When you spend time in the consulting business, you learn the joys of the request for proposal (RFP) and bid process. I've sat on both sides of the table. I've been the client seeking project submissions, and the consultant submitting the proposal. I've also helped win private and government contracts, and I've been the client responsible for selecting vendors for private and publicly traded companies. The process isn't much fun, though it is necessary.
As the client, you typically have a pretty good idea of what you need, and you often know which entity you prefer deliver the services. Maybe it's a board, a group of shareholders, or another management group who needs convincing the proper homework has been completed — that's why bid and proposal procedures exist. Investors, auditors, taxpayers, among others must ensure resources are invested properly to maximum efficiency. Occasionally, and more often than I believe most wish to admit, project strategies are already determined, but sometimes an RFP's purpose is to help an organization determine the strategy or method for fulfilling a need or objective.
Thus, the RFP process isn't just rote routine work that involves submitting an equipment price list combined with a service estimate. Instead, technology consultants should view bid and RFP events as opportunities to form strong, long-term relationships with new clients. You do that by learning more about the client, the client's industry, and the client's specific business objectives. I've discovered several practical, readily applicable tips for these situations:
- Learn more about the client. You must familiarize yourself with the client. Is the organization a non-profit? If so, the client will be able to leverage significant discounts by purchasing from TechSoup. Is the client a government agency? Government buying programs then come into play. How is the entity organized and who governs its decisions? Answering these questions helps you better understand the client's structure and the motivations for the party awarding the bid or project.
- Learn more about the client's industry. What are the industry's challenges? Retailers focus on forecasting and point of sale issues, while manufacturers worry about inventory management. Meanwhile, a financial services firm might bet the house on middleware applications. Who are the client's competitors, and how are competitors settings themselves apart (and what role is technology playing in those efforts)? The point is you should develop a better understanding of the specific issues the client faces to ensure you structure an RFP response to match specific client needs and objectives.
- How big is the client? It's one thing to ask how many staff or customers the client possesses — that's helpful information you'll need to help prepare a meaningful proposal — but confirm, too, how the client's current size and scale compare not only with competitors, but the client's own plans for scaling back or growing.
- Request a meeting. Ask the client for a meeting. There's nothing wrong with placing a call and touching base with the staff fielding the RFP. State your office is participating, and you want to ensure you prepare as helpful a response as possible to help maximize the time the client invests in the entire process. Over lunch (both parties can foot their own bill to avoid any improprieties) discuss any questions you're unable to answer via other research methods (newspaper articles, trade publication pieces, via Web- and online database research, etc.).
Those steps must be completed if your office is to submit a knowledgeable RFP, but there's more... the RFP or bid itself must be a professional document. Organizations typically state within the RFP the form of the materials to be returned by prospective bidders. Follow these steps to ensure all your work, research, and submission is well received:
- Fulfill the RFP requirements. RFPs, like a Van Halen concert contract, sometimes include language designed to gauge how much attention is paid to details. If a letter must be sent by X date indicating participation, ensure you send a letter in advance of that date. If material must be submitted in a black binder minus staples on an odd day of the first month, be sure to meet all those requirements. This should be a given; unfortunately, it's not. Don't be an oddball out requesting a favor at the last moment; it's unprofessional and does nothing to improve the likelihood you'll win the bid.
- Leverage additional materials. Just because an RFP calls for specific materials doesn't mean you can't submit supporting information. For more complicated projects, feel free to (separately) submit full-color Visio network diagrams, brief PowerPoint slides, or other professional-appearing documents to help the client better understand the solutions and services you're recommending.
- Submit success stories. If an RFP doesn't call for including references and previous case studies recounting similar projects your organization has completed, write them up and submit them as an additional brief. Include a note stating that, while the material wasn't requested, you thought it might assist the client in making his or her decision. The more success you've experienced completing similar projects, the more you should play it up.
- Include vendor information. Vendors whose products you may be recommending frequently invest significant sums preparing case studies, glossy marketing materials, and even Gartner and other analyst reprints demonstrating why their products are the best. These materials also frequently tout the products' technological advantages and cost superiority. Include these items as additional materials, again with a letter stating they weren't required by the RFP but you're including them to better enable the client to make the most cost-effective decision possible. As a client managing an RFP, I always appreciated receiving additional supporting material.
IT consultants aren't necessarily the most creative sales and business people, but they don't need to be. Follow these guidelines, and you're sure to be on better footing the next time you respond to a bid, estimate, or RFP request.
Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president of Eckel Media Corp., a communications company specializing in public relations and technical authoring projects.