We’ve all been there—an RFP (request for proposal) comes across your desk and you’re met with equal parts excitement and nausea. It’s a process that’s well established, and one that’s simply unavoidable when selling enterprise software. Instead of throwing a bunch of jargon around and presenting you with an RFP silver bullet (spoiler alert: there isn’t one), let’s take a simple approach to unpacking the customer request and look at some proven tactics to help you win your next RFP process.

You like tacos, right? Who doesn’t? Let’s imagine for a moment that you are a sales rep at a taco catering company called Tacos de Plata. Your co-founders have put a ton of thought, effort, and energy into creating the best taco possible. You have great reviews on Yelp, and you go above and beyond to ensure premium ingredients.

  • You have custom, in-house made tortillas
  • Your chef and co-owner is world-class, and comes from a family of chefs from Fresnillo, Mexico (more on that later)
  • You use the highest quality Cotija cheese
  • You make all of your guac in-house, and grow all of your onions, peppers, cilantro, and tomatoes in your own garden
  • You use organic, grass-fed beef
  • You offer a dedicated gluten-free kitchen for severe allergies
  • You’ve been hired by some of the biggest celebrities (social proof, yay!)
  • You pride yourself on your incredible customer service and experience—which keep your customers coming back

Don’t just check boxes; tell a story

Any sales rep or marketer worth their salt will be the first to tell you that feature checklists are where actual differentiation can die.

Feature checklists can generalize functionality in such a way that your competition can simply check a box, regardless of whether they can offer even close to the same kind of value you do for that item. Alternately, there are line items—perhaps less significant—that you might not support, giving the impression that the competitor “checks more boxes,” and is, therefore, a better fit to win the business. Though these are unavoidable in RFP scenarios, it doesn’t need to be as black and white.

Let's go back to the catering example for a second (hopefully you’re not hungry). You have an initial phone conversation with a prospective client named Stephanie, who is interested in Tacos de Plata for her team’s SKO. “Our sales team has been requesting tacos at our company’s event,” she indicates. “We’re in SF, so they can be a bit snobby about quality.” After a good first conversation, Stephanie shoots you over an RFP and mentions she is looking at one other caterer.

You’re up against a “do-it-all” caterer, Carl’s Catering, whose menu is longer than War and Peace, and includes a larger variety of tacos, as well as hamburgers, hot dogs, and mac and cheese. They have mediocre reviews on Yelp (in terms of taste and service, little-to-no significant social proof), all of their ingredients are frozen or pre-packaged, and their chef has zero domain expertise in the world of tacos. However, they do have more selection and a bigger staff. They’re also undercutting you on price.

Stephanie is on the admin team. She won’t be at the event, she’s simply organizing and ordering for her sales team. She connected with sales leadership and gathered some loose anecdotal feedback from her sales reps, but nothing concrete. She sets off to build an RFP to select the best caterer for Initech’s SKO. She puts together an RFP and submits it to you. You’re met with the all-too-familiar joy and trepidation. You don’t know what you’re about to see, but based on the quality of your tacos, you feel confident.

Included in the RFP are line items for the following:

  • Carnitas tacos
  • Beef tacos
  • Vegetarian options
  • Gluten-free options
  • Tortillas
  • Chips
  • Cheese
  • Salsa
  • Guacamole
  • Hamburgers
  • Hot dogs
  • Chicken tenders
  • Burritos

Well, what gives? You’re probably thinking to yourself this RFP doesn’t really reflect the conversation we had or the problem Stephanie wanted to solve. What happened? Have her requirements changed? Where did these additional line items come from, Stephanie (the buyer), or her sales team (the users/consumers)? If you simply get into a box-checking war, you’re not going to look all that impressive to Stephanie, especially considering Carl’s Catering’s strategy is to leverage their size in order to undercut you on price.

Sales playbook: 3 ways to reimagine your RFP process

Don’t fall into the trap

Unfortunately, this scenario is all too typical in software sales.

RFPs never tell the whole story, and they probably never will. However, if you start to paint a really clear story with specificity, detail, and consistency, you can turn your RFP into a bit of a story that can give your buyer a much clearer sense of your advantages. Detail here is key.

Here’s how what these responses can look like when done well:

  • Beef: Chef Maria’s lineage is filled with generations of Mexican chefs. Chef knows a taco is only as good as its protein, which is why we get all of our free-range, grass-fed, organic beef directly from the family-owned Ned’s Friendly Farm in New York.
  • Cheese: Instead of using processed cheddar, we work with Fresnilla Farms in Mexico, which ships us fresh Cotija every week.
  • Tortillas: We make all of our tortillas in-house. We also have (no less delicious) gluten-free options available for those with sensitivities.
  • Guacamole: Our avocados are hand-picked by Chef Maria herself, who grew up in Michoacán, home to 92% of the world’s avocado production. We grow our own cilantro, onions, and limes in our garden to ensure the freshest, most flavorful ingredients.

Most RFPs give you the ability to comment and add color. If not, fill out their version, and include your own—complete with context and color. Establish your strategic high ground, and tell a story that builds a moat around your core advantages.

In this case, it’s authenticity, domain expertise, and quality of ingredients.

1. Be careful about stretching the truth or working with outdated information

Credibility is critical, and, assuming you win the business, will set the tone for the rest of your relationship with your customer.

While this is particularly true of SaaS companies, the same applies to everyone. In the case of Tacos de Plata, there will be several more company outings or events, and Stephanie knows a lot of admins in the business. Building trust and giving her a great experience, even as a catering company, will bode well for referral business and repeat purchases.

So, back to your RFP. You see that line item on burritos and start to worry. You’re anxious to win this business; the quarter is winding down and you need to hit your number, and your bank doesn’t care about burritos—just your mortgage payment.

You’re starting to see a lot of unchecked boxes and panic starts to set it. That’s when you remember: Chef has made burritos once or twice for special events. You remember because you sold those deals, too. So, as one would, you think to yourself Well, we have beef, tortillas, and cheese. Chef’s made these in the past, so I’m going to say we do this. Otherwise, there’s no way we win this RFP.

Unbeknownst to you, it became harder to support than Chef Maria had envisioned. As a result, she stopped making burritos all together. She sent a company email out indicating such, and even dropped it into the company wiki (which you rarely go to) but you quickly forgot.

You’ve now put Maria—and yourself—in a pretty tough spot. It’s a lose/lose that, at best, only compromises trust between you and the client. At worst, it compromises your relationship with your colleagues.

2. Go straight to the source

In many cases when filling out an RFP, a sales rep works in a silo. If they’re smart, they loop in their sales engineer or even a marketer. But is this really enough? Think about it; who is the expert on security? How about integrations? It’s not a marketer (and this coming from one), it’s your security team or your dev team, respectively. Breaking out of these silos (even if it’s a GTM silo), can be incredibly helpful in getting the detail you need to reposition the RFP and turn it into a compelling story.

In the Plata Taco’s RFP, we see a line item for “Gluten-free options.” Now, we know we have this, so we check the box and move on. Good, great, grand, wonderful.

Here’s the thing, though—your facility manager uncovered different degrees of gluten sensitivity when building out your facility. She actually learned that while some with gluten problems just can’t eat gluten, others’ sensitivities and allergies are so strong that there can be zero cross-contamination by anything with gluten in it. She knows SF has a big gluten-free market, and so doubled down on that with a dedicated, separate gluten-free kitchen free of any cross-contamination.

This is a critical piece of information you otherwise wouldn’t have unless you went straight to the authority.

For all you know, Stephanie’s team has a few people who can’t eat anything cross-contaminated, and Carl’s Catering simply offers gluten-free options with no dedicated kitchen. This detail alone could sink the deal for Carl’s—but if you don’t know any better, you’re dependent on your customer to know better. And Stephanie, who is filling out the RPF on behalf of her team, might not go to them to get these kinds of details, either.

3. Finally, know when to walk away

At the end of the day, you’re a taco caterer. If you’ve told an interesting and compelling story around your RFP with as much detail as possible in a way that emphasizes your high ground, and the customer just wants hot dogs and burritos and don’t care about gluten—bow out. There are tons of SKOs out there; go spend your time on one you know you can close. Your mortgage depends on it.

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