Dealing with RFPs (Request for Proposals) is a given if you sell to the education market. Hence this article and a companion radio show on STS Radio, 15 minutes to listen to more insight and advice from industry expert, Farimah Schuerman.
You've probably learned that spending time to react to RFPs can kill your productivity unless you have a policy and set of procedures in place. The bottom line? Having a good way to manage RFPs is a key success factor for K-12 sales managers.
If you work for a large, well-established company in the K-12 space, you likely have a standard RFP process and someone with experience and skills who has RFP responsibility. For smaller companies, managers and sales reps often deal with RFPs in a reactive mode — sometimes a panic mode. I could share many stories about my own personal panics to respond to RFPs!
On the surface, a RFP may seem like a great opportunity to close a big deal with a school district. And many of them are. My caution is this: if you manage RFPs the same way you manage other sales opportunities, you could waste a lot of time. I've learned this lesson the hard way — I've won and lost many RFPs and it is the those that I lost that have been the best learning opportunities!
You know the routine. You see a RFP. A school administrator, it seems, has raised his or her hand to say "we need help" and has documented what is needed and when. For public schools, budget is the top consideration and the bidding policy is designed around a controlled process to find the best supplier at the lowest price. But unfortunately, good intentions behind RFP policy are rarely accomplished. What you (and the administrators) see may look really good — it's what neither party sees that could be a bear trap.
For lawmakers and bureaucrats who are working within tightly defined procurement procedures, the RFP is a way to get suppliers like you to stand in line and march to a single drum beat. The issuing district wants you and your competitors to work through their process, not yours, in order to make a decision. Unfortunately, that process may not be what it looks to be.
I estimate that about a third of RFPs issued by school districts are never implemented even when a short list is compiled. In fact, RFPs are many times what I call a "fishing expedition." School administrators hope to gather information, not buy something. This is why it's so important to manage RFPs with a well-constructed process instead of emotion. What you may have experienced is what I see over and over again in our industry — and I'm guilty of this behavior, too — is to see an RFP as an opportunity to crack an account or get a windfall of revenue, which we sometimes call "bluebirds." And, sometimes you hear sales pros call our reaction to RFPs the “rainbow effect" because our mental image of a pot of gold causes us to chase RFPs we should ignore.
My advice? First of all, sit down with the key people in your organization and map out a plan to manage RFPs with the goal of getting you out of the reactive mode. You have to set aside the time to decide when, how (and who) will deal with the provisions of RFPs and to create a set of tools to support your process. For example, an absolute must is an RFP template, blocks of text that you can use to respond to standard language found in the majority of pubic school RFPs. These pieces and parts, the RFP provisions, should be contributed by a team of people with the appropriate knowledge and then can be assembled by the designated author of the proposal. Beyond this most basic requirement to have a process and team approach, there are many more things to consider than I can possibly cover in this short article. But, here are five key things to do.
KEY #1: Create RFP Success Filters and Commit to Use Them
For smaller companies where the sales manager or a sales rep is expected to put together the response, set a threshold, an amount of the deal that is a filter. What amount? That depends on what you sell and what you consider a "big deal" that is worth the risk, because chances are, you will not be awarded the contract. Beyond that, you want to define other filtering criteria, factors that would tilt the decision in your favor. Here are some examples of positive filters: 1. Your company has done business with the district before; 2. The district is located within a territory that is already assigned; 3. Your company has won similar deals with similar districts 4. Someone from your company provided language or otherwise helped write the RFP. Finally, you may decide that going through the process is an "uber" filter, an opportunity for a learning experience — beyond the RFP itself.
KEY #2: Don't Believe Every Provision of an RFP
I like what sales consultant Steve Waterhouse says the acronym RFP stands for — either 'Real Fools Participate' or 'Request For Probing.' Steve says real fools are those who read an RFP and believe and react to every word. I could not agree more. For example, virtually every RFP from a school district states something like "All questions must be in writing" and "Contact must be through the purchasing office." I can tell you that this is nonsense. When I was a territory manager at Apple, I won a bid for over $1 million by deciding to ignore those provisions.
Regardless of the rules stated in a RFP, I always try to get a one-on-one meeting, even if it means cold calling the procurement manager or the administrator who is likely going to be the primary decision maker and pretending I don't know anything about the RFP. This may or may not work. Experienced purchasing managers and administrators are wise to this tactic. So, be upfront about your intentions. Say you want to help them find the best possible solution, and you'd like an opportunity to provide input and suggestions. By all means, do not give a sales pitch about your company or product! If you'd like me to explain how I've worked around these types of provisions during my own sales career in K-12, give me a call.
KEY #3: First Impressions Count. You Better Look Good!
If the RFP passes your filters and you decide to respond, be sure you have enough time to create a professional looking presentation. If the timeline for responding is too short to do a great job, better to pass. My experience as a evaluator for a few federal grant program RFPs, the organization of the proposal and quality of the presentation counts a lot. The best looking proposals get the most attention. Think of your proposal as a "virtual salesperson." Put your absolute best foot forward.
KEY #4: Give School Administrators Pricing Options
If there is one thing I've learned from selling to school administrators for the past 25 years, it's that they love options. Even if you find that buyers choose the same option 90% of the time, giving them more than one choice puts you in a much better position with them. Ideally, give three price options, and do this even if the RFP asks for only one. I think this strategy works because it sets you apart and because you may be able to demonstrate some flexibility that will encourage the evaluators to consider your proposal more carefully.
KEY # 5: Be Different. Make your RFPs Compelling
My friend and former Apple colleague, John Lowe, is a professional presentation coach, and his firm is called "Be Compelling Now." I am a believer in John's philosophy which stresses doing something unique and memorable when you do a presentation, and RFPs are no different. When you create your proposal, you can increase your chances of winning by going the extra mile — that is, get creative! Most companies burn midnight oil and rush to get the finished RFP out the door, following closely the provisions that are provided by the issuing school district, but little else. I encourage you to take the extra step and to utilize the web and other forms of digital media to give your presentation some pizazz and to make it special. Consider also giving your company a personality that is really appealing and relational.
I've observed that when company managers and sales reps are spending a lot of their time looking for and managing RFPs — if RFPs are critical to achieving revenue goals, there is need for investment and/or improvement in lead generation programs. This is obviously a generalization. There are companies that focus on closing deals for big contracts, usually procurements from state and federal government, where RFPs are a necessary focus. But many K-12 company managers believe they can compensate for poor lead generation efforts and associated sluggish sales by responding to more RFPs than they should. The time and resources they invest to evaluate and respond to RFPs would be better spent on implementing demand generation programs that create real opportunities rather than responding to what appear to be oasis' of opportunity but are more likely mirage. My advice is to respond less RFPs (using higher quality presentations) and to invest more resources to generate quality leads. And one final word of advice: if you don't have a lot of experience with RFPs in the K-12 market, seek help from a experienced consultant to formulate your RFP strategy.