Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Responding to What the RFP Doesn't Say

I don't trust RFPs. I've been hoodwinked by them too many times in my 30+ years as a proposal manager. 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 for another firm.

Given my distrust of 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 kind of 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 formula, 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 believe 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 is actually the primary influence in the client's decision who to hire. 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. Make no mistake, the client has probably had conversations about this with your competitors if not your firm. If your proposal doesn't weigh in on that discussion, you're likely to lose out.

The client is buying outcomes, not services. As a general rule, people don't really buy products or services; they buy what those products or services will do for them. The same is true of our clients. Yet how often do you read about results in one of our proposals? This is perhaps our greatest omission in the proposal process, to give the client a scope of work without addressing the desired outcomes it will produce.

Not that the RFP suggests that the client wants this. Only when you describe expected project results in your proposal does it become evident, because the client mentions that this was a prominent reason for selecting your firm. You see, the RFP doesn't always include all the key selection criteria!

The working relationship is very important. Again, the RFP won't tell you that; it's too squishy a topic to formally include it 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 and optimize the working relationship, 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 the 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.

Making your proposal skimmable is the secret differentiator. Speaking of first impressions, imagine your proposal was easy to skim and discover its central themes. Of course, most clients are skimming your proposal anyway. So why does your firm produce proposals that demand to be read? If the client is skimming and your proposal is not skimmable, you've lost message control. There's no way you can be confident that the most important messages in your submittal will be seen and understood.

Want a quick tip on how to make your documents more skimmable? Present your key points using boldface inline headings, like I've used in this article. Many of my readers will miss this tip because the headings will be all they read. But they still will get the gist of my article!

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 merely following the outline 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 clearly forbids it. In that case, you will need to find another way to feature the elements of your executive summary elsewhere 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? Fully 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.