RFP Best Practices: 6 Steps to Creating Proposals

9 minute read

Team Qvidian

Optimizing your RFP response process is hard. It takes a village—or, in some organizations, more like a small country—to deliver winning proposals on a deadline. Considering the volume of company, product, and service details needed, and the input from various subject matter experts (SMEs) required, on average, three to ten people work on every RFP response. And that number balloons to up to twenty people for complex and strategic RFP responses.

If you only get one or two RFPs a year, you can demand “all hands, on deck,” rally the team, call in favors, throw out gifts, and generally do whatever it takes to finish your proposals on time. But when you receive one or two RFPs a month, or two RFPs a week, you have to think about building a sustainable proposal creation process.

Proposal management and efficient collaboration are critical to proposal success but challenging to master. Especially when contributors are continents apart, product knowledge is hiding in SharePoint’s darkest recesses, and nuggets of persuasive brilliance from the proposal writers of yesteryear are aging away in long-forgotten Word documents and Excel spreadsheets.

Your only hope to stay ahead of the demand for proposals is to keep people, processes, and technology in mind. From our experts to you, here are six RFP best practices for creating winning proposals.

Six RFP Best Practices to Ensure a Sound RFP Response

1. Write Proposals with the “Is-Does-Means” Approach

SMEs in product management, services, and engineering are, by definition, experts. They’re also very close to your products and service, which generally leads them to create proposal content that revolves around features and functionality.

To create compelling proposals, you need to convey the specific value your products and services will provide the prospect. One way to move beyond listing features is to have your SMEs draft their proposal content using the three-step “Is-Does-Means” method. Ask your SMEs to consider:

  • What is the offering?
    • Example: RFP response automation and proposal management software.
  • What does it do?
    • Example: Automate away the tedious and time-consuming elements of creating proposals and responding to RFPs.
  • What does this mean for the buyer?
    • Example: Create higher-quality proposals quickly to respond to more RFPs with the same headcount and win more business.

The third question is crucial, but also the one that many organizations overlook. Here’s a quick trick to help answer this question. Picture yourself telling prospects about your product and them replying with, “So what?” Your answer to their “so what” question is what your offering means for the buyer.

2. Get Your SMEs started with Draft Proposal Content

Most SMEs are not professional writers. And, let’s be real, blank pages are intimidating even for tenured proposal managers. So, whenever you can, give your SMEs starter content to work with instead of asking them to create brand new proposal content from scratch.

Using a proposal management software that stores all your approved proposal content in a central location is the most efficient way to find the best content to start from. Based on the opportunity, your proposal management software may even be able to suggest the most relevant content automatically, so you can jumpstart proposal creation without running a single manual content search.

When your SMEs create new or substantially revised proposal content, be sure to squeeze the most value from their contributions. Add any proposal content that could be helpful in the future back into your approved proposal content library. That way, when you get the same question down the line, you won’t have to bother the SME again, and you’ll be able to complete your proposal even faster.

3. It Takes a Team to Build a Winning RFP

Strong bonds between proposal team members and contributing SMEs are vital to driving effective communication. Bring your team and contributors together regularly for group lunches, after-work hangouts, and other social events.

If your team is local, go for the in-person approach. If your team is widely dispersed, find out what times work best and get some virtual events on your calendars. Every person-to-person interaction helps build camaraderie. Writing a proposal is a group activity, after all, and close-knit teams are more willing to go the extra mile to help each other out when proposal deadlines are looming.

Cross-training your team is another best practice because prospects rarely take your pre-scheduled vacations or regional holidays into consideration when setting proposal deadlines. It’s always beneficial to have backups who can step in to save the day when your primary proposal team members are unavailable.

4. Set Realistic RFP Benchmarks

Work with Human Resources to add a line about proposal creation to the job descriptions of your organization’s most frequent proposal contributors. Setting expectations up-front is a one of the easiest RFP best practices to implement and will lower resistance down the line when you ask SME’s for help with proposals. They’ll be less apt to see your request as a frustrating distraction if they understand that assisting with proposals is a defined part of their job.

As an additional best-practice, always respect your SMEs’ time. Only contact SMEs if you cannot find the information you need anywhere else (i.e., it’s not already in your proposal management software’s content library). Also, take the time to make your requests clear, so SMEs can provide the exact information you need the first time around, without confusion or back-and-forth email chains.

5. Start Working on Proposals Early On

While creating a complex proposal is daunting, the project isn’t going to get any easier with time. Proposals are infamous for their tight turnaround times, and procrastinating compounds the challenge of delivering high-quality, persuasive proposals on a deadline. Bite the bullet and get started ASAP.

If you need to pull-in SMEs and other proposal contributors, give them as much advanced warning as you can. While most people are happy to contribute to the proposal process every once in a while, it’s next to impossible for them to drop everything on short notice to prioritize your proposal project. Including contributors earlier in the process also helps to get them on message faster since they have more time to understand the prospect’s pain points, goals, and requirements.

6. As You Move Through the Process, Stay Ahead Of Proposal Content Version Control

When collecting multiple proposal content pieces from various people, emailing the same lengthy request to every contributor is a recipe for disaster. Despite your best efforts to clarify, some SME’s and reviewers will inevitably work on the wrong part of the proposal by mistake. Other proposal contributors may see the long request document and assume you’re asking them to review the entire proposal. In this case, you’re likely to find them hiding under their desk, ignoring your plea for proposal help altogether.

Even if your contributors defy the odds and get right to work, if they then start emailing partially completed proposals back and forth with various questions, attachments, and others on ‘CC, your project will rapidly devolve into a version control nightmare. Before you know it, you’ll end with bits and pieces of a half-baked proposal clogging your inbox. Making sense of this jumble of fragmented content before your proposal deadline is a horrible way to spend your weekend.

To streamline version control and collaboration, follow one of the most critical RFP best practices and use a proposal management software that allows you to assign contributors to work on specific parts of your proposal and captures their input automatically (sans labyrinthine email chains). Proposal management software with review and approval workflows can also prompt your team members when it’s their turn to act and issue friendly reminders as proposal deadlines approach.

Bonus RFP Best Practice: Only create proposals for opportunities you actually want to win

Even if you follow these best practices and create a lean, collaboration machine, proposals are still complicated and time-consuming. Before committing half a dozen contributors to a proposal project, ensure it’s an opportunity you both can win, and actually want to win.

Walking away from an opportunity is a tough decision, but if your organization is a poor match for a prospect, you can’t afford to sacrifice time and resources trying to convince them otherwise. And, if you beat the odds and win the business of an ill-fitting prospect, you better keep the cork in that bottle of Champaign because that customer relationship may not be so rosy.

Onboarding and supporting a client that’s far outside your ideal customer profile (ICP) may be a lose, lose situation. Your new customer will likely be frustrated when they discover you can’t resolve their problems as expected. After sucking up countless tech support and customer success hours and being a dark presence at company events and webinars, this disgruntled client will eventually leave your company. If you’re lucky, that’s where it ends, but your former client may go on to give your organization negative reviews online and badmouth you to their peers until the day they retire.

Do yourself a favor and avoid this scenario by being honest from the start. Only dedicate your limited proposal resources to the prospects your organization is best positioned to transform into glowing customers. Not only will your proposal win rates rise, but you’ll be cultivating lifelong advocates for your organization that will attract other well-fitting prospects for years to come.

Ready to Implement these RFP Best Practices?

If you’re looking to take your proposal creation game from beginner to expert and maximize your team’s productivity, check out Upland Qvidian. Qvidian is a proposal management software trusted by more than 200,000 users globally to automate away the tedious and frustrating parts of your proposal process, tame proposal content chaos, and help you increase win rates.

For more information about how Upland Qvidian can help meet your organization’s unique needs, contact a Qvidian RFP response and proposal expert.

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