Sweating the small stuff when submitting RFPs

September 17, 2020

“Don’t sweat the small stuff” is popular business wisdom that builds on the premise that you are more successful when you focus on the big important goals and don’t get lost in the seemingly insignificant details that go into making the big, important goals happen.

I get that. I am a big proponent of focusing my time and energy on getting to the results that matter – with one small, but very important caveat. When responding to a client’s request for proposal, paying attention to the details shows you are listening closely to what your client wants and needs. Everything I’ve learned tells me this is the difference between winning contracts and being passed over.

We’ve all heard that old story about the “no brown M&Ms” request Van Halen would slip into their typewritten and 53 pages long event riders. Woe to the event promoter who chalked this one line up to the idiosyncrasies of 80’s rock musicians or missed it altogether. According to the band, this request was, in fact, a deliberate test to determine how closely the event organizers had paid attention to their detailed requirements. For a band that built its reputation on highly technical and energetic live shows, brown M&Ms in the dressing room were bad news. If the event promoter missed the clearly marked “no brown M&Ms” clause in the event rider, what else did they overlook? 

Running a business requires a certain level of pounding the pavement. This includes chasing new business in the form of applying to requests for proposal, and it’s competitive out there. I recently met with a successful CEO who said to me that his rule is to never apply for an RFP he didn’t have a hand in writing. Although that’s certainly ideal, it’s not always possible or feasible. But you can have a hand in shaping it by paying close attention to what’s in the RFP and what is not. If you do that – I guarantee you’ll stand out in the crowd. 

Let’s be honest. RFPs are not always works of art. Multiple RFP writers, the complexity of the work, incomplete or outdated information, and lack of technical understanding can all lead to an RFP that is less than transparent about what is actually required. Additionally, most RFPs are written in sections, so we sometimes see evaluation criteria that are independent or disconnected from the statement of work. 

So here are a few commandments I always follow to enhance my success rate in my proposal bids: 

1) If you identify inconsistencies in the RFP – track them and follow up. Failing to do so can jeopardize your entire bid. Start a requirements and actions spreadsheet that allows you to track the mandatory deliverables in the RFP. This is particularly helpful when the RFP isn’t linear in structure.

2) Notice what isn’t there. The technical experts do not always prepare RFP documents. Sometimes the people charged with identifying the technical specifications only understand the legacy systems as opposed to innovations and new industry best practices. In other cases, the writer struggles to communicate their needs effectively. Here is where you get to really to show your value though. Taking the time to understand what outcomes the client desires and what business challenges they hope to solve or overcome, then using that understanding to introduce targeted novel approaches and technology helps potential clients better understand what their options are and what is possible when working with you. 

3) Distinguish the forest from the trees. Remember: if your client already had complete knowledge of what they needed, they likely wouldn’t need you. Often when there is a lack of a clear problem-solution map, an RFP technical writer will overcompensate by overprescribing processes and tools in the specifications. This lack of effectively describing the vision can result in missed opportunities for you and your potential client. My advice? Ask questions about where the client wants to go and what they have to work with already. Begin to create a lexicon to ensure definition consistency. Do not guess or assume.

There’s another great leadership quote that has always resonated with me that seems appropriate here. It is attributed to Sun Tzu, known to be a great Chinese general and military strategist. It goes something like: “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

When building a brand for delivering impactful results for clients, sweat the small stuff. It matters.