May 7, 2024

Optimizing RFP Responses for Small & Medium-sized Business: A Guide

Small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) often struggle with responding to RFPs because they lack the dedicated resources that larger companies can deploy. For example, very few SMBs have a dedicated RFP manager or writer. Nor are they typically able to invest in expensive enterprise-level RFP response software.

To make matters worse, many small businesses lack a defined process for evaluating and responding to RFPs. This often results in confusion and stress throughout the organization. Even the decision to participate in the RFP can be delayed and hard to arrive at because of the lack of process for evaluating RFP opportunities and the vagueness of who owns the RFP response role.

The following article will demonstrate a typical ad-hoc response process for SMBs and then introduce a proven response process that has been successfully adopted by thousands of organizations across North America to help them compete with much larger companies.

The Problem - A Typical Response Process for SMBs

All too often an RFP will be sent to a salesperson at an SMB.  Salespeople typically will want to participate in the RFP because they are motivated to win new business. However, they don’t always have the bandwidth or all the necessary company information to evaluate the opportunity or complete all the RFP questions on their own.

Here’s the typical response process:

1. The first step often involves sending the RFP to their sales manager or the CEO and asking for support. The sales manager or CEO typically has the knowledge and vision to be able to evaluate the RFP, but they don’t always have the time to dig into the details. So, they will either kick the RFP back to the salesperson or make a go-no-go decision.

2. A go decision is great for the salesperson, but it involves some downside risk. That is, the company will need to invest a significant amount of time completing the RFP and there’s no guarantee of winning the business. Furthermore, there’s an opportunity cost for everyone involved in the response process, as their time might be better spent on more traditional sales channels and other activities related to their specific roles.

3. Lastly, once it has been decided to pursue the RFP, the salesperson or whoever has been appointed to complete the document will need to collect company information from several subject matter experts (SMEs) throughout the organization. This usually includes finance, HR, IT, security and compliance, and someone from sales or marketing to answer the product and service-specific questions.

The problem with this ad-hoc approach is that it places undue stress on all of the SMEs who are focused on fulfilling their regular day-to-day duties. But, whenever an RFP comes in, they are asked to drop what they are doing to complete the questions in the RFP that pertain to their subject matter expertise.

Nobody likes to duplicate work that they’ve previously completed. However, unless you have used a process or tool to capture your submitted response, you will be forced to reproduce the content every time a new RFP arrives. This will cause grumbling from everyone involved, as not only is the RFP interrupting their normal job requirements, but it’s also forcing them to redo work they may have done several times before.

Lastly, if one of the SMEs is too busy to complete their section of the RFP, or if they happen to be on leave or on a business trip, you will be forced to delay your response or find someone else in your company who can complete that section. All of this takes time and energy and stresses the organization.

The Solution - A Simple and Well-Defined Response Process

The following outlines a simple process that has helped thousands of companies across North America, Europe, and Asia greatly reduce response times and improve win rates.

Key Steps

1. Assign an RFP response owner

2. Define the process and participants in the decision to participate in an RFP

3. Create SME pools

4. Adopt a process or a low-cost, simple, and easy-to-use tool to repurpose previously submitted responses

5. Document processes and track results

RFP Response Owner

All organizations should decide in advance who will lead and manage the response to RFPs. Usually, this works better if it’s always the same person, as that person will gain process expertise more rapidly than if the responsibility is split among several people. Furthermore, the point person can build relationships with the key SMEs, which will facilitate better communication and cooperation.

Go-No-Go Decision

The RFP response owner should be able to carefully evaluate the key criteria for winning the RFP, how much time and resources will be required to prepare the response, and what the potential revenue would be if the company wins the RFP. They can present this information to the sales manager or CEO, allowing them to make a quicker, more informed decision.

Create SME Pools

To avoid any confusion as to who answers specific sections of an RFP, and also to avoid delays if the SME for that section is unavailable, it’s important to have two to three SMEs per subject matter. If the first person is unavailable the question can automatically be routed to the next person in the pool.

For example, if the CFO typically answers all finance-related questions, they would be at the top of the finance SME pool. But, if they were unavailable for an RFP response with a tight deadline, the response owner could simply send the questions to the second or third person in the pool.

It’s important to identify the appropriate people for each SME pool in advance to avoid the stress and confusion of trying to get someone involved in an ad-hoc request. This cannot be stressed enough, as most people don’t like being surprised with unexpected urgent work. By getting their agreement to join the pool, you will have mentally prepared them for times when their input is needed.

Process or Tools to Reuse Content

The RFP response owner should implement a process for capturing and re-using previously submitted responses. At a minimum, this could involve storing all completed RFPs in organized folders and having the response owner search for similar questions and the responses that were provided for those questions.

You can store files by customer, or you can break them down into SME areas. So, perhaps all finance-related questions and answers would be in one folder, and all product and services questions and answers would be in a separate folder. Another option would be to organize by date so you could search the most recently completed documents first.

This method will reduce response times, but it will take time for the response owner to search through all previously submitted responses.  Additionally, as questions can be worded in various ways, it can be difficult to find exact matches. Comparing all previously submitted responses can take a fair amount of time and effort.

The best way to optimize your response process and reduce duplication of effort is to use a simple, low-cost RFP response tool. The tool should allow users to easily upload previously submitted RFPs with responses and supporting documents such as IT security policies, terms and conditions, etc.

When a new RFP arrives, it can be uploaded into the tool, which can quickly search for all similar questions and responses from previously completed RFPs. It will then suggest answers that were previously used, and also generate new answers from content it found in the supporting documents. The RFP response oanagerowner then has the option to select from any of the previously approved answers, modify an answer, or create something new.

A platform such as this not only will reduce response times and alleviate organizational stress but will also help ensure the consistency of all responses. Costs for this type of tool range from less than $500 USD per month for those developed specifically for SMBs to several thousand dollars per month for enterprise-level systems.

Documentation & Tracking

Once your organization has agreed to an RFP response process, you should document the process, including specifically naming all key people and SMEs. Then share that document throughout your organization. Having a kickoff meeting with all stakeholders to share the process, walk through realistic use cases, and answer questions is highly recommended.

Lastly, the RFP Response Owner should create a simple tracking document that shows the date, customer name, opportunity size, response deadlines, response submission date, and reasons for any wins or losses. Not all of this information is always available, but a document of this type can be very useful in evaluating both the process and potential strengths and weaknesses in the company, and its product or service, in the context of RFPs. This in turn should improve the process and help with future go-no-go decisions.

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