The most dangerous letters in sales are RFP. Respond, and you lose…One of my clients emailed me an RFP (request for proposal) that they received yesterday. It came from a company who had never done business with them and who they had never even called on. They know my rule. RFP means one of two things. It’s either ‘Real Fools Participate’ or ‘Request For Probing’.
Real Fools are the ones that read the document and believe every word. It says, “All questions must be in writing” and “Contact with the company must be through the purchasing office”. If you play this game, you are falling into the trap of thinking that this makes a level playing field for all bidders.
Wrong!
First of all. I hate level playing fields. I like the ones that are sloped down hill, in the direction I am running. Unless you are up against a government contract where public laws dictate the rules, there is almost no reason for a company to ‘level the playing field’ or for you to accept one. In fact, this type of ‘level playing field’ works against both companies.
The buying company loses because they only get answers to the questions they thought to ask and the seller loses because they can only respond to the limited information provided. Second, it’s rarely level. Unless the company started yesterday, they have a rapport with another vendor. That vendor probably helped write the RFP.
Do you call that level?
So what’s the solution? First, you must understand that the probability of winning business from responding to an RPF where you have no relationship with the client is so close to zero as to not be worth discussing. Unfortunately, everyone has won one or two and believes that they are the exception. Studies done by the Waterhouse Group and others show otherwise.
Once you believe in the low probability of winning these RFP’s, you are ready for the solution.
1. Refuse to look at an RFP as an immediate need to begin preparing a proposal. It’s not. In fact, in most cases, you would be better off making another cold call than responding to the RFP’s terms.
2. Redefine the RFP as a Request For Probe. That means, the prospect has sent up a signal flare that identifies a source of potential business. Treat it like any other hot lead.
3. Assuming that the business outlined in the RFP is business you want or that it could lead to business you want, start digging.
Start digging for what?
Contacts:
Contacts within the company who will talk with you. Call the CEO or have your CEO call their CEO. Call department heads or managers of departments affected by your offering. Look high and low for as many of the buying influences as you can find. Ideally, get to the economic buyer and others who will be involved in this decision.
Information:
Information about the company that indicates how your solutions might help their business. Search their web site for press releases and articles. In the example I cited above, we determined that the prospect had just undergone a major cost-cutting layoff to save the company. While some might say that this indicates a price shopper, I say no. The buyer may be a price shopper but the CEO is a survival shopper. Show the CEO how you can save the company and they will find the money to pay you.
Competition:
Clues to the competition and how entrenched they already are in this deal. Who wrote the RFP? Did the competition write it? Who are they using now? Who have they used in the past. Whose names are in the guest log at the main desk? Google them and see if they show up as a client of your competition. Many companies post case studies on their web site. That’s great stuff if you can get it.
Process:
What is the intended buying process? How do they intend to compare vendors and what criteria have they established. How did they do it last time or how did they choose vendors for another product or service. Often sales people who sell other products to your prospect will be willing to fill you in. It’s worth asking.
Chapter 7 of “The Team Selling Solution: Creating and Managing Teams That Win the Complex Sale” addresses many of these issues. If you work out regularly or drive a lot, get the audio CD version available on Steve’s website.
If you understand consultative selling, and most of you should, you get the point. You can’t solve a customer’s problem by presenting a solution to the problem they mailed in. Any more than a doctor should write you a prescription to cure an ailment that you self-diagnosed.
Refuse the urge to respond to RFP’s until you know the lay of the land. When you change your approach from Real Fools Participate to Request For Probe, you’ll write fewer proposals and make more sales.
About the Author
Stephen Waterhouse is Principal and Founder of Waterhouse Group. They specialize in helping companies increase their sales and profits. He can be reached at 1-800-57-LEARN or steve@waterhousegroup.com.

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