Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Five "C's" of an Effective RFP Response

Writing isn't hard for an agency, but writing a good RFP requires more than a creative flair for communicating. It requires careful consideration of the prospect's stated needs, their style of doing business, and their corporate environment. It also requires understanding the process the client will go through to make a decision.

It's important to keep in mind that the prospect is most likely reviewing multiple submissions (often too many). So you must be relevant, and frame your credentials and expertise into something the client wants to know more about. At this initial stage of the agency selection process, many clients will look for ways to eliminate your agency from consideration. So I've developed a proven formula that helps me write a successful RFP using five "C's "-- concise, customized, criteria-specific, creative, and client-focused.

Be concise. Most agency responses are simply too long-winded. They cover every point in excruciating detail and make sure they include every possible selling point. After sitting through the agency review process with multiple clients, I quickly realized that the initial review is a quick scan, not a thorough and thoughtful analysis. I have seen responses rejected on the basis of how they looked, rather than the content. So be quick and to the point. If your agency has what the prospect is looking for, they will see it immediately. And they will appreciate the clarity and brevity of your communications.

Customize the response. Almost every agency has standard language to describe their philosophy, their capabilities and their process. But you should never "mail it in" by simply cutting and pasting from a previous submission. Every question is an opportunity to demonstrate your understanding of the category, the audience and the prospect. Whenever possible, you should frame your response in a way that demonstrates your knowledge of the client's brand, market environment or audience. It is also a good idea to answer the question in a way that demonstrates solutions and benefits rather than just a statement of your agency approach or process.

Address the prospect's criteria, not your own agenda. Everything you say should be relevant to the client and the assignment by addressing the specific criteria the client has identified as important. Too many agencies try to impress the prospect with creative solutions on how to improve on what they think they want, and miss covering the criteria on which the client has determined he will base his decisions. Offering creative ideas is a good way to demonstrate your thought process and creativity, but only after thoroughly addressing the question asked by the prospect. And only with the caveat that these "preliminary ideas can be developed further or rejected when we have greater understanding of your specific situation and needs after we meet". It's okay to be confident and assumptive that you will make the next round.

Another point that relates to addressing the prospect's criteria is to be very explicit about why you have included certain examples of your work. Don't be afraid to say "This is relevant to you because . . . ". Clients can be very literal at this stage of the selection process and may have difficulty in seeing why your experience or process is relevant to their needs. And keep in mind that if your agency doesn't have the experience to match all of the selection criteria, tell the truth. It is better to show them fewer examples of relevant experience than many examples of unrelated work. More is not always more in a successful RFP response.

Demonstrate your creativity and professionalism in the response. The RFP response is an opportunity to establish your agency as a professional resource that can solve a business problem and help them sell a product or service. But the RFP response is also an opportunity to provide a statement of your agency's style and creativity as well as your salesmanship. By making your RFP response stand out in a crowd, you send a message that you can make their company stand out in a crowd as well. Even the most conservative client can appreciate a creative packaging of the response.

Just be careful not to make your response so unique and different that you unintentionally send a message that you don't understand their corporate culture or the seriousness of the decision and process. And correct your typos. Have a good proofreader review the final document before you deliver or you could shoot yourself in the foot and never know why it happened.

Don't forget that the RFP response is about the client, not you. It may seem counter intuitive, but the most important thing to remember is that even though an RFP may seem as if it is about your company's capabilities, it is really about the client. No client wants to make a mistake in agency selection, so you must do everything you can to convince the client that you understand their business and can help achieve their business objectives. Do your homework on the company and the category and demonstrate your knowledge in the response. Share your observations about the prospect's brand and the market environment. The client prospect needs to know that you "get it". They need to feel confident that you understand their challenges.