How to Answer RFP Questions Better, According to Four Procurement Pros

Kathryn Bennett
Kathryn Bennett

Successful answers to RFP questions can make or break your business. In fact, research shows that RFP responses influence 35 percent of sales revenue. So figuring out how to improve your answers is a smart play.

We recently went to the source to get real-world, candid advice and practical tips from procurement experts who live and breathe for evaluating RFPs. Keep scrolling to get their insights on how to impress potential clients and win more bids.

In this article, procurement pros answer:

  1. Elements of Winning RFP Responses: Avoid Fluff at all Costs
  2. The Biggest Factor in Deciding a Proposal Win (And No, It’s Not Price)
  3. Relationships Can Earn You a Seat at the Table, But Don’t Always Win the Bid
  4. In the Public Sector, Compliance is Everything
  5. Beware Competitor Messaging in Private Sector RFP Questions
  6. The Best Way to Get Feedback on an RFP Response (Hint: Make It Easy)

Elements of Winning RFP Responses: Avoid Fluff at All Costs

If there’s one thing procurement experts dislike, it’s fluff. Your RFP response should be clearly written in plain language, so that if you were reading it back to someone it would sound natural.

Matthew Prinn, Principal at RFP Advisory Group, emphasizes the importance of showing (not telling) why your company has a solution to a procurement team’s problem. “Your response should provide a solution that I can explain to my boss in 90 seconds,” he explains.

“To me, a winning proposal is something that concisely answers: How can you solve my problem? What are the benefits of using you versus another solution? And what’s your evidence?”
Matthew Prinn, Principal
RFP Advisory Group

In addition to being concise, another element that should not be overlooked is customization and complete responses. “If you take the time to speak to me about how you specifically plan to solve my unique problem, that means a lot when you’re going through the RFP process,” says Travis Ball, Chief Procurement Officer, Texas A&M University-Commerce.

Here are some of the key characteristics of winning RFP responses:

✓ Concise description of the solution to the problem

✓ Key differentiators that explain how you’re different than your competitors

✓ Evidence that you can solve the problem

✓ Customized answers to RFP questions that specifically speak to this buyer

✓ Complete response that addresses all points within each question

✓ Summary that allows anyone to explain your solution in 90 seconds or less

(Keep scrolling for more videos below.)

There Are Common Factors That Determine a Proposal Win (And No, It’s Not Price)

First, let’s debunk a common misconception: Price isn’t the biggest factor when deciding on a vendor.

“Only about 25% of our decisions are based on the lowest price,” says Matthew. “We more so decide on how the vendor sold their value. If you’re a Cadillac and you can explain why your services are worthy of being more expensive, we’re okay with that.”

So if the deciding factor isn’t price, what is? Procurement experts agree that they’ll award bids to vendors who offer a highly tailored solution for the unique needs of their business.

In other words, value and understanding are the biggest factors in deciding on a proposal win. Procurement pros can tell when a vendor has made the effort to tailor an RFP response to their request. Which makes sense, considering that research shows top-performing teams spend 2 more hours writing each RFP response than their competitors.

“We award on the basis of best value. Price is a factor, but it’s not the determining factor at all times.”
Travis Ball, Chief Procurement Officer
Texas A&M University-Commerce

If you want to spend more time customizing your proposals, consider using an RFP automation tool to create the first draft of your response. They scan old RFPs for answers and save your team time searching for answers and copying and pasting in responses. Then, you can spend more time customizing the base draft for your client. You can also learn more about improving your responses through the RFP Process Grader, a free tool for proposal teams.

Relationships Can Earn You a Seat at the Table—But Don’t Always Win You the Bid

Now that we’ve covered the elements of a winning proposal, you may be wondering–could you deliver on all of the aforementioned elements above and still come up short because someone else has the right connections? How much does a prior relationship with the vendor make a difference?

According to Leslie Douglas, Director of Sales Training at JB Sales, relationships can play a role, but they are not the determining factor.

“The relationship can get you a place at the table, but your value has to shine to keep you there and win the spot.”
Leslie Douglas, Director of Sales Training
JB Sales

Of course, relationships can make a difference if you work in the private sector–but the public sector is a different story.

“While I would evaluate past performance with a particular vendor, the personal relationship with a vendor has absolutely no bearing on my decision,” says Travis.

In the Public Sector, Compliance Is Everything

Depending on whether you work in the public or private sector, compliance can mean different things.

In the public sector, compliance is everything. According to Travis (who works at a public institution), “In the state of Texas, you must complete certain paperwork to be in compliance or your submission is considered non-responsive.”

“We have to remain in compliance with state statute and university policies and procedures, so compliance plays a major role in the proposal process for us,” he continues.

In the private sector, the definition of “compliance” may be looser than in the public domain. You may be disqualified if you misinterpret certain questions, but the procurement team may overlook the deviation or simply ask for clarification if you’ve missed the mark on a low priority answer.

If you’re a proposal manager who has only worked in the public sector, switching to private can present a new learning curve, as rules of engagement with procurement teams are quite different. Which brings us to our next point…

Beware Competitor Messaging in Private Sector RFP Questions

Sometimes, procurement teams do issue an RFP with a vendor in mind. They may need to issue an RFP because it’s a requirement, but in private they’ve already approached a favorite provider to help them draft the RFP and give them a leg up.

Again, whether or not this happens depends on norms within the public and private sectors. “This is something we highly discourage,” explains Travis, who represents a public purchasing entity.

“There’s even a statute that says if you pay for assistance in creating specifications, that particular vendor is now disqualified from even bidding on it. So you can’t, for example, pay a consultant to prepare specifications and then have them bid on it.”

The private sector, however, doesn’t need to adhere to the same compliance requirements as organizations within the public sector. To play that game, you’ll need to be familiar with your competitors’ key messaging–which will show up in the RFP if they’ve helped draft the document.

That’s when you need to be strategic to determine whether or not to respond to an RFP.

The Best Way to Get Feedback on an RFP Response? Make it Easy

It happens all the time: You’ve lost a bid, and you want to know why so you can improve future RFP responses. What’s the best way to solicit feedback?

Procurement experts agree that making it easy to provide feedback is the best way to receive it.

Here’s four tips that procurement experts recommend for getting feedback:

  1. Ask three priority questions that will help you improve future responses–and no more. Be specific.
  2. Make sure your questions are ones the procurement team will be comfortable answering, without giving too much away.
  3. Draft a post-RFP response template or form that’s easy to submit in a couple of minutes. You can use a simple survey tool.
  4. Don’t forget to follow up. People are busy, but they want to help. Sometimes you just need to ask more than once (politely).

In addition to making it easy, be sure to frame your questions as a learning opportunity–rather than questioning the final decision. Make sure you’re also keeping the door open to potential future business, advises Rachel Friesen, Director of Customer Experience, Bonfire Interactive.

“It’s best when the supplier approaches that opportunity to have a debrief as a learning opportunity, opposed to questioning the decision.”
Rachel Friesen, Director of Customer Experience
Bonfire Interactive

“Some people even use the debrief as a sales opening,” adds Matthew. “During the debrief, you’re creating a line of communication between you and someone on the inside. Even if it’s a five minute call, it’s still worth it.”

Watch the full webinar for more procurement insights.

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