I almost held this until Wednesday and the entire post was going to be, “Ha, April Fools! You CAN’T win an RFP!” After reflection, I realized that you don’t probably read my blog to hear that it can’t be done, so here goes.

First, I feel obligated to warn you about the low probability of winning an RFP– 50% are never awarded, the game is rigged not to select but de-select vendors, RFP’s are written with specific vendors in mind,  and even if you have the best idea the selection committee has ever seen, they will fear going outside the box and find your lack of university research, lack of prior large district experience, or lack of 10 year financials the reason not to select your firm. As we say in B2E, “Nobody ever got fired for hiring Pearson.”  But yes, there are RFP’s that you can win, and if you read all the way to the end of this post, I’ll tell you why you might want to try a few.

The winnable RFP’s are ones where you have some sort of existing relationship, ideally they are already some level of customer. Other RFP’s to get involved in are the type where there isn’t a sole award, but rather they are issued to vet a list of approved vendors. Non-starters for me are where the contract size exceeds your level of experience. For example, if a small state RFP is up for grabs you need to have a large district implementation which is equal to or larger than that state, or at least an active user base larger than theirs. The other non-starters are the big rush ones. When less than 30 days is given for a response that is because a vendor has been selected and someone is making the buyer run it through an RFP. Pass.

Here’s how to improve your odds of succeeding:

  1. Be in the habit of asking about upcoming RFP’s in all your meetings, particularly with district admins. This is basic advice, but I rarely observe reps doing this. Take care of registering as a vendor on the district’s procurement site, and let your contact know you have an interest in applying.
  2. Position for a pilot in a district where an RFP is forthcoming, as early as you can. Those results and the pilot teachers’ experiences will be important data in your proposal. You, or a great implementation person on your team, had better hand-hold this pilot to ensure your product is used, results are measured, and survey data is collected.
  3. All communication, questions, and suggestions are fair game until the “cone of silence” drops. That is usually either upon release of the RFP or at the end of a Q&A period. But before that time, when you have a knowledgeable contact that says an RFP is coming down the road, ask if they would be open to reading an Informational Proposal from your company for feedback. After you hear their feedback, make any necessary edits and ask them to help you forward the final draft to the people that are putting together the RFP.
  4. Think about partnering up like chocolate and peanut butter. Reese’s cups are awesome, and a joint RFP could be too. Often one company has the relationship and experience but not the right technology. One is local, giving them an advantage on service and implementation, but lacks the financials. A great time to make such a love connection is at the bidder conference (or when the list is published), so these are often good to attend even when you aren’t a qualified bidder. I guess I should also caution you not to open up your kimono to a suitor that is just trying to get you to reveal your approach or pricing. Be streetwise about these conversations, because even in B2E there are some Sneaky Petes.
  5. Consider project talent for hire. There are wonderful people in our world that write RFP’s and/or project manage a major RFP submission on a contract basis. They know the best formatting and structure that keeps you compliant and easy to grade against the stated criteria. It’s also the way to keep an RFP from swallowing too much of your internal time. Other contract talent you might consider are retired superintendents or well-networked administrators that can help promote your product in the right circles. If it’s a big dog you’re after, you may want to bring in a big dog to help (and have them sign an NDA; see Sneaky Pete above). Even an hour of the right person’s time can tell you who is the most important decision-maker on a selection committee and what makes them tick. Invaluable.
  6. Lowballing, particularly on the first bid, doesn’t make a lot of sense. Price is only one criteria that is considered after others are vetted. If you are selected as a finalist you’re going to get a fun letter called “best and final offer.” This is when the district or state requests you submit another bid, with an implied request for a lower price. Save your discounted price for this round. If the RFP is for a list of approved vendors, you do want to offer your standard volume discounts on the first submission which is usually the only round, but again, don’t let the RFP process intimidate you into a ridiculously low margin.
  7. Be gutsy. If you’re in, you may as well be all in. Be bold to make your proposal stand out. Challenge criteria that is based on assumptions, and don’t be afraid to say this is how we see your need and how we suggest you solve it.

Even knowing all the negatives surrounding the RFP process you know what? It isn’t a bad exercise to write one once in a while. It will focus your entire team – product, marketing, support and sales—to think about who you are, who you are not, and who you want to be. I’ve had a few fun all-nighters working on RFP’s with different teams, most of which we lost but which always resulted in improved product plans, better sales strategy and tighter marketing language. In at least one case a new business model emerged, and that did work even though we lost the state bid. No company can accomplish its goals unless it knows what they are, and there’s nothing like taking on Goliath to stick some goals on the wall. Wind up that slingshot and give it a whirl!

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