Writing compelling RFPs is tough. Many proposals are lengthy, have hyper-specific requirements, and the deadlines are often tight. In fact, research shows most RFPs are turned around in 3-5 days—and nearly 40 percent are completed in 48 hours or less.
Limited time isn’t the only difficulty RFP responders face. Team coordination is also a big challenge. The average number of people involved in writing an RFP response is a whopping seven. And more people often means more writing problems—mixed messaging, discordant tones, and unnecessary tangents.
Luckily, saving time, working as a team, and increasing the quality of your final submission are not contradictory goals—you can do them all. Follow this method and you’ll learn how to write an RFP response that articulates its message effectively by working smarter, not harder.
So, how do you write a stellar RFP response? Here is the six-step writing process any team can follow to streamline and improve their RFP responses.
How To Write A Winning RFP Response
Step 1: Do Your Research
Step 2: Make a Plan
Step 3: Tailor Your Existing RFP Content
P.S. Want to go deeper? We’ve created a whole eight-lesson course that will help you build the perfect RFP response process in real-time. It’s free to access here.
Step 1: Do Your Research
Research is the foundation of good RFP response writing. You could have the clearest, most persuasive prose—but it will all fall flat if your prospect feels like you don’t understand their needs. That’s why research is the essential first step in any RFP response.
There are two main types of research that every RFP responder should perform before they begin writing: external and internal.
External research focuses on your prospect and competition and seeks to uncover the answers to questions like: What are your prospect’s needs? What is your competitor offering? Based on what you know about your prospect’s pain points and goals, what are the most persuasive reasons they would choose your solution over a competitor’s?
External Research Strategies Include:
- Reading the RFP carefully and making notes on your prospect’s needs and special requirements
- Having an informal call with your prospect to gain a deeper understanding of their situation, pain points, and goals
- Researching your competitor’s offerings by reviewing the solutions pages on their website, reading independent review sites like TrustRadius or G2 Crowd, and/or checking out analyst reports by Forrester or Gartner
While external research looks outward to understand your prospect and the competitive landscape you’re in, internal research focuses on your resources as a company.
Internal research seeks to answer questions like: Is there content you can repurpose? What kinds of specialist expertise will you need to complete this RFP? Which subject matter experts (SMEs) can you ask to contribute knowledge?
Internal Research Strategies Include:
- Using your content library (if you have one) to source answers to frequently asked questions. If you don’t yet have a content library, you can look at your most recent 5-10 RFP responses. Are there any answers you can reuse in this RFP?
- Creating a list of subject matter experts and their areas of expertise
Step 2: Make a Plan
Research is an excellent first step toward improving your RFP response quality, but you won’t see any benefits to your productivity or collaboration unless you get all your contributors on the same page before you begin writing. The best way to do this is to create a content plan and share it with your team.
Your content plan can take any format—such as bulleted list, slide deck, or content storyboard—but should provide an overview of your key proposal themes. These are the most persuasive reasons your prospect would choose your solution over a competitor, which you uncovered through your research in the previous section.
You may also want to outline where you’ll repurpose existing content from a past RFP in your proposal (if applicable) and what sections you’ll need to generate net-new content for (which will take more time to triage).
Alongside your content plan, create a rough workback schedule outlining your contributors’ responsibilities and the deadlines you’ll need them to meet. (Pro tip: Try to buffer in a couple of extra days in case something goes wrong, especially if you’re working with new internal experts).
Don’t forget, it’s best practice to host an internal kickoff meeting with your contributors before you begin writing so you can brief them on the content plan and finalize your project plan. (This will help with buy-in down the road.)
RFP Response Pre-Writing Checklist
✓ Read the RFP Carefully
Make careful note of your prospect’s needs and specifications—these will form the basis of your key proposal themes. Be sure to note details like formatting directions, submission instructions, and any other special submission requirements.
✓ Have an Informal Call With Your Prospect
Use this time to ask questions in order to gain a deeper understanding of their pain points and goals.
✓ Scope Out Your Competitor’s Offerings
Start thinking about ways you can differentiate your solution, based on what you know about your prospect’s needs.
✓ Identify Any Answers You Can Repurpose
If you have a content library, start there—if not, look through your most recent 5-10 RFP responses. (Note that you’ll likely still need to tailor those answers to fit this particular RFP.)
✓ Identify the Knowledge Gaps you Need Your SMEs to Fill
Start making your list of potential contributors and reach out to them as early as possible.
✓ Make Your RFP Response Content Plan
Highlight your key proposal themes—the most persuasive reasons your prospect would choose your solution—so your contributors can refer to them as they’re writing.
✓ Brief Your Contributors on Your Plan & Project Timeline
Use this opportunity—ideally through a kickoff meeting—to finalize deadlines, answer any questions, and get your internal experts on the same page.
Step 3: Tailor Your Existing Content
Use your content library or most recent 5-10 RFPs to start filling in the answers to frequently asked questions. (If you don’t have a library yet, you can work on building this as you go.) If you can’t answer a question yet because you need an SME’s knowledge, skip it for now—you can tackle those in your second pass.
But don’t just drag and drop. The biggest mistake RFP responders make when they’re in a rush is to simply copy-paste existing content into the RFP response they’re writing without accounting for context. As you’re placing your repurposed content, you need to personalize it to this proposal.
After you place the content, take a look at the proposal themes you outlined in your content plan. Is there a way you can highlight some of these messages? For instance, if you know your prospect is concerned about security, consider adding extra security details to your standard security answers, or highlight security details more in any descriptions of your solution.
Step 4: Fill the Gaps with New Content
After you’ve used your existing content to complete as much of the RFP response as possible, have your SMEs fill in the gaps. As with your repurposed content, they should work key proposal themes into their answers (they can refer back to the content plan you shared in the previous step). For the clearest and most cohesive answers, they should use the answer the full question (ATFQ) method as a guide.
ATFQ (Answer the Full Question) Method
Your content might answer an RFP’s question, but if that answer is buried in the third paragraph, it’s unlikely your reader will see it, especially if they’re reading fast (and let’s be honest, they always are).
For ease of reading, front-load your answers so that someone skimming the document can easily absorb the information they’re looking for, by answering the full question. Mirroring is a technique that can help you do this.
When answering a question—for instance, “How many employees does your organization have?”—try mirroring the question in your answer: “Our organization has x number of staff.” After you’ve provided this key information, you can add supporting details. And if a question has multiple parts, make sure you cover every aspect.
Step 5: Edit Using These Four Key Questions
While the fast-paced RFP response process does not always give you much time for editing, even a quick proofread can do wonders for the clarity and professionalism of your proposal. Luckily, RFP response-writing whiz Lisa Longley of Weber Associates has come up with an editing checklist you can use even when you’re tight for time.
It’s called the “Four Cs” approach and covers the following questions: Is it Compliant? Consistent? Clear? Compelling? Let’s examine each in detail.
The Four C's Checklist
✓ Is it compliant?
This comes back to the ATFQ method and question mirroring. When editing, you should verify that you’ve front-loaded your answers and answered every part of a question being asked.
✓ Is it consistent?
Check numbers and statistics to make sure they’re the same throughout. As well, look at your writing—is your use of language, grammar, and tone consistent? If you have a brand style guide, defer to it for any sentence-level concerns.
✓ Is it clear?
Pay careful attention to your use of jargon and other specialist terminology. Do you write out acronyms in full the first time you use them? Would an outside reader be able to understand your RFP response easily? (You can test this with a willing friend if time allows).
✓ Is it compelling?
This is the hardest aspect to evaluate, but it all comes back to the story your content tells. Are you writing persuasively, sharing relevant examples, and demonstrating why your solution is the best option? Review the following elements:
- Proof points: Are you backing up your claims?
- Success stories: Do you share relevant case studies and examples?
- Reasons to change: Have you made the case why change is necessary? Why is this change important right now?
- Differentiators: Have you explained the benefits your prospect would get from choosing your solution over a competitor?
By running through this checklist, you’ll enhance the quality of your final submission, without having to spend hours agonizing over your word choice.
The fast-paced RFP writing process can be challenging, even for the most experienced teams. We hope this guide on how to write an RFP response has been helpful. By implementing these techniques and strategies, you’ll save time, improve teamwork, and enhance the quality of the responses you write—increasing your chances of success.
To further enhance your RFP writing process, check out some of the following resources.
Step 6: Perfect Proposal Skills with RFP Writing Classes & Resources
RFP response writing is challenging, but like anything else, it’s a skill that can be mastered. Elite responders know this and work to continuously enhance their knowledge and abilities.
Want to take your RFP response writing skills to the next level? We’ve rounded up the best RFP writing classes, tools, and other resources for RFP writers.
Admittedly, we’re a little biased, but we think our free course is the best place to go for a step-by-step overhaul of your RFP response process. Learn from the ‘best in the bid-ness’ as they teach you how to reduce stress and maximize success at every phase in your process.
The Association of Proposal Management Professionals (APMP) offers a variety of e-learning courses and webinars, including this one. Delivered by consultant, Chris Slant, this webinar teaches you how to deliver a bulletproof value proposition.
This free course from Coursera will teach you how to articulate your thoughts clearly and effectively. Learn how to write persuasively for a business audience while overcoming common writing pitfalls.
This book is written by experts Jon Williams and B.J. Lownie. It covers the essentials that proposal managers, salespeople, and SMEs need to know to put together more effective proposals with less effort. It’s a must-read for anyone involved in RFP responses.
This classic guide to writing nonfiction, by William Zinsser, covers all the basics that proposal writers need to write clearly and persuasively. It’s been a mainstay on business writers’ bookshelves since it was first published in 1976.
This free online writing assistant can help you catch typos and other common errors while helping you write more clearly.
This free tool highlights complex sentences, passive voice, and hedging phrases—helping make your work straightforward and readable.
This software tames RFP writing chaos by auto-suggesting answers from past RFPs, assigning questions to subject matter experts, streamlining content upkeep, and more—so you always have quality proposals with less effort.