Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Responding to What the RFP Doesn't Say

I don't trust RFPs. I've been hoodwinked by them too many times. They've told me to do one thing when the client really wanted something else. They've withheld critical information that I needed to compete. They've pretended to be objective when in fact their requirements wired the selection of another firm.

Given my distrust for RFPs, I've never understood the unwavering faith that so many people place in them. These individuals pore over RFPs as if they contain some secret code. They slavishly follow not only every instruction, but every implied message that may (in their minds) reveal what the client is really thinking.

Of course, if you wait until the RFP comes out before trying to figure out the winning strategy, you probably don't have any other option but to trust the RFP. That's unfortunate, because many RFPs are more likely to mislead than enlighten. Here are a few of the most common deceptions that I've seen:

Your firm is not the centerpiece of this process; the client is. The RFP would have you think otherwise. Tell us about your firm, it beckons, your history, your services, your office locations, your relevant experience, your project team. If you trust the RFP, you might think that this information actually influences the client's decision to hire you. Not likely.

The client is much more interested in how well you understand their needs and aspirations, whether you have a compelling solution, and whether you can convince them of your ability to deliver it. These are factors that the RFP too often downplays, if not ignores altogether.

The working relationship is very important. Again, the RFP won't tell you that; it's too squishy a topic to formally include in a supposedly objective selection process. Yet client surveys tell us that the "client experience" is highly valued. In fact, you're far more likely to lose a client over poor service than technical deficiency. At some point—usually in the shortlist interview since proposals generally avoid the issue—the client will be assessing whether they think they'd like to work with you.

If you explicitly describe in your proposal how you deliver exceptional client experiences, you're likely to be the only one of the competing firms to write about it. That's an easy point of differentiation that you can claim because RFP overlooked it.

First impressions really do matter. Years ago, before in-house color printing was commonplace and only a few firms went all out on fancy proposal covers, some government agencies would remove the cover of your submittal before ever opening it. They didn't want to be unduly influenced by first impressions.

Yet these same reviewers would dutifully subject your proposal to a few preliminary screening criteria, a review that might take as little as one or two minutes. If you failed to meet those criteria—which were largely unpublicized—your submittal was tossed out before they even checked your compliance with the RFP. First impressions still mattered.

And they continue to matter today. Not that you necessarily need to go overboard with appearances or worry about secret screening criteria (although I'm sure some clients still use them). A more important consideration is how the reviewer handles your proposal. What does he or she look for first? What factors most influence first impressions? Is your proposal designed accordingly? How will you know what matters? Ask...before the RFP is released.

A strong executive summary can make a big difference. RFPs rarely ask for one, but clients are swayed by them more often than you might think. The big advantage of a strong executive summary is that it allows you to address the important topics that the RFP may have missed or underemphasized. You can capture the essence of your proposal narrative in a few well-designed pages, in a manner that may have been impossible by following the formula of the RFP.

I've had many clients over the years tell me that our executive summary played a key role in distinguishing our proposal—even though they didn't ask for one. So my standard advice is to always include one, unless the RFP effectively forbids it. In that case, you will need to find a way to feature the elements of your executive summary within the prescribed framework.

Remember: RFPs are generally designed to eliminate your competitive advantage, to level the playing field among all competitors (unless it's wired). So why look there for the keys to success? Comply with the RFP, but don't be complicit. Figure out what the client really wants to hear and then find a way to overcome the RFP's limitations to tell that story.

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