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Proposal Survivor: How Not to Be 'Voted Off'

When you decide to respond to a request for proposal (RFP), you need to adopt a particular mindset.

Your primary goal is not to win, but to avoid elimination! The RFP review process is not one of selection, but of narrowing the field to an elite few. The stringent, often onerous structural rigidity of most RFP requirements is designed for this purpose alone. Agencies that fail to comply with the standards set for the proposal itself will be eliminated before their ideas can be considered—and without being allowed a face-to-face presentation. By meeting all the stated requirements, you demonstrate your willingness to do what they ask, you underscore your professional competence, and you will survive into the next round.

You must write from the client's point of view. The client does not care if you have a particular service or product; they want to know how you will use that service or product to solve their stated problem. What is the benefit to the client? A proposal that is no more than a poorly disguised agency capabilities brochure will be tossed into the rejects pile pretty quickly.

Many agencies' proposals fail because they misidentify “features” (what the agency does/ offers) as “benefits” (what the client gains from an agency’s services and skills). A feature is your skilled e-marketing team; a benefit is “improved online marketing efforts that will better sales results by 35%.” (Make sure you can support your claims with case studies and examples of work for other clients.)

You must present your solution to their stated problem in terms of what they will gain through their association with your agency. It’s all about value and ROI. If you cannot convince them that working with you will provide a substantial—and measurable—return on investment, the client will turn to another agency that is able to persuade them of their value.

To contend for the project, the benefits you offer must address the client’s stated needs, and also their unstated needs. Often, an RFP refers obliquely to issues of great concern, issues that may affect the achievement of the stated goal. To advance to the final review, your agency must meet the client’s stated needs, and anticipate the needs they haven’t actually put into words. This is why it is so critical that you read an RFP carefully, paying attention to what is said “between the lines.” If you can develop this skill, and learn to restate what the client says (and almost says), your proposals will be seen as providing extra value—and you will move forward because you demonstrate your comprehensive understanding of their concerns.

Your proposed solution must be as good as (but preferably better than) the competition’s. By avoiding elimination, you reach the final round of agencies under consideration for the project. By writing from the client’s viewpoint, you ensure that they perceive an association with you as beneficial and possessing added value. But what ultimately wins the game is your proposed solution and plan of execution. When you get down to the final group of three or four agencies, your ideas and style finally come into play. To get there, your solution must at least be competitive. In the end, the project may not go to the agency with the best solution, but to the agency that convinces the client they offer the best combination of skills, solution, value and ROI. Show the client you offer the greatest value with the least risk, and you are in like Flynn.

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