Most professional salespeople hate RFPs. I know because I was a professional, quota-carrying salesperson for many years before I became a proposal consultant. I’ve heard the arguments. I’ve even articulated some of them.
Why salespeople SAY they hate RFPs
Salespeople articulate why they hate RFPs in many different ways.
- Price. Businesses that issue RFPs only care about price.
- Commodities. Businesses that issue RFPs don’t care about value, they try to make everything a commodity.
- Fairness. RFPs aren’t fair, anyway, they probably already know who is going to win. Ironically, this last statement is more true than most realize.
These are typically how salespeople articulate their dislike of RFPs, but let’s dig a little deeper before we discuss an alternative view.
Why salespeople really hate RFPs
Professional salespeople are taught to drive and control the sales process. We are taught to be proactive, build relationships, identify needs, develop solutions, network with the relevant decision makers, qualify the opportunities we identify, and to do all of the other process things that proactive salespeople ought to do. We are taught to drive and control the process.
RFPs take away that perception of control—swept away like a leaf in a fast-moving stream.
- RFPs have rules. The RFP document says we can’t talk to the buyers. It’s a problem because it’s what salespeople do. We talk to buyers. We build relationships. We uncover hidden needs. Now, according to the RFP, we can’t do that anymore.
- RFPs increase competition. RFPs ask sellers to document their products, item by item, feature by feature, on paper. There’s no equivocating. Everything we claim our product can do is right there in black and white. Buyers also ask for pricing information documented in specific configurations so buyers can evaluate prices, side by side, seller by seller. Everything is exposed.
- RFPs ask for a written proposal. Some salespeople can write well, but the majority specialize in verbal communication more than written communication. Writing is not necessarily their cup of tea. Besides, it takes a lot more time to write a proposal, and that takes time away from other selling tasks.
The bottom line is many if not most salespeople hate RFPs because they believe much of the influence they felt they had has been taken away. They feel like they’ve been excluded or at least minimized from the buying/selling process.
This thinking is just plain incorrect.
Why salespeople should embrace RFPs
The thing most salespeople do not seem understand is that an RFP does not replace the traditional selling process, it only replaces the final, deliberative selection process—the last 30 or so days. What salespeople need to know is the traditional buying/selling process still exists in the 12 to 24 months before the RFP is issued.
All of the things that professional salespeople are supposed to do, all of the things they’re really good at doing, still apply and are still necessary. Following is an excerpt from my soon-to-be-published book, Proposal Best Practices, that makes this point:
- Can you step in during the last 100 yards of a 26 mile marathon and have a realistic hope of winning the race? Of course not. You’d be disqualified. The winner is going to be the person that runs the most effective marathon, and then follows it up with a strong sprint at the end.
- The same goes for RFPs and proposals. When your competitors are out there selling to buyers in the 24 months before an RFP is issued—meeting people and getting to know them, establishing credibility, solving problems, educating decision makers, influencing the influencers, etc.—what makes you think you can swoop in at the very end and win the deal? You can’t do it in marathons, you can’t do it in the world of professional selling, and you’re arrogant if you think otherwise.
The point is you have to be out there selling in the 12-24 months before the RFP is issued. If you aren’t, if all you’re doing is waiting for an RFP to fall in your lap, then yea, responding to RFPs is a waste of time. However, if you’re out there doing what salespeople should be doing—doing exactly what most professional salespeople are really good at—then you’ll win the sale long before the RFP comes out.
Professional salespeople excel in the RFP world
If I’ve not been clear enough so far, let me be even clearer.
If you are a professional salesperson who really, truly knows how to proactively sell in a complex environment with multiple stakeholders, formal procurements are one of the best selling environments you will ever encounter. You’ll thrive. You’ll thrive because while many if not most other businesses are waiting for RFPs to fall in their laps, you’re busy doing all of the stuff you need to do to make the sale. You’re making the sale before the RFP comes out.
Getting started, how to embrace RFPs
Professional salespeople should embrace the RFP process, and here’s one way to get started. If you receive an RFP you weren’t expecting, don’t respond. You’re likely wasting your time and you’re likely going to lose.
But don’t quit.
If it’s a recurring contract for a program or services, one that is rebid every few years, then congratulations! You just identified a future opportunity. Now do what you’re good at…go sell. Go out there and start knocking on doors, find and meet the decision makers, learn about their program, figure out ways to make it better for them, and do all the other things that professional salespeople should be doing. You aren’t going to win this RFP today, but you’re setting yourself up for the next one.
If it’s not a recurring contract, you’ve still identified that this buyer uses RFPs to procure products. And like most decision makers, regardless of whether their company uses RFPs, individual buyers still tend to use the same suppliers they know and are comfortable with.
If you’re a professional salesperson, RFPs represent a big opportunity. Embrace the opportunity.
David Seibert is a professional salesperson and consultant for businesses that respond to formal procurements in non-federal markets. Dave publishes a comprehensive curriculum of online, self-paced proposal training classes, delivers onsite and online proposal training programs for dedicated proposal teams, and provides proposal and business development consulting services for businesses that want to improve their win rates.
Dave is founder and president of The Seibert Group, a proposal consulting and training organization serving businesses that sell to other businesses, A/E/C firms, schools, and to state and local governments. Dave authored the popular proposal book, Proposal Best Practices, is active with the Association of Proposal Management Professionals (APMP), and is a member of the APMP Speakers Bureau. You can contact Dave at [email protected].