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Optimizing the RFP response process is critical. Sure, requests for proposals (RFPs) are a tool buyers use to evaluate qualified vendors or renew contracts. But they’re also an essential sales tool: Proposal statistics show that RFP responses account for a whopping 33% of revenue. And yet, 52% are completed in less than two business days. 🤯
Despite their importance to the bottom line, proposals often feel like an uphill grind. The RFP process is a tense, fast-paced, and adrenaline-fueled team exercise. You have to work with multiple stakeholders, tweak answers on the go, and craft a compelling story, all under a tight deadline. (No pressure!) It’s no wonder that 42% of RFP responders struggle to find accurate answers quickly and 45% have difficulty collaborating with subject matter experts.
So what’s the secret to making RFP responses less strenuous? Being prepared with a proposal process that makes overcoming these challenges easier so you can finish faster, improve quality, and make the top of the shortlist—without breaking too much of a sweat.
We’ll show you how, but first…
What Exactly is an RFP Response Process?
The RFP response process is a series of repeatable steps a proposal team follows to submit a winning bid on time. It outlines key responsibilities, tasks, and timelines so that all contributors know what to do (and when) from start to submission.
How to Optimize the RFP Process
The expert-level move for building a successful RFP response process is to take steps that make responding faster and less of a burden. Aside from advancing to the next round, the ultimate goal is to prevent burnout so that your team can submit the best proposal every time.
Take a look at the RFP response process steps to get started.
Step 1: Create an RFP Intake Process
The last thing you want to do is miss an opportunity because the RFP got lost in an email thread. Without a door and doorkeeper, a prospect can send the RFP to anyone on their contact list, who might pass it on to someone else, who does the same, and so on, until nobody steps up.
To avoid hot potato, it’s best to create an intake form, a single place where a sales rep or capture planning manager fills out basic details about the RFP (ideally, as soon as they become aware of it). Once they do this, the form alerts the right person to assign ownership and kick off the proposal process.
By creating an intake form using customer relationship management (CRM) software like Salesforce or even Google Forms, you can capture the right information before the RFP even arrives. This way, you’ll be ready to prepare strong positioning that wins the bid. Below are a few recommendations.
RFP Intake Form Fields
✓ Company name
✓ Sales routing information (region, vertical, company size, etc.)
✓ Sales request type (e.g. web-based portal, Excel spreadsheet, or Word document)
✓ Due date
✓ Notes (i.e. prospect’s needs and potential key themes)
Step 2: Decide to Respond (Or Not)
Many RFP response teams split their time and attention by not being picky enough when it comes to RFP evaluation. To be as efficient as possible, you need to cut any RFPs that don’t serve your goals.
1. Is it a real opportunity? Take a temperature check to see if your prospect is serious about the opportunity. Remember, many organizations sometimes use RFPs for benchmarking or keeping existing suppliers on their toes.
2. Do you want it? Think about the fit between this opportunity and your long-term business goals. Are they in alignment with your criteria?
3. Can you win it? What are your odds of scoring this deal? Be honest with yourself. Consider your relationship with your prospect and the competition you might be up against.
4. Can you do it? Review your internal capacity. Would it be feasible for your organization to take on this project and execute it in a way you’re proud of?
Don’t begin any RFP responses until you can say ‘yes!’ to all of the above.
Download this Go/No Go Decision Template to score your next RFP. Remember, eliminating duds will leave you with more time, energy, and creativity to spend on the RFPs that do matter.
Step 3: Do the Prep Work Up Front
Once you’ve decided to pursue an RFP, it’s tempting to jump in and start answering RFP questions. But taking the time to strategize and understand the requirements will save you hours in the long run and improve the quality of your final submission.
Here’s what you need to do upfront in the RFP process:
Read the RFP, Front to Back
“When you get the RFP, the first thing you need to do is read it from cover to cover—then do some preliminary research,” says Marie-France Cardin, owner of The Winning Partnership.
That means taking note of the company’s RFP instructions for bidders, especially:
✓ Formatting requirements
✓ Submission information
✓ Any special asks
Knowing these details upfront will help prevent any surprises at the eleventh hour. Plus, it can give you insight into the company’s needs, giving you a head start on your RFP response strategy.
For instance, you can pick out what the prospect seems focused on: Security? Ease of use? Good design? Any specific functionalities or features? These details will come in handy when determining your key RFP proposal themes later (a.k.a. your win themes).
Scope Out the Competition
How do you stack up? Once you know what the prospect is looking for, investigate your competition and see where you have an edge. Differentiators strengthen your win themes because you can angle them to emphasize that you have what they lack.
For example, let’s say the company wants top-notch support. If your competition offers 24/7 customer service, but you rock a 99% satisfaction score, you can use that to add oomph to your win theme, making a point that your team will stop at nothing to meet expectations.
How to Watch Competitors in the Wild 👀
- Review solutions on a competitor’s website.
- Ask clients to share past RFPs from competitors.
- Read a competitor’s financial statements, if public.
- Read independent review sites like TrustRadius or G2.
- Read analyst reports like Forrester’s Wave and Gartner’s Magic Quadrant.
Make Your Content Plan
A little bit of planning goes a long way in making the RFP writing process go smoothly—and everyone’s job easier. Preparing a content plan to share with your contributors will allow you to work together on crafting a compelling proposal story.
This plan can take whatever format you choose (think bullet-point outline, content storyboard, or slide deck), but any form of it should cover:
- Content from previous RFP responses—answers that you can repurpose (e.g. Standard company boilerplate and answers to frequently asked RFP questions)
- Your key proposal themes—the elements of your offering that will convince your prospect to choose you over a competitor (e.g. Exceptional customer service, intuitive user interface, or high-security standards)
- Net-new content—that will require help from SMEs (e.g. Product updates, legal changes, or other information that may require frequent updates)
After putting together a content plan, you’ll know how much work is needed and who to reach out to for support on specific questions.
Step 4: Rally Your RFP Team
You’ve done the heavy lifting–now it’s time to loop in the rest of your team. By gathering your key stakeholders and subject matter experts, you can brief them on your content plan, outline the steps of the RFP process, and best of all, gather their winning input.
Define Roles and Responsibilities
Typically, the proposal team is responsible for responding to an RFP. But depending on your headcount, you may have a sales-led proposal process or operate as a team of one, pulling in contributors from across the organization.
Ideally, a dedicated task force should own the RFP response process. When your team doesn’t have other obligations, they can devote their best work and master what it takes to submit a winning response.
That said, you can still delegate responsibilities to various team members in lieu of having a full-fledged proposal team. For reference, the most common roles for an RFP response team are:
|Ideal RFP Team Roles||Responsibilities|
|Proposal Manager||Leads the RFP response process and makes sure high-quality proposals go out the door.|
|Proposal Writer||Writes the narrative for the proposal to communicate the company’s biggest value propositions.|
|Content Manager||Builds and maintains an RFP content library for quick access to winning responses.|
|Capture Manager||Owns the bid process from end-to-end, starting with snagging the sales opportunity in the first place.|
|Graphic Designer||Brings the proposal to life by giving it a polished, professional, and eye-catching look.|
Wrangle Your Subject Matter Experts
RFP teams typically enlist members from other departments to help with questions they know best. Also known as subject matter experts (SMEs), they participate by providing knowledge and perspectives that round out proposals–if you can rope them in.
Take a look at the content plan you’ve created. Figure out what RFP sections need input from subject matter experts in other departments. More specifically, who can you ask to provide in-depth details and accurate information?
We recommend including the stakeholders below.
SMEs to Bring on the Adventure 🧗♀️
- Technical or Product team members
- Customer Success
- Security Infosec
- Legal and/or Compliance Team
Create an RFP Roadmap
Once you’ve identified who will help contribute to the RFP response, you can start thinking about the important project deadlines everyone will need to meet.
Draft a loose work-back schedule and outline assignments (be sure to factor in time for design and proofreading). You can use a tool like Asana to check off completed tasks. Or, better yet, use a dedicated RFP response software. This way, it’s easier to keep track of proposals because everything’s in one place–whether you want to assign questions, set deadlines, or mark a project as won or lost. Following this, you’ll finalize assignments and deadlines at your kickoff meeting.
Host a Kickoff Meeting
The goal of your kickoff meeting is to brief your contributors and subject matter experts (SMEs) on the project roadmap and the content plan.
While you’re all together, get a pulse on how everyone is feeling. Are SMEs confident in their responsibilities and the story you’re telling? Do they have any input on how to step up the proposal? As an example, your agenda might look something like this.
Agenda to Spark Excitement at Kickoff 🔥
✓ Introduce the opportunity
✓ Inspire with the story (this is your chance to get buy-in)
✓ Outline key milestones
✓ Assign roles and responsibilities
✓ Share your content plan, ensuring they understand how to approach their answers
✓ Discuss any questions or concerns
Step 5: Write the Proposal (First Draft)
Finally, it’s time to package your win themes into a compelling narrative, otherwise known as the proposal response. Whether you have a proposal writer or not, this step of the RFP process should be swift—now that you have a content plan to provide direction.
It’s just a matter of transferring information into a proposal template, tailoring your answers to the given client, and enlisting the brainpower of your SMEs to fill in the blanks.
Not sure how to write an RFP response? We’ve got you covered.
Create a Proposal Template
For the most part, every proposal will follow a similar format for your industry, even if the RFP questions are different. So you can prepare an RFP response by creating a proposal template that includes the main sections below.
|RFP Response Sections||What to Include|
|Proposal Cover Letter||Introduce your company and provide a high-level summary of your qualifications and differentiators.|
|Executive Summary||Dig deep into your value propositions, add supporting details, and explain how you can help the client reach their goals.|
|Action Plan||Outline how you will solve the client’s biggest problem—your timeline, deliverables, and team members involved.|
|Contract Details||Go over the fine print—compensation, cancellation, and changes.|
|Success Stories||Build trust by using references in the form of case studies or testimonials.|
Personalize Existing RFP Content
On your first pass through writing an RFP response, tackle the low-hanging fruit.
As we mentioned, you can use your content library—or your most recent 5-10 RFP responses—to start filling in the answers to frequently asked questions. (If you don’t have a library yet, don’t stress. You can work on building this as you go.)
If you can’t answer a question yet because you need SME knowledge, skip it for now—we’ll tackle these in our second pass. Be sure to provide only relevant information to the RFP questions (don’t go overboard) and personalize each proposal response to your audience.
Here are some proposal writing techniques to remember:
✓ Answer the full question: A prospect will likely skim each proposal to get through their massive stack. Make your answers obvious by working the question into the first sentence, front-loading key information, and adding supporting details later.
✓ Speak to your audience: A proposal seems like the right time to boast, but the only thing on a prospect’s mind is what’s in it for them. Put the focus back on them by replacing every “we” with “you.” This trick makes them feel acknowledged and valued.
✓ Show, don’t tell: Any company can say they’re agile, robust, secure, and flexible. Those words have lost their meaning and often get filtered out as fluff. Instead, use facts, figures, and testimonials as proof points to better your case.
✓ Go beyond the features: Zero in on the outcome, not just what you can do. If you can describe precisely how you’ll help them reach their goals, they’ll be banging on your door to close the deal.
Step 6: Have SMEs Connect the Dots
Once you’ve covered all the ground you can manage, ask your SMEs for guidance. Just remember, if you want to solicit information from SMEs, you have to make it a positive experience for them–otherwise, they’ll hesitate to participate in the next RFP.
Many RFP responders have a love-hate relationship with their SMEs. It can be tough—they’re busy and often wait until the last minute to return messages (or ghost altogether). But at the end of the day, you need each other. To collaborate effectively on future RFPs, you need to be strategic in how you use everyone’s time.
How to Leave a Trail for SMEs 🥾 (so you don’t lose them)
1. Take the first pass at a draft and get their help to fact-check your answers.
2. Send no more than one email with a comprehensive list of questions.
3. Schedule an interview for SMEs who are less responsive to email.
4. Share your content plan to help SMEs align with key proposal themes.
5. Provide a past RFP they can use as a guide to model the structure of their responses.
Step 7: Proofread the Proposal (and Polish)
Proofreading is one of the most important RFP response process steps because typos and other errors can make your proposal look unprofessional. If possible, designate someone as a proofreader who isn’t involved in writing the RFP response, so the document is edited with new eyes.
If you don’t have anyone available, try some of the following tricks:
✓ Give yourself a full day away from the RFP—this helps you return to the document with a fresh perspective.
✓ Change the document font—this can trick your brain into seeing the text as a new piece of writing.
✓ Read the proposal aloud—this helps you engage with what’s really on the page (not what you think is there).
Check for Quality Standards
Looks good to go? Hold up, wait a minute. Lisa Longley, Vice President of Weber Associates, also recommends designating a step for quality assurance (QA) to make sure nothing slips through the cracks.
When it comes to RFP response editing, use the four C’s.
|The Four C’s||What to Check|
|Is it compliant?||Did you answer all of the questions? Are there any gaps that you missed?|
|Is it consistent?||Is your voice, tone, and grammar uniform? Are your numbers and statistics correct?|
|Is it clear?||Did you use any company jargon? Will an outside reader understand your terminology and acronyms?|
|Is it compelling?||Are you backing up your claims with data and success stories? Did you make a strong case and nail the benefits?|
Once you’ve given your RFP response a final polish, you’re ready to submit it to key stakeholders for approval. Remember to carefully review all submission instructions so you don’t forget anything that may be required, like attachments or a cover letter.
Send the Draft to Design
Words can only capture so much attention on their own—every good response has a visual story, too. It makes the proposal pop from the pile, but it helps the client better understand what’s on each page.
If you have a designer on-hand (whether freelance or in-house), bring them into the RFP response process to spice up your proposals. With a tight deadline, they may have to work alongside the proposal writer, adding in design elements when inspiration strikes—like charts or icons.
Creating a modern proposal template is one way to make this step quicker (and less of a burden on your designer). As long as you follow brand guidelines and draft a balanced layout, you can tweak it for every RFP. Just be sure to ask:
✓ Are there design or formatting instructions you need to adhere to?
✓ What does your knowledge of your client tell you about their design preferences?
✓ Are there ways you can mimic your prospect’s design aesthetic or co-brand the document (a.k.a. using your branding and theirs), so it feels intuitive?
Step 8: Submit the RFP Response
You’re almost there. The last step of the RFP response process is submission, and as easy as it sounds, you’ve got to get this right.
Avoid common mistakes when submitting an RFP by:
✓ Paying attention to delivery instructions
✓ Verifying if the RFP accepts e-signatures
✓ Getting the document notarized, if required
When you’ve finally checked all the boxes, hit send (or slip the response in the mail). Congrats, you’ve closed the loop! Now it’s time to celebrate (and anxiously wait to hear back).
Save Your RFP Response for Later
Submitting the proposal isn’t the end of your RFP response process. Soon enough, another RFP will come along for another project. And when it does, having a library of fresh and up-to-date content will help you and your team respond quickly, with far less effort.
In other words, you’ll already know how to answer RFP questions because all of your winning responses are easily accessible in one place.
If you don’t already have an RFP answer library, now’s the time to start building one. This will be easiest with a dedicated RFP response tool like Loopio, but Microsoft 365’s SharePoint or a shared Google Drive folder can also work to start.
At a minimum, the RFP or RFI software you use should be searchable and allow you to note when an answer was last updated (if the tool doesn’t do so automatically).
Don’t agonize over building a vast library with content to cover every possible question—it’s okay for it to be a work in progress. Start by adding the answers from your most recent 5-10 RFP responses, and then add your new answers each time you complete an RFP.
Soon enough, you’ll have a comprehensive library you can draw from any time you need to write an RFP response.
What Happens After the RFP Process?
Submitting an RFP response can be scary. It’s a relief getting it out of your hands on time, but you may also experience a bit of post-proposal panic. Did you miss a question? Send it in the correct format? Spell the company name right?
Just breathe—trust in yourself and your team. You’ve put in the work to optimize the RFP process and submitted a high-quality proposal. Now, it’s the waiting game.
After the RFP process, key stakeholders will evaluate and score the responses. Here, the goal is to eliminate vendors who do not meet the criteria and shortlist the ones who stand out. This part of the RFP timeline can take one to four weeks, sometimes longer.
One of two scenarios will happen next; you’ll either:
Make the Shortlist
Congrats, you made it to the next round. 🎉 That means you wrote a winning response (keep it saved as a reference for the next RFP). Now, the prospect might ask for additional demos or even an RFP finalist presentation, so you need to connect with your sales team and make sure they’re aligned on your win themes. It’s up to them to swoop in and close the deal.
Or, Receive a Proposal Rejection
Hold your head up high. You can’t win them all—the final decision may have come down to something out of your control, like price or product fit. The best thing to do is keep the relationship strong, pick up the rubble, and repair the RFP response for next time.
How to Respond to an RFP Rejection
- Reply with a thoughtful “thank you for your interest.”
- Ask for feedback over email or a quick call.
- Let them know the door is always open.
- Host a post-mortem with the team.
- Brush it off and get ready for the next RFP.
How to Improve the RFP Process
Given how critical RFPs are to business growth, it’s important to feel confident and satisfied in your process. You might not get it right the first time, and that’s okay. It will take some tweaking and re-tweaking until you find something that works best.
If you can, make sure to give yourself breathing room between responses to work on improving the RFP process. Leave at least 20% of your work week to review content, get feedback from the team, or analyze winning responses. Soon you will have your own record of RFP process best practices for the books.
Capture this: RFP Response Best Practices 📸
- Hop on a call with a prospect (who knows where a tangent may lead)
- Make RFPs fun for contributors with friendly competitions (like RFP hunger games)
- Look at specialty over seniority when choosing SMEs (think: who lives and breathes this?)
- Don’t be afraid to repurpose responses (myth-busted: you don’t have to start from scratch)
- Let RFX software do the grunt work while you fine-tune (Automation + Your Mastery = RFP Magic 🪄)
With time, you’ll implement an effective RFP process that saves time and improves the quality of the proposals you submit—resulting in less stress, a better win rate, and a happier team.
Want to optimize your RFP process?
Download this RFP checklist template to plan, track, and tackle each response.