Receiving a request for proposal (RFP) can be a great opportunity to grow your business.
But, for a lot of business owners, RFPs are complicated, overwhelming, and downright terrifying.
In this article, we’ll give you 11 practical tips to improve your business proposal writing skills and show you exactly what to do the next time an RFP lands in your inbox.
Before we get to the tips, it’s important to understand what an RFP is designed to do.
In short, an RFP response is like a business proposal done in reverse.
Instead of soliciting companies with your goods and services or trying to identify a problem and create a solution, organizations producing an RFP already know they have a problem.
And they are asking for your help to fix it.
Most RFPs give you everything you need to include in your RFP response. Typically, this will include most of the following:
- An executive summary describing the opportunity
- A scope of work and expected deliverables
- Contact information for project stakeholders
- Details about the selection process
- Detailed information about a client’s needs and objectives
- Information for how you should respond
In other words, the RFP is your cheat sheet for how you should write your business proposal. The hard (and terrifying) part is writing a document that can generate a winning RFP response.
With that in mind, here’s how to improve your next RFP.
01. Speak to your client’s needs
To succeed, your RFP proposal response should be informative, valuable, and transparent.
Don’t include a pushy call to action or boast too much. Instead, add detailed descriptions of your understanding of the client’s goals and your methods to achieve them.
Focus more on the client’s needs than on your own experience, but don’t forget to include some social proof that illustrates your professionalism and ability to solve their particular issue.
Remember, all the information you need is already in the RFP documentation that you received.
If you have past projects, case studies, or other powerful examples that align with the metrics and milestones that the document describes, include them in your RFP response!
Rather than providing generic phrasing like aim for phrasing that speaks to the goals and objectives that the client is trying to accomplish:
Generic: Our company has been recognized as an industry leader capable of solving challenges for companies like yours.
Needs-Focused: Our company has been recognized by [XZY Organization] as an industry leader in helping brands accomplish [Client Need 1], [Client Need 2], and [Client Need 3].
02. Be direct & specific
When responding to RFPs, always speak to the specific problems that are laid out in the document.
Pay careful attention to small details, and demonstrate your competence by offering solutions that directly address those pain points.
Most RFPs are designed as part of a competitive process. You aren’t the only one who received the request, and you’re unlikely to be the only respondent.
Put your best foot forward, confirm that all specifications can be met, and increase your chances of winning by offering examples that resonate with issuers and project stakeholders.
Generic: Our team is committed to providing support and training to assist with software onboarding.
Specific: Our team understands that new software can be difficult to work with. As part of your installation and ongoing service, we provide eight (8) one-hour onboard sessions to help you get up and running as well as 24/7/365 live technical support.
03. Always respond in a timely manner
If you received an RFP request from a potential client, do your best to respond in a fast and efficient manner.
This is especially true if you’re in a niche industry or a smaller market. Responding quickly gives decision-makers enough time to evaluate your bid and start the negotiation and evaluation process.
Small businesses may have limited time to evaluate bids or engage with the RFP response process. If the proposal team is working on a tight deadline or time frame, waiting until the last minute to submit may mean that they don’t have time to fully consider your proposal.
If the RFP is a bad fit and you don’t intend to submit a proposal, a polite reply can help ensure that you’re on the next RFP list when the company isolates a new business opportunity.
Dear [RFP Author],
Thanks so much for sending this RFP. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is a good fit for [X REASON].
However, we would love to work with you in the future. Please keep us in mind if you have any future needs related to [services and products you provide.]
[Your Name Here]
04. Give yourself room to negotiate
RFPs and similar competitive processes may give the impression that the lowest price always wins, but race-to-the-bottom pricing isn’t the way to go.
When you or your sales team submit a proposal, be sure that you give yourself enough room to negotiate your price based on any unforeseen obstacles or additional requirements.
If you aim for the lowest price possible, or you constantly change your pricing in order to win a bid, it’s easy to end up working for less than your time is worth. Worse, you could even lose money on a project when you account for procurement and labor costs!
Set your price, stick to it, and give yourself room to negotiate. Know your limits and how low you can safely go before the payout no longer makes sense for your business.
05. Proofread your proposal for typos
The proposal process can get a little hectic for everyone involved. Before you submit your RFP response, take a little time to review your documents for typographical and formatting errors before you submit.
If you don’t have access to an editor, the best way to do this is to have someone who isn’t involved with the document creation process provide feedback for your documents.
Keep in mind that some documents in your proposal are more valuable than others, and a single typo in your document (usually) won’t equate to some kind of instant disqualification.
But there is a huge difference between a typo on a line item and misspelling a potential client’s name in the cover letter or executive summary.
06. Automate your RFP response
From a structural standpoint, almost every RFP requests similar information from your team.
For example, while the contents of your cover letter or summary might change slightly based on the requester, you always need to include this documentation in every single response.
Rather than creating documents from scratch every time you generate an RFP response, automate portions of your process by creating templates that closely match common RFP requirements.
That way, when a request comes in, your team members can quickly generate all the necessary information, make minor changes to customize the proposal, and send it back out the door.
RFP automation tools like PandaDoc can help teams generate proposals at lightning speed. Take a look at some of the customizable proposal templates that PandaDoc offers for free in our template library:
- RFP Response Template (General)
- RFP Response (Consulting Services)
- RFP Response (Software Development)
07. Keep your proposal short & sweet
Your potential customer isn’t looking for a sales pitch when they write an RFP. They’re looking for someone who can help them complete a specific project or objective.
You can help them give your proposal full consideration by keeping things short and to the point.
Tell them what you plan to do, how you plan to do it, and why you’re a better fit than your competitors. Make sure that the information you provide aligns with their needs.
Nothing else (other than a polite thank you for their consideration) is required.
08. Send the proposal to the right point of contact
Keep in mind that the initial requester may not be the direct point of contact for the proposal itself.
Often, the RFP request is generated by an admin or a staff member who isn’t involved with the final decision-making process.
When responding, be sure to verify the direct contact information of the individual who is actually seeking your response. This will be included in the RFP.
09. Consult SMEs early
For complex proposals, consulting subject matter experts can be critical to creating an accurate proposal.
Bring them on early in the process and give them time to formulate a response and provide feedback on how to move forward.
As you bring on additional team members to tackle a proposal, have them assist with research and requests that can help the SME contribute to the scope of the project.
In doing so, you can provide the client with a better understanding of the steps you intend to take if your proposal is accepted.
10. Use analytics to learn what works and what doesn’t
Every proposal that you send is a learning opportunity for your business and for your team.
While some companies may only accept proposals in a PDF format, others may be open to receiving them via a direct link. In that case, take full advantage of the opportunity to gather data on the performance of your proposal.
PandaDoc and other RFP software tools allow documents to be tracked so that you can gain important insights into how clients reviewed your document. With PandaDoc, you can see when your document was received, who viewed it, and how much time was spent on each page.
Why does this matter?
By learning how your document is handled, you can continue to streamline your proposal success by improving pages that are routinely ignored and figure out your next best step.
Problems with your RFP and sales workflows can tank close rates. Figuring out what works is a key step to reducing confusion and moving deals forward.
11. Emphasize your value
Responding to an RFP is already a competitive exercise.
You can’t always stand out above the pack based on pricing alone, because you may not be able to cut your prices down to the point where you get nothing in return.
But the one thing you can do is emphasize the value of choosing your proposal over that of your competitors. These differentiators are often the key to winning in a competitive process.
Take a minute to consider: What makes your offer different?
Do you have an outstanding track record that you can leverage to demonstrate your reliability? How about a team with unique expertise? Or maybe a new framework or approach to solving the problem that delivers incredible results?
Ask yourself these questions at the start of the proposal process, and create a draft that reflects those values.
Streamline your RFP process with PandaDoc
One of the biggest reasons that RFPs are both frustrating and terrifying for many businesses is that the bidding process can bankrupt your business.
Winning RFPs can take dozens of hours to build, and this labor is required with no guarantee of a payout. This has led many to claim that RFPs are dead or that you shouldn’t even bother responding to them.
But the truth is that many industries still rely heavily on RFPs as a means of a potential hire. A business that constantly misses RFP response goals can end up operating at a loss because they devote too much time to bids without a win. That’s why, if you’re acquiring business through RFPs, you need to seal the deal.
PandaDoc helps you take the sting out of the RFP process by streamlining your response time, providing powerful analytic insights, and much more.
Sign up for a free 14-day trial today and take the fear out of your next proposal.
Originally published March 4, 2014, updated April 25, 2021