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15 min read

How to respond to an RFP (request for proposal)

Customer acquisition

Responding to your first RFP can be intimidating. You've likely heard that they're an important part of the B2B sales process, but what exactly are they? And more critically, how do you make sure your response stands out when you lack experience?

RFPs (short for request for proposals) are complex documents sent out by prospective clients to solicit bids from agencies and vendors like yourself. They require you to demonstrate your expertise and ability to solve the client's needs better than all the other agencies competing for their business.

The stakes feel high because RFPs take time and effort to respond to properly. And with your limited experience, you may worry about getting overlooked or failing to convey why you’re the best fit. On top of that, RFPs often come with pages of questions, compliance requirements, and pricing expectations to address.

It's daunting. But there are ways to improve your chances of success, even on your first RFP response. This article covers key strategies revenue marketers should use to craft responses that get noticed. You’ll learn how to analyze RFPs to identify core needs, develop compelling proposals based on your strengths, and demonstrate your value.

Follow these tips and you'll be able to respond skillfully - even if you’ve never tackled an RFP before. Let’s get started.

What’s in a request for proposal?

So what’s usually in an RFP? Well, it varies depending on the project, but in essence, it explains what the project is, what the company wants to achieve, details on the required deliverables that make up the project, and often an estimated range on what they’re willing to pay. It will often contain terms and rules regarding the proposal process and its format. 

They’ll also lay out the timeline, both for the selection process and the overall project. The selection process timeline usually goes something like this:

  • RFPs are sent out
  • A date when the proposals need to be submitted
  • A window of time the proposals will be evaluated
  • The date when the successful proposals will be selected
  • A window of time for negotiations to take place before the final deal is signed
  • A date when the unsuccessful submissions will be contacted
  • Date of the deal and expected start date of the project

There might be some overlapping in the windows to make allowances for negotiations failing (they won’t want to go crawling back to a company they’ve rejected if negotiations have broken down). 

However, even with this wiggle room, you should pay attention to these dates. It can be a good indication of how the project is likely to go by how diligently the company that issued the RFP sticks to its timeline.

The expected length and detail of the responses can vary, but since there’s a deadline in place, you don’t have time to mess around trying to work things out. Most established companies have a set model for producing proposals, regardless of the length and detail required, and may even have a specialist internal team to create them if they’re receiving a high enough volume of RFPs. But a newer company doesn’t always have that luxury. 

So what needs to be in a proposal, and what’s the best way to go about creating one?

How to respond to a request for proposal

Preparation step one: Read the dang thing

The most important first step to creating any proposal (whether it’s your first time or your thousandth time), is to read and understand the RFP in detail and make sure everyone involved with the proposal understands it in full. Of particular importance are the rules regarding the proposal process. You need to follow these to the letter. 

Even if your proposal blows others out of the water, even if you know absolutely that your company would be able to deliver the project a million times better than your competitors, if you break the rules of the proposal process, the majority of companies will disqualify you. 

Have you ever done one of those trick tests or challenges, or seen someone else do one where there’s a huge list of rules or instructions for steps, and right at the bottom, or maybe hidden in the middle, it says to ignore all the others, or do a single step to win the whole thing? 

Treat every RFP as if there’s a chance this might occur. It’s highly unlikely it will, but just imagine how stupid you’d feel if there was such a thing in an RFP from a particularly eccentric company. Basically, you should never treat any RFP as being exactly the same as another.

Some examples of rules you might encounter in RFPs:

  • An established point of contact for any queries or information about the project.
  • The length and detail of the proposal (more isn’t always better. If you do too much this can actually count against you).
  • Whether they want examples of proposed work. This is particularly relevant in industries like advertising, where some RFPs (commonly called “briefs” in that particular sector), will dictate exactly how much media and creative needs to be in the proposal.

For a great example of why following the rules of proposals is important, we recommend an episode of Mad Men, “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” (Season 4, Episode 5).

Besides being a great episode in a fantastic show, large parts of the episode concern developing a proposal as a response to an RFP, with the conclusion highlighting the importance of following the rules (it’s a bit of a twist, so we won’t go into more detail).

Once you’ve got all the rules down, you’ll also need to be aware of all the deliverables you’ll need to make up the proposal, and the dates when they’re required by the RFP issuer. Get these mapped out and understood by all involved, as it will be important to the next step.

Preparation step two: Establish your own timeline

No matter the size and detail of the proposal, there will always be multiple parts to it, and often some of those parts will be reliant on the completion of another before you can even start them.

Since you know exactly when the proposal needs to be completed and submitted, you then need a clear, realistic timeline of when each part needs to be completed, and who is responsible for creating it and approving it.

You’ll need to allow for time for editing, especially if it’s a very large and complex proposal. You’ll also need to take into account any current business you’re working on. There’s no point in letting your actual, paid work suffer in exchange for a proposal, which, to be brutally honest, is never a 100% guarantee of future work. 

This is why many larger companies have specialist teams for responding to proposals. Without those kinds of resources, you’ll have to make sure your timeline takes this into account.

Preparation step three: Research, research, research

An RFP might not have all the information you need to know about the company in question to produce the best proposal possible. It might tell you what they want, but the best proposal will address the why.

Maybe they’ve had some recent successes they’re looking to build on. Maybe the reverse, and they’re looking for a course correction after a disaster. It could be their competitors influencing their decisions. 

So, first, you’ll need to research the company. Look at what’s worked for them in the past, and what hasn’t been so successful. Look at their market and get as much information about how the company operates as you can. 

Next, look at their competitors. Is the company that issued the RFP the market leader? If so, what are their strengths, if not, then why aren’t they? What are their competitors doing right, and what are they doing wrong?

A good way to start off this kind of research is to conduct a SWOT analysis of the company you’re writing the proposal for. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. 

By breaking things down in this way, you can build your proposal in a similar way. How are you going to utilize and build on their strengths? How are you going to diminish or avoid their weaknesses? Are there any opportunities to exploit or be created? And what threats do you need to avoid or reduce the impact of?

With this groundwork in place, what are the actual components of your average RFP?

Components of an average RFP 

Cover letter

Along with the documents of the actual proposal, it’s standard practice to send a cover letter. As with so many things in life, first impressions count in your proposals, and this is where you make them. This section is where you connect with the company that issued the RFP. 

It’s a good place to show a bit about your own company culture and philosophies and how they align with and potentially benefit the RFP issuer, particularly when it comes to completing the project in question.

You’ll want to emphasize your excitement for the mutual benefits of working together, show your understanding of the objectives, and give an overview of how your solution or services are right for the job in question.

Executive summary

Your proposal will likely land on the desks (or on the screens) of many people in the company you’re courting, but not all of them have the time, or the need, to pore over every detail. That’s why you have the executive summary to cover the key points.

This is where you show your understanding of the project. Display your knowledge of the objectives and the reasons behind them. If you can show an in-depth understanding of what their company goals are, and how you can help achieve them, then you’re onto a winner.

You’ll provide an overview of your process, timeline, and budget, enough that they have a full picture of how you intend to work with them. 

All that, in something that can be absorbed in just a few minutes, so remember this paraphrasing of Shakespeare: “Brevity is the soul of a successful business proposal.

Implementation plan and schedule

Now for the real nitty-gritty. This section is where you lay out the full plan for how you’ll work with the company. You’ll detail a full timeline and methodology of how you’ll meet each objective from the RFP. You might provide examples of how the work might look if the RFP requested it. 

A good piece of practice can be to provide details of the key personnel involved in the project, such as the account manager, and the heads of the teams or departments involved. You’ll also discuss what actions will be needed from the company and outline what review and evaluation stages might look like.

Specificity is essential here, you can’t afford to be wishy-washy about the details.

Contract details

If you explain your standard contract process here, it should hopefully make the negotiation process further down the line. You’ll highlight what support systems will be in place both during the project and after it’s been delivered. Once again, the more, precise details you can provide here, the better positioned you’ll be further along the process.

References and case studies

Now’s the time to show off your past successes in similar circumstances. If you can get some choice quotes, that’s great but even better if you can back them up with some specific numbers on how you’ve provided increased profits or improved efficiency. 

An in-depth case study of a similar successful project will support what you’ve laid out in your plan. If you’re in really good standing with your previous/current customers you might even be able to offer them as direct points of contact for the RFP issuers to speak to.

Some final tips

  • Make sure you’re speaking directly to the RFP issuer and incorporate them into how you discuss your services and solutions. Proposing network security packages? Don’t just say “we secure networks”. Something as simple as “we can secure your network” can help make all the difference.
  • Don’t overload it with jargon. You want to hit the right balance between showing that you know what you’re talking about and making it digestible so all the different people who read can easily understand it.
  • Visuals can go a long way. Laying out figures in a table, showing maps of processes, or showing visual examples (if the RFP requested examples of proposed work), can be a big help in making your work easy to understand.

At the end of the day, there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to responding to RFPs, as each one can be different. But once you’ve got a general idea of what’s required from you as a standard, you’ll be well-placed to respond to any curveballs that might get thrown at you.

Got any top tips on responding to RFPs? Maybe there’s a section you’re having trouble with. Let us know!

Written by:

Will Whitham

Will Whitham

Will has written copy and content both in-house and agency-side for a broad variety of brands, industries, and international audiences. He's the host of the CMO Alliance podcast, CMO Convo.

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How to respond to an RFP (request for proposal)