I'm not a big fan of absolutes. Perhaps that's why I enjoy the profession of sales so much. It's a sea of unpredictability as we navigate the murky waters of a buying process and interact with the human beings who make or influence decisions. If you've been in sales long enough, you get used to the idea nothing is absolute.
That said, there's a strong contingent of sales professionals and experts who like to throw around one of my favorite absolutes: never respond to a request for proposal (RFP). You'll never win; it will steal your attention and company resources while winnable deals get lost to your competitors.
Despite a large percentage of people who are staunch believers in not responding, I find it amusing that it's one of the most frequently asked questions in almost every keynote I've ever delivered. It comes up frequently in discussions with clients and prospects as we discuss ideal fit customers. It's usually asked sheepishly, almost in an ashamed kind of way: "What about RFPs?" "Should we respond to them?" "We get a lot of RFPs, and we do win them once in a while."
Because I happen to work for a sales consulting and training outfit, you can almost see the supporters for the "pass" approach sit up in their chairs, nod their head, and even give me a wink as they wait for my expected response. The academic response. The absolute. You can almost see them loving the tee ball question for me to pound over the center field wall into the upper deck.
Before I share my typical answer, let me share a few insights. RFPs, and those who deliver them, aren't going away anytime soon (despite the "boycott"). Just type "RFP" into any search engine and you'll find millions of matching results related to building or responding to them. More and more of our clients and prospects report seeing more RFPs coming their way.
RFPs aren't just coming from procurement folks, either. The reality is, as times have gotten tougher, risk aversion has crept into every facet of decision making—especially related to spending. The buying process is getting more formalized in many organizations, and the RFP has become the tool of choice in many cases to help coordinate a decision to be made by multiple buying influences.
There once was a day when the RFP was largely about driving prices downward and less about reviewing potential suppliers on the merits of their capabilities and overall fit. It's not that absolute anymore, and it's important to be able to size them up fast for what they are and respond appropriately.
"It depends," is my answer to the RFP question. It's not a popular answer. Those who love the absolute feel betrayed, and those who want an easy answer feel disappointed. The natural follow-up question is, "What are the dependencies?"
Government situations aside, the odds of winning in an RFP situation are typically low, so you need to assess the situation as objectively as you can. Here's a checklist of things to consider:
• Do we have any existing relationships with people inside the company who can help us understand the landscape? Anyone outside who is connected to someone on the inside? Leverage these contacts to help you assess and determine your chances.
• Is it a company in which there would be strategic value in responding despite our chances? For instance: a new product arena or sector in which you need to get in the game on a few RFPs, so as to learn and inform others of your presence.
• You've influenced the RFP in some way, or even helped write it (hopefully, you don't need my checklist in this scenario).
• What else are you and your company's resources working on? Resource distraction is only an issue if there's something else with greater likelihood to pursue.
• What kind of access can you get to key buying influences? Access allows you to do some deeper qualification and potentially provides an opportunity to make an impact on the process to your favor.
• What do you know about the buying influences who are most impacted by this investment? What are they trying to fix, accomplish, or avoid? Is it clear?
• If you don't know why you were invited and no one can articulate why you are at the party, then that's probably a good sign you're wasting your time
If you choose not to participate, make sure to professionally pass with a formal, written response. You never know how things may play out. Things happen, and people change their minds and their jobs at the most interesting times. You don't want to be the company that simply didn't respond at all when things go sideways with their original plan.
Certainly, the debate will rage on as to the legitimacy in pursuing RFPs. My advice is to recognize there's no such thing as an absolute. It is a low percentage play and an area in which many salespeople can attest to burning a lot of hours without payoff. It's important to spend a little time doing some digging before deciding on the best way to respond.
SMM columnist Bill Golder is executive vice president of sales at Miller Heiman. Available for keynote speaking opportunities, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 877-678-0397.