What’s the most important part of a request for proposals (RFP)?

Is it the statement of work? The evaluation criteria? The pricing model? Those are all important, but if you want to win there is something about an RFP that is even more important. The problem is that it’s not even in the RFP itself.

Anyone can write a proposal that responds to what it says in the RFP, and certainly your competitors can do so. But when you try to write a great proposal, you’ll quickly start asking questions about the RFP, and you won’t find those answers in the document.

In order to write a great proposal, you need to know more than just what the customer says in the RFP. You need to know why they said it that way. The most important part of an RFP is the motivation of the customer. The reasons why they put what they did in the RFP are more important than what they put in the RFP.

Why did they go to all that work to produce the RFP?

See also:
Compliance matrix

So what motivates the customer? It could be goal attainment, compliance, laziness, fulfillment of an agenda, a desire to change, a desire to keep things the same, fear, ambition, cost control, greed, status, fashion, or some other reason. Each requirement in the RFP was put there in order to achieve something. To satisfy what the customer really wants, you need to know what motivated them.

When you respond to an RFP, it’s not enough to give them what they asked for; you need to give them what they asked for in a way that fulfills their motivations. If you just write to what it says in the RFP, you are not writing to their motivations.

The company that does the best job of writing to the customer’s motivations has the best chance of winning. This is for two reasons:

  1. The RFP may not be an accurate reflection of their motivations
  2. Fulfilling their motivations is more important than fulfilling the specifications contained in the RFP

If you can’t or don’t write to the customer’s motivations, you are bidding at a disadvantage. This is a nice way of saying that the deck is stacked against you and unless your competitors are total slackers you are probably going to lose. That’s not what we like to call a “win strategy.”

The only problem is figuring out their motivation, as opposed to what they said in the RFP. This is where that whole “customer intimacy” thing becomes important. But if you can’t achieve real customer intimacy, sometimes you can make some good guesses based on the types of motivations you expect someone from that kind of organization, culture, and environment might have.

A great proposal focuses on delivering results and not simply fulfilling requirements. But which results? In Proposal 101 level training, you learn that everything you write in a proposal should provide a benefit to the customer. But which benefit? The same exact feature could increase responsiveness, mitigate risks, lower costs, improve quality, improve the user experience, and increase stakeholder satisfaction. So which should you write about? A smart proposal writer will turn to the evaluation criteria in the RFP and make sure that the benefits correlate with how your proposal will be scored. But if you really want to win, the benefits you deliver will fulfill the motivations of the evaluator and the people who wrote the RFP.

Whenever you see an RFP that asks you to describe your understanding of the requirements, they are crying out for you to show how you will fulfill the motivations behind those requirements. They went to all that effort to write an RFP and are planning to read a bunch of proposals and conduct an evaluation. Why? It’s more than simply to buy something. There’s a reason behind it.

The company that writes to the reasons behind the RFP is the company that understands the customer. The company that fulfills those reasons is the one who will deliver what the customer really wants. If you want the customer to find what you say in the proposal to be compelling, write to their motivations. Discovering those motivations and structuring your proposal around how you will address them is how you have what we like to call “win strategies.”


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Carl Dickson

Carl is the Founder and President of CapturePlanning.com and PropLIBRARY

Carl is an expert at winning in writing. The materials he has published have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is also a prolific author, frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant and can be reached at carl.dickson@captureplanning.com. To find out more about him, you can also connect with Carl on LinkedIn.

Click here to learn how to engage Carl as a consultant.

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