You have received another Request for Proposal from a potential client. It’s the third one this month. You think a moment and ask yourself, “What will guarantee my success on this RFP?”

Sadly, there’s no magic wand, supernatural voodoo, silver bullet or secret sauce. There are no guarantees, promises or assurances and no tricks or special words that will affect the outcome. RFPs are tough, time-consuming energy suckers. 

That said, the best path to success with RFPs is to be organized before the RFP arrives.

The following steps are a laundry list of do’s and don’ts gleaned from years of expertise evaluating and responding to RFPs. To be honest, it’s a lot of information and will be challenging to absorb in a single reading. And you won’t be able to accomplish each of these quickly, so don’t try. Instead, choose one topic and add it to your action plan. Preparation now saves time, money and stress later when the RFP is on your desk and the deadline is looming.

Step One: Begin By Building A Team

Who manages your company’s technology? How about supplier relations, quality assurance, compliance and fulfillment? RFP questions can cover all aspects of your business. Even if you don’t have internal staff to handle these areas, you’ve probably developed expert information through your affiliations and outside resources. For an internal team you need:

  • A project manager to hold the various departments accountable to deliver their materials on time. This person will have additional duties to be determined, including responsibility for managing and completing the master document. 
  • A representative from each contributing department or business partner such as merchandising, customer service, creative, warehouse/fulfillment, IT, etc.
  • The salesperson who works with the client or who will be assigned to the client
  • A proofreader and/or someone who can polish the final document

Step Two: Get A G.R.I.P. On The Process

Think about how to respond to questions on your growth strategies. A repository of collected information can remove a lot of the angst. Insight into your client’s needs and service levels should be addressed in your answers. Develop and organize your internal processes and procedures; be prepared to explain them in your answers.

The best way to improve your responses to RFPs is to build upon what you’ve learned in responding to previous requests. Access to a shared folder of previous responses, standard materials, and procedures and processes makes it easy to jumpstart or supplement your RFP answers. Go through previous RFPs and collect information that can be repurposed, including the best answers used previously and other standard information that simply needs updating. Be sure to create and store basic RFP materials so you don’t have to gather the same materials each time.

Having the information accessible isn’t a license to cut and paste the answers, because every question will differ slightly from other RFPs. The point is that it’s easier to begin with a starting point than a blank canvas. 

Are you making changes in or expanding your business? Developing new ways to improve service levels? Clients now ask how your business will save them money. Be prepared with answers about growth and improvement strategies.

Most RFPs will ask similar basic information. Create a repository of responses for these topics: service and quality capabilities, technology, disaster recovery, testing, quality control (currently a big issue), environmental responsibility, service levels and metrics, surveys, order and proofing processes, and awards.

Collect testimonials and case studies that address creativity, quality, delivery, service and saving money to substantiate your responses. Make sure your company has signed off on PPAI’s Code of Ethics; it strengthens your response to certain answers.

Gain insight into the client, including their needs and pain points. These may be indicated through the questions asked in the RFP or in what the company says they’re looking for. Visit the client’s website to learn about their promises and personal projects, such as charities, community involvement and/or environment initiatives. 

Ensure responses on your processes and procedures are ready to go and well explained through bullet points, graphs, charts and diagrams. Keep an updated organization chart and biographies of each of the salespeople. Include creative/technology/fulfillment/customer service team members in the organization chart if they are on the team for that RFP. Indicate each person’s role, value to the team and industry experience. Don’t write a book; the reader is looking for expertise. 

Research your competitors for the RFP. Consider their strengths and weaknesses so you can position your company appropriately. For example, if yours is a smaller or mid-size distributor competing against a top-tier company, you might promote fast decisions, fewer layers and personal service. Larger distributors can brag about purchasing power and depth of staff. The key is to differentiate your company.

Step Three:  Policies, Processes And Procedures

Review referenced materials to see what should be adjusted or updated. 

  • Be clear on order processing, proofing and approval procedures.
  • Be specific about quality controls. 
  • Differentiate between drop-ship and online ordering/proofing/approval. 
  • Where possible, use graphics and charts. Images are worth a thousand words because you don’t have to write those words and someone doesn’t have to read them. One caveat: even when using a chart or diagram, include an introductory paragraph that covers the main elements simply. 
  • Many RFPs for online stores require the distributor’s implementation timeline, plus they ask how much involvement is needed on the client side. Using a timeline is a perfect way to illustrate this type of information. Add bullet points to cover anything you want to highlight.

Step Four: The Executive Summary

Your proposal should include an executive summary. Use these tips to create an effective one.

  • It should not rehash your answers to the questions asked on the RFP.
  • Many RFPs state what they seek; show how your company is a fit for their requirements.
  • Craft your comments to be specific to the particular proposal you are responding to.
  • If possible, include the summary as an answer, perhaps as a differentiator or in response to the question: “Is there anything else we should know?” Not all documents allow attachments.

Step Five: Answer The Questions Asked

This is not as simple as it sounds. Reread your answers to be certain you have responded thoroughly and accurately. The RFP questions may seem repetitive, but your replies can’t be. Your strongest statement should open every paragraph; use your strongest paragraph to begin the answer. Be honest in your responses. Responding to RFPs is not the time to try to fake expertise your company does not have.

Step Six:  Polish And Proof

Ask an objective reader to review the first draft and final draft of your entire document. If an answer is unclear to the reader, it won’t be understood by procurement. Eliminate unnecessary adjectives and fluff. State your accomplishments without boasting. For example, don’t say, “We’re proud of…” 

Precise proofing is critical. Fresh eyes will catch grammar and punctuation errors and snag words such as “love,” which aren't appropriate in a professional document. 

Final Thoughts On The RFP

Your submitted RFP will be read and evaluated in one of several ways:

  • Pricing comparisons may come first.
  • Someone who is not a decision maker may read it first, looking for answers that screen out noncontenders.
  • The reader may write a capabilities summary that moves your proposal to the next level.
  • As the process continues, decision makers may review all the RFPs still in contention or a single reader may review all submissions.
  • Different sections may be read by people with specific areas of expertise: technology, creative, marketing, etc., and, of course, procurement. Seemingly identical questions may be posed in different sections, so your answer must fit the topic.
  • The RFP sections are usually weighted with an assigned value of their importance to the ultimate selection.

What if, after all this preparation, your company is not selected? You’re still a winner. Through the process of responding, you’ll sharpen your insight into your business practices, and your company’s strengths and weaknesses become more apparent.   

Your key to future success is what you will do with this insight. Review what you’ve learned about your company’s functionality, attitudes, customer service levels and capabilities. Make the necessary changes so you’re prepared for the next opportunity. Stay in touch with the client and their procurement directors and update them as your company grows, upgrades capabilities and adds services.

These steps are the result of numerous conversations with multiple procurement professionals about what they seek and how they review a document. Should I ever find the magic bullet or hear of a secret sauce for RFP responses, I promise to share. 


RFPs Are B-O-R-I-N-G! Wake Them Up

As distasteful as they are to complete, RFPs are also challenging for the reader. So, wake up the reader with well-placed “sound bite” testimonials or brief case studies appropriate to the question. 

Use these attention getters sparingly; they’re a tool for emphasis, not an automatic inclusion for every answer. Condense the testimonial to the specific context. It’s not the “thanks” that matter but the portion about cost savings, creativity or exceptional service that provides a lead-in to the answer.

A frequently asked RFP question is about problem resolution and escalation procedures. A lead-in testimonial from one of your clients could set the right tone. “… X solved the issue promptly and effectively…” –X company, title.

Another regular topic in RFPs is cost savings. You might start your response with an example. Be succinct; just the facts, please, without adjectives. If you can, name the company, which doesn’t have to be the RFP client. Names aren’t necessary, but the person’s title or position matters.

By opening a response in an unexpected way, the reader is more alert to the answer—and to the overall document.


Is This RFP Right For Your Business?

Before you ever respond to an RFP, take a step back and ask: Do I want to participate in this RFP? Is it a match for my company’s capabilities? Do I have the staff and finances to support the demands inherent in the win? Does it fit into our current client mix? Will servicing this business erode our ability to care for and grow existing clients?

Consider why you received this RFP. Are you the incumbent or already working with this client? Are you on the list through a referral or as a result of marketing efforts? Or has it come to you out of the blue, requiring services that aren’t the right fit?

Filling out an RFP takes time and money. Sometimes it’s smarter to decline than to try to win business you can’t profitably service. If you decide to respond, allocate the time and resources to do it right.


Prior to starting Tango Partners in 2005, Marsha Londe spent 25 years honing her creative and selling skills, winning 24 PPAI Pyramid awards for using products creatively. She was twice named Salesperson of the Year and was in the inaugural class honoring industry women who “broke through the glass ceiling” with their contributions. Now she is a “polisher” of Requests for Proposals with Tango, a consultancy firm for the promotional products industry. An expert in responding to RFPs, Tango works with distributors in new business development, sales, promotion, training and more. mlonde@tangopartners. net,, or 404-846-1900.