How to Create a Winning RFP

A Winning Response Goes Above and Beyond Compliance

By their nature, RFPs (request for proposals) are competitive situations. The winner does not necessarily have to have the best solution; they have to have the best response. Learn how to ensure that your response is the obvious choice.

A winning response to an RFP must achieve several targets:

  • meet the minimum criteria for inclusion in the scoring process;
  • score well in most, if not all, points award categories;
  • offer superior value over its competitors;
  • minimize risk to the issuer.

In addition to these obvious goals, there are two oft overlooked criteria that aren’t explicitly defined in the RFP. They must also:

  • explicitly appeal to the key decision-maker or influencer,
  • avoid being blocked by any other influential stakeholder.

None of these points may appear insightful, but we have seen countless responses which have failed some, or yes, all of them.

So how can you ensure that your response stands out amongst its competitors and survives the competition to the finish line?

The first step is where many responders assure their failure.

Read the RFP – fully, carefully and repeatedly. Often you will not be the first person in your organization to review it.  You may have already been given guidelines or explicit direction in how to respond.  Read the RFP as if you hadn’t received those instructions.

Our recommended approach to writing RFPs is more honoured in the breach. See An Effective RFP

Quote from Goether about Clever ReadersToo many RFPs are still focused in the how to do rather than the what is to be done. We’ll deal with this later, but first let’s get back to the reading.  Read what’s there and make notes. Consider what’s not there, and make notes about that too. Then read between the lines – and make notes on how to explore those issues equally fully.

Write an Outline of How your Organization can Meet the Requirements

If you’ve already been given this guideline, you can demonstrate value add to your organization by identifying the challenges and opportunities that your own analysis has revealed. Identify clearly what you will deliver, and how it meets the client’s requirements. If your ‘how’ you will deliver the functionality is different from the prescribed ‘how’ in the RFP, outline your approach to the justification for the discrepancy.

Many RFPs will have an appendix score sheet and/or check-list of the things that should be addressed in your response. A successful response will honour and exceed this guideline. So must your outline.

Explore Every Possibility to seek Clarification and Expansion from the Client

An expansive business network is the best way to understand the RFP’s organization and its issues, needs, personalities and culture. Google and LinkedIn are good secondary sources. Recent articles and appointment notices in business publications and newspapers are also solid background in framing a winning approach. It is unlikely that the RFP will touch on the personalities or the real culture of the organization. If you can develop a response which reflects them, you’ll have a significant advantage over the competition.

A good RFP will offer an opportunity for clarifying specific issues to respondents, generally in an all party bidders’ meeting.  That IS NOT the forum where you want to explore the value of your between the lines opportunities. It IS however the place to seek an easement on the RFP’s ‘hows’, to explore who the stakeholders are, who the decision-maker and/or influencer is, and identify any blockers and their red-line issues.

The issuer’s organization chart is useful in identifying hidden stakeholders and also potential blockers – whose ox might get gored? They may the least to gain from your solution, but they have the most motivation to talk.

Somebody will inevitably ask for the budget on the proposal at the bidder’s meeting. They will not get the answer. You might though, if you pursue value-add opportunities in a more intimate conversation with one or more of the stakeholders, or better still by exploring a hot-button of a potential blocker.

Evaluate the Value of your Outline

Have you hedged your responses to any of the mandatory items?   If yes, brainstorm how you can unequivocally address the requirement – or stop wasting time.

Have you quantified or qualified the value of deliverables which were not explicitly requested but which can be provided for minimal additional cost?

Can you deliver the outlined deliverable for the anticipated budget with a low level of overrun risk?

Finally, is the RFP wired to another bidder? They are typically the supplier who asked no questions at the bidders meeting – and looks smug. Check their web page to see how closely the RFP reflects their offering. Unless you’ve unearthed a brilliant strategy to overcome the bias, move on to a better prospect.

Write the Detailed Response

A successful response will resonate with the client. This is much more likely if the contributors can summon enough empathy to write from the client’s perspective rather than their own organization’s viewpoint. The ultimate author should be the final arbiter on client focused wording.

What is Client Focused Wording


The client is the subject of the sentence.

The vendor/product name isn’t mentioned.

Vendor Focused


{Vendor name] solution will meet and exceed the stated needs of [client]

Client Focused


[Client name] will achieve its intended benefits, and more, from the proposed solution.

Fundamentally, readers should feel as if one of their own has written the proposal. That way they can more easily take ownership of the proposed solution. Note that this does not excuse hyperbole or disingenuous statements.

While the RFP seeks a solution, the client in reality has specific business expectations in mind. Ideally, these would be spelled out in the RFP, but frequently they are omitted or only implied. The respondent should attempt to re-word those business benefits at the beginning of the response:

  • to demonstrate an understanding of the client’s business requirements and, perhaps, strategy,
  • to highlight value add benefits or risk mitigations you’ve identified, and
  • to frame the context, and scope, of your response.

As well as demonstrating a client focus, this section also serves to open a dialogue about scope expansion or limitation which will be important at the contract negotiation phase.

This section should also attempt to address the various stakeholders’ interests that you have identified and explored. Explicitly identifying that you have thought how to overcome resistance to change will potentially earn bonus points in the scoring process, especially if there is, in fact, resistance to the project.

The main body of the response may be defined by the RFP. It may even take a ‘fill in the answers’ check list. Notwithstanding any prescriptive format, there must be a narrative section in your response which describes what your proposed solution will do. Once again this should be client, and outcomes focused. What your solution achieves should reflect the business objectives of the client, not the processes it has to perform to achieve them. Yes, their customers have to be able to pay through a variety of methods, but the business focus is on customer satisfaction and security, and getting the funds in the bank.

Outcomes vs. Functional Focus


Outcomes are business objectives (customer satisfaction, data security, etc.)

rather than transactions

Functional Focus


Credit card purchases will be enabled using standard bank interfaces …

Outcomes Focus


Customers  choosing to make payment via credit cards are assured of banking standard data security …

The approach above will significantly improve your chances to succeed. However, there is still much to do to prevent rejection of your response.

No matter how good or bad the RFP is constructed, your response will be evaluated on how well it conforms to the prescribed format and content. Additional material will be forgiven, if appropriately identified (e.g. Executive Summary, Our Understanding of Your Needs, etc.). Omissions, on the other hand, will undermine all your other good works. If the RFP does not include a Response Checklist, create one yourself – and check it like Santa’s gift list, twice.

The Final Step

Once you have completed the response and ensured that it reflects a client orientation throughout, it’s time to re-read the RFP, again! After days, or weeks, wearing a vendor’s hat, albeit with the client in mind, it’s time to re-immerse yourself in the client’s shoes – actually the decision maker’s and/or influencer’s shoes  –  and consider if your response addresses and exceeds the stated,  the implied and even the un-stated needs of the organization, or person. And can it be tweaked to pass muster with prospective blockers?

Then deliver it on time.

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