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Make the Cut: Top 10 Tips for Answering an RFP

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What's the best way to respond to a request for proposal (RFP)? It's common for consultants to invite multiple channel partners to bid on a unified communications solution deployment. What are ways the CPs can improve their chance of success?

Typically, the final decisions will be made by a buying committee made up of the consultant, the client's telecom management component, and the business users. The channel partner must craft an answer to the RFP that satisfies all three audiences - not an easy task since the buying committee members have varying levels of technological savvy.

We asked four telecommunications experts what's most important when answering an RFP. "Number one: make the cut!" says Melissa Swartz, founder of Swartz Consulting and current president of the Society of Telecommunications Consultants. "If you don't do that, you'll never be able to make a presentation!"

These four independent consultants, members of ShoreTel's Consultant Liaison Program Advisory Board, shared their insights, recommendations and pet peeves to generate a list of the top ten tips that should improve a CP's chance of making the cut:

1) Decide internally whether or not to bid.
Diane Halliwell, a managing director at consulting firm Sperco Associates, asks partners to assess the fit. "Who is the client, who is the consultant?  If the consultant is biased, or if the document is written poorly, or if the work requested is not in your wheelhouse, let it go," she says. Partners need to "decide  if they do, or if they don't, have the depth required," adds Jim O’Gorman, the principal of Communications Engineering LLC. "They must have a clear vision about how their solution is the answer to the RFP's challenge and how they'll distinguish themselves in the process."

2) Have a single point of contact for the response.
Typically, when a VAR receives the RFP they'll divvy it out internally and aggregate the responses.  "Have a single point of contact to make sure the document has continuity," says Halliwell. "And make sure the pricing is included from each area. Because of lack of continuity, pricing is often incorrect or missing and then we have to go back and forth" to try to pin down totals.

3) Ask the consultant how the proposal will be graded.
"The time and effort that a channel partner puts into answering an RFP is reciprocated by the time consultants will spend evaluating their application," says Byron Battles of The Battles Group, LLC, whose RFPs are typically 50 to 100 pages long. A partner should expect the consultant to make a detailed and structured evaluation, particularly in government work which is very objective. His advice: ask about that structure. "What will be the weighing of technical, versus operations, versus pricing,versus references?" says Battles."It's important to know."

4) Read the RFP and focus on it in the response.
"You'd be surprised how many don't," says Battles, who reminds partners that detailed information from the discovery process is there for a reason. "Read the RFP," repeats Halliwell. Spend time assessing your response.  "Are you offering the right solution?" she asks. "Don't give us the wrong solution."

5) Ask questions.
If at any point "you're not sure about something, don't go off on your own," says Halliwell.  "You'll just spin your wheels.  Ask questions." The consultant should give the opportunity to ask questions, says Battles, "and the consultant should be able to aggregate those and give them to everyone."

6) Be clear in definitions.
Every vendor has a different name for the same thing. "Speak English and drop the acronyms," says Swartz. "One of the best proposals I've seen lately listed all the product names and then explained what the function is, like voice mail.  A business user could follow that and understand what they were talking about." Battles' RFPs includes a glossary to make sure all parties are on the same page; your answer should take the RFP's lead regarding the terms you use.

7) Don't take short cuts with the proposal.
"Don't cut and paste your website" and put it into your answer, says Battles. O'Gorman asks channel partners to "be focused on the bid. Don't just jam a lot of stuff in a three-ring binder. That's the worst you can do.  I'd rather read five focused pages than 500 with glossies that don't mean anything." And while it should seem obvious, "Don't send an RFP with some other customer’s name on it," says Halliwell, who has seen this happen all too often.

8) Stress your solution and your strength.
"Don't compare your solution to your competitor's. That is the consultant's job," says Battles. "And if you say you're number one, that's meaningless. Because according to some research, everyone is number one in something." Demonstrate the strength of your solution with confidence, but be cautious about blue-skying or glossing over challenges. "Don't make promises that you can't follow through on," says O'Gorman. It might burn you later.

9) Don't expect a standard sales contract to be the final agreement.
Often, a consultant-issued RFP will include terms and conditions and ask the CP to respond. It's important that the answer states clearly what the partner can, and cannot do. Be direct and honest, and "disclose all subcontractor and vendor dealer relationships, because we want it to be fair for both parties," says Battles. What if a vendor can't meet the terms as defined by the RFP? "Then we'll ask them, 'What's your alternative?  What can you accept?'"

10) Keep it clear and simple.
To accommodate the varying levels of experience on most buying committees, Swartz recommends building the response in layers, with the first sentence describing the proposal in the most simplistic terms.Then expand the answer, she says, with two or three sentences that describe what the solution can do, then a couple of sentences that differentiate the solution.  "It can get conditional in the appendix," says Swartz.  "Most of the audience is not technogeek.  Don't clutter the proposal with conditional detail. Let the technogeeks go to the appendix for that."

Even with all bases covered, not every bid is going to make it to the "short list" for in-person presentations.  The upside? Losing a bid is a great learning opportunity.  "A good consultant should let the vendor or partner know why they lost," says Halliwell, "and if they don't, partners should follow up and ask why, toward getting business in the future."

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Did you miss the first three blogs in this series?  Here are links to:

Our sources for this blog, members of ShoreTel's Consultant Liaison Program Advisory Board:

Melissa Swartz has been providing telecommunications consulting for her clients since 1991.  She is the founder of Kansas City-based Swartz Consulting,  a firm that assists clients in managing telecommunications technology and costs. The consultancy provides a range of services from analysis, planning, acquisition, design, and implementation to ongoing support. She is currently the President of the Society of Telecommunications Consultants.

Diane Halliwell is a Managing Director at Sperco Associates, leading the Contact Center practice.  She has consulted in the telecommunications field for over 30 years and in the Contact Center arena for over 20 years.  She provides strategic direction for the evaluation, design and implementation  of voice systems including contact center solutions. She also identifies problematic workflows, processes, and gaps in communication within an enterprise and provides recommendations to address these issues.

James O'Gorman has background in both common carrier and private consulting and is the principal of Communications Engineering, LLC.  He has been an independent telecommunications consultant since 1980, providing consulting advice to legal, financial, publishing, health care, entertainment, governmental and educational institutions. He plays a key role in the design, selection, and project management of state-of-the-art telecommunications systems and infrastructures. He is a Past President of the Society of Telecommunications Consultants.

Byron Battles is Principal, The Battles Group, LLC and is a recognized expert in the field of Computer Telephony Integration (CTI) and a Past President (2006-2008) of The Society of Telecommunications Consultants a professional association of independent information technology and communications (ICT) consultants. He  has 29 years of telecommunications consulting and industry experience in direct voice and data telecommunications evaluation, technical and project consulting, and applied market and subject research.