How to Pursue RFPs Like an Expert

February 1, 2018


Last month we focused on the risks of the Request for Proposal (RFP) process. This month, we’re going to plow forward if you decide RFPs could work for you.

Let’s consider the case of Greg Brooks, who is principal at West Third Group in Las Vegas. Over the years, he has participated in numerous RFP responses and says roughly 30 to 80 percent of his business is rooted in RFPs. To identify new opportunities, he subscribes to services that watch the public-sector RFP marketplace, while following a discipline of regular Google searches for private sector and nonprofit RFP opportunities.

For Brooks, the benefit to winning RFPs has been to find work in remote markets. He’s learned that once you can say you’ve done work in a remote market, you can win more work without geographic restrictions. The criteria he sets for himself on whether to respond to an RFP includes three questions:

1. Can I win the work? Brooks has determined he is more likely to have success in secondary or tertiary markets where the total contract value is under $150,000. He recognizes that some RFPs seem focused on certain market expertise or local market knowledge, so in those cases he’ll weigh his options more carefully.

2. Can I profitably do the work? Like most other independents, Brooks realizes it may not be feasible to try to take on the work and expect to make a profit, regardless of the budget parameters included in an RFP.

“At the other end of the scale, you have to be careful not to let your eyes get bigger than your stomach,” he says. “Yes, it’s a thrill to bid on $500k worth of work. But on the balance sheet of your business, that’s also taking on $500,000 in executional risk. Are you ready for that? It’s important to have that clarity.”

3. Are there any “showstoppers” present? For Brooks, a showstopper could be a requirement in an RFP to provide spec creative, include a performance bond, reveal overhead/profit percentages or disclose audited financials.
“Everyone may have different criteria, but there are some things I won’t do to win an assignment,” he says.

One area where Brooks may be more generous is the sharing of spec ideas. “Usually when a client asks for ideas in a proposal, what they really want is some demonstration that you’re capable of generating good ideas,” he says.

Defining your approach

He advises independents to make sure that, in any RFP response, their proposal meets all requirements of the RFP.
To ensure this, Brooks likes to write his executive summary first. He believes this section demonstrates that he understands the importance of the work and what special concerns may be at play, while detailing why his approach is the right one.

“If this is done correctly, it is aspirational and defines themes that are then touched upon in every other section of the document,” says Brooks. “I also believe format matters immensely. We’re supposed to be professional communicators, but a really shocking number of firms don’t know how to create an eye-pleasing, editorially sound proposal document.”

Managing your expectations

If you’re going to play in the RFP arena, then you’ll need to learn all about managing your own expectations.

“Understand that you’re going to lose most of the RFPs you chase,” says Brooks. “A 20 percent win rate would be terrific. That means your focus should be on developing a great set of modular documents — your agency back story, your boilerplate for talking about earned media — that allow you to very quickly put together a working document.

“All of that should be customized, but too many of us are trying to write it all from scratch every time. At that level of effort, it’s fruitless to chase RFPs.” 

Tim O'Brien, APR

Tim O’Brien, APR, owns O’Brien Communications, an independent corporate communications practice in Pittsburgh, and hosts the “Shaping Opinion” podcast. Email: timobrien@timobrienpr.com. Twitter: @OBrienPR.


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