Winning RFPs: Don’t Make These 5 Mistakes

Most companies hate RFPs, the dreaded Request for Proposal.

However, in certain industries and for certain products, RFPs grant the only access to the sales arena. In this post, I want to share insights on how to make a winning presentation.

Like many of you, I, too, play RFP roulette to land these golden wins for our company.

Because companies vigorously pursue greater operational efficiency and standardization today, they manage procurement through an RFP process to achieve transparency and structural consistency. Enter purchasing agents and the number crunchers.

For those of us who grew up on relationship and solution selling, this pro forma approach is an unfriendly departure from the way we’re used to selling.

Is It Worth It?

On the one hand, the RFP offers us a well-organized, lengthy document with well-defined needs and requirements, clearly outlining the opportunity. We assume much of the preselling is done. The buyer identifies his need and organizes a selection process to determine which seller will deliver the right solution.

On the other hand, you’re one in a crowd of many firms in receipt of the RFP.

How does your organization respond?  How do you differentiate from dozens of other competitors? How do you avoid being forced to compete on price only?

For many of us, the receipt of an RFP adds stress and anxiety to our already busy workdays. Yet it doesn’t have to trigger that reaction. With adequate investment in planning and organization, the receipt of an RFP can be a positive business opportunity to establish or deepen connections with key decision makers.

I invite you to download our guide on how to respond to an RFP for tips on how to make it to the finalist presentation.

In the guide, I provide you with an outline on how you and your team should prepare for the finalist presentation. First, however, decide whether to respond to the RFP by carefully weighing your chance of making it to the finals.

What to Ask

What are your odds?  Ask the procurement person: “How many other companies will be responding?”  Then, I’d ask: “How many will be invited to the finalist meeting? I want to know my odds right up front. While I might consider pursuing an opportunity with bad odds, at least I want to be conscious of the fact that I am gambling. I also recommend you stay close to procurement to learn of the firms invited to participate, how many submit responses.

Another question to ask when responding to any RFP: “Do you have an existing relationship with any firm invited to respond to the RFP?” Again, I want to know my odds of winning. Do your best to uncover any clues to procurement’s deciding factors. Not easy. But worth the effort to help you know areas of focus. As Stephen Covey would say, “You need to start with the end in mind.”

What Not To Do

Many years I sat on the buyer side of the desk and watched in amazement as sales teams monologued their way through RFP presentations. The room darkens, a fat deck of PowerPoint slides shines on the wall, and disembodied voices launch into their one-way messaging─always determined to cram as much information about their company as possible into their one-hour time slot. The decision-making team sat bleary-eyed from the third presentation of the day.

RFP winners do not present this way.

What To Do

RFP winners know from experience to encourage maximum dialogue. The more buyers talk, the odds of a win improves. In fact, sales teams who win RFPs plan for it, nurture it and manipulate it (in a positive and ethical way). Winners understand how each decision maker contributes to the RFP with expectations of specific results in their area of responsibility.

People are far more likely to buy into solutions for a program they helped develop, feel ownership of, and can deliver on. The more you address their issues, the more connected they are to the outcome.

Why should we treat an RFP finalist presentation any different from an open presentation on a complex sale?

When I succeed at winning RFPs, I have prepared a meeting plan, outlined the questions I need to ask, identified who on the team I will ask, and thought through how we open and close the meeting for favorable impact. People react well to seeing organization in action.

I also use names when addressing people, rather than say, “One of your concerns was . . .” you develop a consensus when you say, “Mary, one of your concerns was . . .,” Sounds simple enough; however, it is surprising how few people apply this personal touch.

One little secret: Bring place cards filled out with everyone’s names and titles, your team and theirs. Watch the response. Subtle and positive. Few contenders, if any, do it.

Remember, you made the finalist presentation because your prospect company read your RFP responses and believes you have met the majority of its purchase criteria.

At this stage, we must find out what open questions or concerns remain unanswered for the prospect company. Be sure to involve your entire team in the dialogue because your prospect will evaluate the chemistry between your team and its team.

If selected, you will work hand and hand with the prospect’s team, so it is important to bring the presentation team members who will do the actual work. Get your front line involved, not only your rainmakers.

Because your client service team does not sell regularly, members may not possess the presentation skills or polish to set them apart from seasoned competitors. In their defense, I have witnessed even so-called great salespeople present poorly. So, give them a helping hand.

I searched for a professional coach who could teach our team the skills they needed. I found Gary Hankins, President of Pygmalion, Inc. Gary is a true expert on presentation skills; he helped my sales teams win many finalist presentations over the years.

Every time we were up for a major finalist presentation, we engaged Gary to coach the team. Recently, he released a series of e-learning modules so now you can take his entire course online at

In Gary’s best-selling book, The Power of the Pitch, he offers helpful hints on how to deliver the winning presentation. He also shares in a Forbes article, “Ten Ways to Torpedo Your Sales Pitch,” what to guard against. Here are a few of his salient points:

1. Crowded Slides. People spend too much time creating [Microsoft] PowerPoint slides and not enough time developing the key points of a presentation. Follow the six by six rule: No more than six bullet points of text on a slide, and no more than six words per bullet point.

2. Showing Your Backside. Never turn your back on the audience for more than a second or two. If there’s a chart or graph, you need to explain, remember the three Ts: Touch, Turn and Talk. Use a pointer to call attention to a certain fact or figure, then be sure to face the audience when you are making your point.

3. No Knockout Punch. Every good presentation needs a good closer and not merely a summation of points and a simple thank you, says Hankins. Get feedback: If you don’t, and the audience has objections, “you could get dismissed without the opportunity to disprove them.”

4. Failure to Anticipate the “Killer Three” Questions. Your delivery might be flawless, your PowerPoint slides works of art. However, if you flub the “killer three” questions your audience is likely to ask; you’re toast. The “killer three” is different for each presentation, says Hankins, but you should still try to identify them. (Hint: Focus hard on your company’s core value proposition.)

5. Splintered Team. Splitting a presentation into separate sections each handled by a different person is defensible, though distracting. Still, each team member must be up to speed on all parts, if only to convey a sense of cohesion about the team and its ability to execute. “In my RFP presentations,” he says, “I would have one orchestra leader who could bring in the team during the presentation; it’s more effective that way.”

Real World Success

I apply all these techniques and more when teaching my clients to win at RFPs. You’ll appreciate this quote from our client Philly Jones, CFA, CPA and Managing Director of FiduciaryVest, on what has made the difference for his firm in winning more RFP competitions:


“Effective discovery process before the presentation, including interview with the prospect, which includes asking the right questions to possibly uncover additional issues that were not explicitly included in the RFP; 

Make the presentation about them, not you (Don’t lead with what a great firm you have…lead with their issues and how you want to challenge the status quo or assist with solving their problem(s);

Less is more when it comes to slide decks and written materials because the goal is to engage them in dialogue, not just rush through a thick slide deck; 

Connecting with other third-party advisors who are already working with the prospect who can provide additional input about you (or possibly even endorsement).”

Armed with this winning knowledge, I hope you will never look at RFPs the same way again.

Instead, welcome them to your bottom line.

News Alert

MERGE 2.0, read my latest book, now released by the publisher and available on Amazon to purchase.  Learn everything you need to know to book revenue in the new realities of B2B professional selling.

And, if you’re not a reader and prefer interactive learning, take our MERGE 2.0 online learning course.  Go here for more info.

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