The Beginner’s Guide to the RFP Process: How to Win Big at One of the Most Dreaded Challenges in Sales


Ah, the dreaded RFP… I have heard rumors that some Sales Reps LOVE a good RFP, especially if their product is extremely unique or leaps and bounds ahead of the competition. For most of us, however, RFPs are our worst nightmare.

They signal A LOT of work for a small chance of winning, especially if you are in a competitive space and have a product with nuanced benefits that are hard to explain via a questionnaire (which is what an RFP doc is).

On the bright side, knowing a company is going out for RFP often means that the deal will be much larger in size, which can make it worth spending the time answering questions and going through the process.

In this article, we’re going to do a deep dive into RFPs — what they are, why companies use them, when you should do one, and how you can set yourself to win!

What Is an RFP?

RFP stands for Request for Proposal, and it’s pretty much what it says. It’s a formal document from a company issuing an open invitation for proposals and bids to solve a specific problem.

The RFP will usually include a detailed summary of what the company is looking for, any requirements or limitations, and how the proposals should be formatted and submitted.

These are very formal documents, usually issued by government agencies or large corporations.

Why Do Companies Issue RFPs?

So, let’s take a quick step back here to understand WHY companies even issue RFPs in the first place.

The RFP came along with the invention of procurement departments and agencies. The idea was to ensure that large companies were getting good rates across the board for the products and services they were buying.

Procurement departments were meant to take the hassle and burden of fulfilling requirements and negotiating with vendors off business owners.

In my opinion, though, it’s backfired significantly on businesses — especially large ones.

The RFP process adds decision makers and influencers to the sales process that aren’t close to, or aware of, how the product will actually be implemented and used. They haven’t walked in the beneficiary’s shoes, so it is often difficult for them to conceptualize certain benefits. And they may see critical features as just a nice-to-have.

The other unforeseen side effect is that many procurement departments have made the RFP process a one-size-fits-all thing.

Steps are often carried out that add no value to the decision making process and add significant time to the evaluation process. All the while, the financial benefits of purchasing this type of product are lost.

Technology, in particular, is often a victim of the RFP process. A company will spend 6-12 months just making a decision on a product when, in a year or two, the technology might be obsolete.

All that being said, RFP’s and procurement departments are here to stay. So, it is best not to lament on the downsides and instead carve out opportunities to win.

Should You Participate in an RFP?

At the end of the day, deciding whether you should participate in an RFP or not is something you should weigh heavily. They are extremely time-consuming, and can be a big gamble.

These are the questions you should ask yourself before diving into an RFP.

How much interaction have I had with the business beneficiaries of this RFP?

How much in-person interaction will I get to have with the business beneficiaries, decision makers, and influencers of this RFP?

Is my product a perfect fit for this business? If not, how critical are those elements you can’t fulfill?

What is the initial tone of the person issuing the RFP? Are they a “play by the books stickler,” or are they someone that is going to help you in the process?

Every company will have different risk-tolerances for these kinds of high-risk, high-reward deals. So, sit down with your team, consider these questions, and find out how comfortable you are with the risk of pushing forward with the process.

Can You Convince Them NOT to Do an RFP?

When a sales rep hears that a prospect they’ve been talking to will be issuing an RFP it can be deflating — especially if they’ve already spent a reasonable amount of time with that client.

Many sales reps simply take the news and sadly march forward with their RFP process.

However, this isn’t your only option. There is nothing wrong with pushing back on your prospect’s plan to issue an RFP. As discussed previously, the RFP process is an extremely antiquated one at best, in my opinion.

Challenging your customer on this idea is often a good idea, especially if you have any sort of relationship with the prospect. In my experience, I’ve found that I can convince them not to go down the RFP path about 30-40% of the time.

The other 60-70% of the time, the RFP process is out of the business beneficiaries’ control, and there is no way around it. In that case, fighting them will only alienate you from your potential RFP champion.

Challenging your prospect

So how do you challenge your prospect on issuing an RFP? Well, you need to have done a good job with discovery to begin with.

Understanding your prospect’s needs and challenges — as well as their degree of urgency — is critical to making a convincing and compelling argument for ditching the RFP process.

It is important to lay out the timeline for them, and then work backwards. For example:

Mrs. Prospect, you told me you need to increase revenue by 20% this year. The holidays are your biggest selling season, and our product can impact your ability to do XYZ to prepare. Our solution takes roughly 3 months to implement and go live. That means if you purchased in the next 30 days, you would have 4 months on our technology, setting you up for a successful holiday season to meet your goals.

If you go down the RFP process, that could add an additional 6 months, rendering any product you end up choosing useless in having an impact on your holiday season this year.

How important is hitting that 20% goal? What happens to you personally or to your department if you miss the goal?”

Framing the RFP process against their goals and how it will personally impact them negatively is a STRONG and convincing argument.

Even if RFP’s are considered the norm or an absolute in a company, there are often ways around it if the negative impact to the business is significant.

Your prospect might return a response like this to you:

It would impact us super negatively if we miss the 20% goal — I could even get fired. However, we have been told that we HAVE to issue an RFP, so I don’t know what to do.

This is where you can score some big points with your champion and really take control. Here is how you would respond:

I hear ya! The way I have seen people like yourself bypass the RFP process is by getting someone extremely senior involved that can trump the procurement process altogether. Who is the most senior person in your department for whom missing the 20% goal would be catastrophic to? Would it be <CMO NAME>? Are they peers with <HEAD OF PROCUREMENT> or above them from a seniority factor?

Let’s put these reasons down on paper so you can present to <CMO NAME.> I will draft something for you to make it easier, and then you can make it your own.”

The point of this is to make it easy for your prospect to make the argument and move away from the RFP.

If that doesn’t work, there is nothing lost because you always have the ability to participate or not in the RFP process.

The moral of the story is — you can’t stop the RFP unless you TRY to stop the RFP.

How Can You Set Yourself Up to Win an RFP?

Okay, so in the 60-70% of the time you can’t stop the RFP, there are still strategic moves you can make to increase your chances of winning the RFP.

At the beginning of the article, I mentioned weighing whether you should participate in the RFP altogether. One of those questions is, “How much interaction have you had with the business beneficiaries before the RFP is announced?

If the answer is “A LOT,” then you have a fantastic opportunity to heavily influence the RFP process.

When a business goes out to RFP, one of the requirements of the business is to write down ALL their requirements. This is a time consuming and lengthy process, especially if what they are looking to purchase has a lot of feature benefits.

This is where you can come in to save the day. Provide your client with a “Proactive RFP template” in which you write out the requirements they need to consider FOR them. This is extremely helpful and makes you the prospect’s best friend.

The other benefit of this strategy is that you are able to provide an RFP template that plays to your strengths and your known competitors’ weaknesses. You are able to add elements to the RFP that the client would never have considered and pose them as critical to the success of a solution they choose.

The client will make changes to your template, of course, but at the end of the day, you have done the heavy lifting, and, in my experience, it’s rare that they’ll make significant changes. Your prospects are busy, and the last thing they want to do is walk around, gathering and compiling requirements from all their peers.

The other option you have, especially if you have had very low interaction with the business beneficiaries before the RFP is issued, is just to proactively add strategic sections to the RFP.

We would do this all the time to showcase our expertise and ensure that we were getting across our products and services’ uniqueness.

If the RFP was missing a section on customer support, we would add it in and showcase what we offered. Clients almost always appreciated this and were grateful for the additional insight.

The point of these examples is that an RFP process may seem very rigid, but it can actually be extremely malleable if you play your cards right.

So, if you think the RFP needs more stuff, put it in there. I always like to inform the person who issued the RFP that I would be doing this to confirm that it was okay to do. I have NEVER encountered a time when they told me to only answer the questions they provided and nothing more.

What Is the Outline of a Typical Proactive RFP Template?

The point of creating a proactive RFP template is to make things easier for your customer. Therefore, you want to write it in their voice as much as possible. And make it easy for them to make adjustments or customizations as needed.

As I mentioned before, your customer is busy, and RFPs are time-consuming. The more you have written for them, the more likely they are to use exactly what you have provided. This means you can heavily shape every aspect of the RFP and have a massive leg up on the competition.

Below is the Format that I like to follow regardless of the product I am selling.

Problem: State the typical problem that customers are having. Use the information you’ve gathered during discovery to shape this.

Vision: State the vision of what the solution would look like and what it would solve for the business.

Company Background:

  • Name of Company
  • Number of Employees
  • Years in Business
  • Annual Revenue
  • # of Customers

Approach to Security: In this day and age, data security and a vendor’s approach are very important, and security is often an area that you differentiate.

Ensure to include a section that prompts your customer to ask potential vendors about their approach to security. This will help your customer weed out the companies that will be too much risk and liability based on immature security practices.

Product Features: This is a list of features and functions that are critical to implementation and success. Make sure to categorize the feature type questions if your product is complex.

And ensure that you outline things that are super important. For example, how you might handle data clean up or UX/UI. Think about what differentiates your product from your competitors and where you shine.

Ensure you are creating feature questions that will highlight how you are better.

Onboarding and Training: Make sure to have a section that prompts your customer to ask about a vendor’s approach to onboarding and training.

This is a critical piece to driving success for a customer, but it’s often not skipped in the RFP process. By highlighting it for them, they will often see how important having a vendor with a strong approach to onboarding and training is and give you a leg up against your competition.

Ongoing Customer Support: A section asking questions about long-term support is also very important and often overlooked by clients.

Costs: Of course, create a cost section and outline how the cost structure should work for this type of product. You can add in questions that are tailored toward your company’s cost structure and why it is strategic and beneficial. This is a great way to highlight the inadequacies of your competition.

Choose Wisely and Position Yourself for Victory

As you can see, RFPs are not for the faint of heart. However, winning the right RFP can not only be a big win for your company, but it can also be a big win for YOU!

So pick your battles carefully. Don’t dive into an RFP process until you’ve examined the opportunity and made sure you have a decent chance.

Then, stack the deck in your favor as much as possible. Lean on your connections, and do everything you can to make life easy for your prospect.

There’s no such thing as a 100% chance with something like this, but now you’re armed with the information you need to win more than you lose.

Good luck!

Emily Meyer is a tenured sales rep that has been selling in the high-tech industry for 10 years. Her secret sauce to success has always been a genuine curiosity and desire to truly help her customers solve complex business problem which in turn will make them look good internally. Emily is dedicated to sales process and believes strongly that sales is 70% learned and 30% innate ability. She strives to continue to hone her craft and also pay it forward to the younger generations of sales reps through teaching and mentorship.

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