grow a business. And while winning without pitching means not playing the RFP game, there’s more subtlety to the approach than simply saying no and feeling good about yourself all the way to bankruptcy. In this long-overdue issue of the Win Without Pitching Newsletter I address the specific steps to take in dealing with requests for proposals.

The Four Priorities of Securing New Business

Before I address the specifics of RFP responses, let’s recap the four priorities of how you want to go about getting new business.

1. Win Without Pitching

Through a proactive selling strategy, you ultimately strive to secure new engagements before they get to competitive situations, before you are asked to part with your thinking without appropriate compensation.

2. Derail the Pitch

When you cannot win without pitching and the prospect lets you know that he is talking to other firms and has a defined selection process in place, your objective is to derail the pitch: to get the prospect to put aside his process and take a series of small steps with you.

3. Get the Inside Track

When you cannot derail the pitch, your objective is to gain the inside track – to gain concessions in the selection process that would see your firm being treated differently than the others. Someone almost always has the inside track. If it’s not your firm, it’s another and the odds are against you.

4. Pitch or Walk

You will secure new business through one of the means above only if the prospect recognizes and values your expertise. If he does not, then it’s decision time. Do you preserve your integrity and future business opportunities by walking away, or do you get out the dogs, ponies and dancing girls and play the pitch game, against the long odds? If you do decide to walk (as I recommend) it’s important that you do so properly in order to preserve future opportunities.

Step One: Why Us?

When an RFP comes in for work that is well suited to your expertise, your first response is to pick up the phone and ask, why us? In doing so you are endeavoring to determine if the prospect recognizes and values your expertise. What you want to hear is, “You come highly recommended by ____”, or “We love the work you did for ______.” What you do not want to hear is, “We Googled ‘ad agency’” or “We sent this RFP to every firm we know.” Be selective and strive to be seen to be selective.

Step Two: Say No

After digging deep to determine whether or not the prospect recognizes and values your expertise you then deliver the first objection: “I need to let you know that we don’t typically respond to RFPs.” Any objection you raise can always be removed by you at a later date. Here you are trying to gauge the flexibility in process the prospect might afford you; their willingness to let you derail the pitch or offer you the inside track. Continue with, “But, before I say no, let me you ask you a few questions.” These would be your questions around explicit need, and the fit between the prospect’s need and your expertise. What are they looking for in an agency? Do they see that expertise in your firm? Poor fits might be put off by this reversal of the qualification process (you trying to determine if they qualify), but good fits and good clients will appreciate your selectivity.

Step Three: Substitute Appropriate Next Steps

Here’s where you ignore what has been asked of you in writing and suggest a next step that is in line with what is almost always your stated objective: to determine if there is a fit between the prospect’s need and your expertise suitable enough to take a next step together.

“Why don’t we come and see you and your team” (if they’re local – use the web if they are not) “and in 45 minutes or so we can determine if there’s a suitable enough fit to pursue this.” If they’re sticking to their process and denying you your suggested next step, then you will not be able to derail and it’s unlikely you will gain the inside track. Then it’s time to walk – step seven below. Note that the appropriate next step is not always a meeting. It might be a needs assessment, or more information in other forms.

Step Four: Use Case Studies

If you do get the meeting you begin with stating your objective: to determine if there is a fit between the prospect’s need and your expertise suitable enough to take a next step together. Now walk through your case studies of how you’ve helped companies like theirs solve challenges like their own. I have written extensively on the crafting of these process-framed case studies that demonstrate a defined way of working and allow you to stay on the right side of the line that separates talking about how you would solve the prospect’s problem from actually solving their problem. Use them here.

Step Five: Suggest Another Way

After reviewing your cases studies that should prove that you actually use the process you talk about on your website and in your brochure, you then check to see if the prospect still sees a fit. Can they see themselves benefiting from the consistent outcomes your demonstrated methodology implies? If so, suggest a phased engagement as an alternative next step.

Instead of committing the entire budget to your firm at this time, a phased engagement (usually a diagnostic in some form that let’s you get to the heart of the opportunity and prescribe a strategy, plan and budget). The phased engagement allows the prospect to take a small first step with you to try on the fit. Add in an opt-out clause (“At the end of the first phase, if you think you’ve made a mistake in engaging us we can part company and you can go back to your RFP”) and a money-back guarantee, and your proposition is a compelling one. When yours is the right firm for the job, this approach is a viable alternative to the client’s selection process in which a number of firms are asked to take on risk instead of just one.

If the prospect does not see the value in your offer then it’s time to walk. You’re not likely to win the business anyway. If they like what they see but are sticking to the process and want your written proposal, now’s the time to reassert that you are not in the proposal writing business. The relevant, detailed case study that you’ve just shown them, is your proposal. “We propose to do this (case study) for you.” Remember, the proposal is the words that come out of your mouth. The document is the contract that is produced only once the proposal is agreed upon in principle.

Step Six: Seek Concessions

If the prospect is demonstrating that they recognize and value your expertise, that they really think yours is the right firm for the job, but for reasons of policy or politics they need to go through the RFP process, then it’s time to see if they will walk their talk and show you the inside track by allowing you concessions to the RFP process. It’s negotiating time. Concessions can be made on costs (will they pay your travel costs or pay you fairly for work they’re asking of you?), on what you will submit as an RFP response (case studies versus free thinking) or a host of other areas. If the prospect is willing to treat you differently then it may make sense to proceed on the newly negotiated terms.

Step Seven: Walk… For Now

No concessions, no inside track, means it’s time to walk, but with a polite professionalism that will preserve any future opportunities. “It doesn’t seem like there’s a fit here. Why don’t you go ahead with your RFP process and if you don’t find what you’re looking for, feel free to give us a call. We’d be happy to have another conversation with you at that point.”

People want what they cannot have. Walk away in this manner and see if the phone rings after the usually flawed RFP process runs its course. Occasionally the prospect will call back, and when they do you will be in the driver’s seat. If they do not, then call them in a month or two and ask how they made out. If the prospect hired an agency and is perfectly happy with that firm then congratulate them, wish them luck, and tell them you’ll check in with them down the road to see if you can be of assistance in another manner, on another day. There is always another day and if you’ve handled the departure properly you will be better positioned for that day.