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Winning RFPs: 10 Questions to Ask Yourself

Responding to RFPs (Request for Proposals) is often a love/hate relationship. We love being included in the process and the chance at winning new work for the firm, but we hate the time and stress that goes into putting a strong proposal together. Below is a list of questions to ask yourself that may help you improve the process and win more bids:

  1. How well-defined is your go/no-go process for determining which RFPs to respond to? How well is it adhered to?
    Without a doubt, the single most important criteria to an improved win rate is a realistic go/no-go criteria. If you can eliminate the work responding to RFPs that are simply a bad fit and longshot, you can concentrate more effort on the bids your firm can actually win and will enjoy working on. These projects are typically the ones that will go smoothly, be most profitable for your firm, and garner the most praise and referrals from your clients.
  2. Is the proposal turn-around time realistic?
    Last minute proposals are one of the most difficult challenges we face. All members of the firm must be required to adhere to a process so that the marketing department or those tasked with preparing the proposal have adequate time to do a good job. Turn-time should be a condition of the go/no-go process.
  3. How well do you know the client? How much research have you done? How deep did you dive?
    Do you have the most accurate information about the client’s goals, culture, challenges, and project needs? What has happened in the past that they fear repeating? Try to learn more than the RFP reveals. Read their website thoroughly. Ask people at your firm if they know anyone inside the client’s doors who can shed additional insight on their hot points.
  4. How customized are your proposals, how boilerplate?
    Certainly, we all have some boilerplate content that we reuse in most of our proposals. However, if your response comes across as “cookie cutter,” rather than customized to the client’s needs, you will lose points fast. Clients do not just want to learn about your qualifications (if you were not qualified, you probably would not have received the RFP), they want to know how you can solve their problems. For example, if they have been burned in the past by huge cost over-runs, they want you to explain how you keep budgets controlled.
  5. Is your proposal well-written?
    Spelling counts, but more importantly, style matters. Keep your answers short and clear. The tone should be friendly and authentic, as if you are engaged in a conversation. Tell your story using straightforward language and real promises, people hate reading “fluff”. For instance, instead of a sentence like “We are proactive and responsive team players that engage a new paradigm of client service excellence,” try something like “We guarantee to return phone calls and email messages in 24 hours, more often in less than 10 minutes,” or “We provide you with our cell phone numbers and are happy to answer your calls, anytime.”
  6. Are your proposals professionally designed and branded to your firm?
    Looks matter. Yes, the content in your proposal is critical, but now, as RFPs become more and more competitive, the presentation can play a crucial part of your success. Page after page of 10-point Arial text (with a few headlines and bullets thrown in) may not get read. Additionally, your proposal should conform to your company’s brand standards. Your proposal may be the first piece of marketing your prospective client sees from your firm, so make sure the visual style and messaging is 100% “on brand.” It should be in-keeping with the design of your website, printed brochure, and stationery, have an eye-catching cover and well designed interior pages that look like magazine pages, not whitepapers.
  7. Does your proposal follow their RFP format exactly?
    Most RFPs ask for information in a specific format. It can be tempting to cut time and use boilerplate content, but if you fail to answer the questions exactly as they ask, following their formatting and structure, your proposal will lose points and may even get eliminated. Mirror the RFP as closely as possible, using the language they use when answering questions.
  8. Who will be on the team if awarded the project?
    Based on the information you have gathered specific to this client’s needs, structure the right team to fit their needs. Be sure, however, that the team you propose will be the team they get if the project is won (do not “bait-and-switch”). Make sure the team leader has the right experience and the right personality to establish the best rapport with the client.
  9. How well do you pitch?
    The pitch presentation is crucial to winning the project. Take the team members who were included in the proposal, but only if they are good at face-to-face meetings. Listen more than you talk during the pitch. Statistically, the more you talk during a pitch, the lower your chances are of winning the project. Rehearse the pitch with your full team and with others (playing the role of the client) who are familiar with the RFP. Start the pitch by asking the client questions, but be prepared that this may cause you to modify your presentation on the fly. Avoid using slide presentations and canned content. Instead, try to engage the client in a conversation.
  10. Do you track win/lose rates? Do you ask for feedback after the project is awarded?
    Understanding why you won or lost a bid is essential to improving your future chances. Although it can be hard to get truthful answers, sometimes, when a project is not awarded, it is important to ask, and ask again. When a proposal is successful, always find out what they liked. Sometimes it’s not what you expected. For example, a smaller-sized firm was surprised to win a bid that they thought would go to a larger competitor. When they won, they assumed it was due to better pricing. They were surprised to find out their price was actually a bit higher, but the client responded to the friendliness and excitement of the team. Quite frankly, they “liked” them better!

For more insight to improve your RFP win rate, join Vanessa at the New England Construction Forum for her panel session: “Winning RFPs: What to Do, and Not Do, to Win More Bids.” Panelists will include Dana Peterson, AIA, Associate University Architect at the University of New Hampshire; Susan Ransom, Marketing Director at PDT Architects; Lisa Brothers, President & CEO of Nitsch Engineering; Thomas Dionne, Vice President of Business Development/Chief Estimator at Connolly Construction; and Marc Pelletier, President of the Baldwin Group. The event will take place on Friday, October 23 in Portsmouth, NH. Registration is now open!


Vanessa’s article first appeared in SMPS Boston’s Outlook, August 18, 2014.