Successfully Navigating the RFP

By Lee B. Salz

Superman, as strong he is, is paralyzed by kryptonite. It brings him to his knees, despite his superhuman strength. Sales people have their own kryptonite; it’s called RFPs, the dreaded Request for Proposal. However, an RFP doesn’t have to be like kryptonite to you. Superman has no choice but to fight this nemesis to survive; sales people do have a choice. Before that next RFP threatens to leave you feeling powerless, read this article and regain your strength!

First, there is no law that says you have to respond to every RFP that crosses your desk. You have the right to say no. Some of you may be thinking that I’m insane, but it’s true. Let me turn the tables on you for a moment. The definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. If you aren’t the low price provider and you have no relationship with the prospect, how can you possibly win the business?  You can’t and won’t. Therefore, sending in countless RFP responses under these conditions will yield nothing but losses. So, who’s crazy now?

Sure, when the pipeline isn’t as full as it should be, it is a natural reflex to want to pursue every RFP you can get your hands on. Yet, filling out an RFP is work. It also has a cost to both you and your organization. While you are working on an RFP which you have little chance of winning, you aren’t prospecting for business that has a much higher chance of award. We all have the same number of hours in our day. What you elect to do with yours determines whether or not you are successful.

There are a couple of things you should know about RFPs. First, there is a disconnect between procurement and their customers (called users). Often times, procurement authors the RFP and establishes the measurement criteria for evaluating the submissions. However, when you speak to the actual user, they say that the criteria developed by procurement are inconsistent with their needs. Thus, a supplier is selected for a user based on flawed conditions.

Another thing you should know is that an RFP is not necessarily a commitment to make a change in provider. Some companies require that they source the business periodically. Ever wonder how that RFP got in your inbox?  Procurement will surf the Web and pick a handful of providers to whom they will send the RFP and off it goes. It helps to know that procurement folks are measured on their ability to reduce cost to the company. Just like a sales person’s scorecard is based on achievement of their sales quota, procurement’s quota is based on cost reduction. The RFP that arrived in your inbox could very well be their attempt to put the squeeze on the current provider so they can show a ten percent savings. Don’t kid yourself. This happens a lot!

One final thing you should know about RFPs is that they are sometimes used as a management tactic. For example, some people are too nice to tell you “no.”  Instead, they hide behind the statement that their company only buys through the RFP process. Don’t buy that for a second. No company exclusively buys this way. Even the federal government, who is the most formal buyer, does not limit their purchasing to this means. Sales people, present company included, sell products and services to the Feds without an RFP being issued. It can be done!

There is also a safety net for managers when they buy through RFPs as multiple people are involved in the selection process. If the supplier fails to perform, the finger can’t just be pointed at one person. During your needs analysis discussions, you can often get a feel for who really wants the RFP; the company or the person with whom you are meeting. Don’t underestimate the fear of blame. Many managers try to stay off the radar screen so they don’t want to create risk for themselves.

Dealing with an RFP where you have a relationship with the prospect is a subject for another time. Keeping us focused on the blind ones, as I said before, you have choices. You could just respond to every RFP. Or, you could just chuck it in the trash. Care for a third option?  What if you called the procurement person and had a conversation that sounded like this,

“Hi, I’m Lee Salz with XYZ Services. I just received your RFP in the mail and wanted to ask you a few questions so I can determine if it makes sense for us to respond. As you can imagine, we receive many RFPs and are very selective when determining which we will act upon.”

With that said, one of a few things can happen. She could give you permission to ask your questions, or she could say, “Fill out the RFP or not. It’s up to you.” My vote is to decline any RFP where the procurement person won’t allow you to ask questions of them. How can you have a fighting chance to win if they won’t speak with you?

With permission granted to ask questions, what is it you need to know to decide if it makes sense to participate in this process?

  • How did they get your name for inclusion in this process?
  • Why is this RFP out now?
  • Have they definitively decided to change providers?
  • What criteria will be used to score the RFPs?
  • What are the steps of the process after the RFP is submitted?

Sure, there are a ton of other questions you could ask, but this information will best help you to determine if you have a chance at winning this account. The rule of thumb is that the less information procurement shares, the lower the chance you have of winning.

Yes, walking away from the mega-deal is hard and painful. But is this deal real or simply a mirage? Watch any Superman movie and you will see that he overcomes his kryptonite peril. Will you overcome yours?

Lee B. Salz is president of Sales Dodo, LLC and author of “Soar despite Your Dodo Sales Manager. He specializes in helping companies and their sales organizations adapt and thrive in the ever-changing world of business. Lee is available for keynote speaking, business consulting, and sales training. He can be reached at or 763-416-4321.

[From the February/March 2008 issue of AnswerStat magazine]