How To Respond To A Request For Proposal (RFP)

I thought about titling this article “When Buyers Try To Control The Sales Process,” but felt it was too vague, although that IS exactly what is happening when a prospective client hits you with an RFP, or request for proposal.

Often, I’m asked about how to respond to one. My advice generally is NOT to, unless there is a very compelling reason to play ball. More often than not, an RFP is a giant waste of time on a low-probability prospect that is truly interested not in finding the most competent vendor, but the cheapest. I’m not sure that’s a prospect you’ll want.

Further, when a prospect is attempting to control the sales process by holding you at arm’s length with an RFP process, not allowing you to conduct true due diligence and talk to the actual decision-makers before prescribing a solution and quoting, you cannot possibly recommend the best solution for them, so in general, it’s a  highly unproductive exercise for all involved, which brings me to another key lesson in sales: gaining control.

When you get right down to it, success in selling really depends on who is in control. Most salespeople willingly give up ALL control of the sales process, inviting the prospect to make up their own mind and call all the shots, fearful of challenging them on any point or statement they make, no matter how wrong or stupid it may be, allowing them to “buffet-line select” their own solution, taking only the things they like and demanding you leave off the things they don’t.

Let’s not forget YOU are supposed to be the expert here, and a true professional never sells a prospect less than they need. So, if you give complete control of a sale over to a prospect, you’re actually doing them a disservice (unless you’re a nincompoop who doesn’t know what the heck you’re doing). Many people don’t like that aspect of selling and feel it’s wrong to try and control or “manipulate” the prospect into buying, or to control or manipulate ANY part of the sales process.  But real selling is ALL  about controlling the process: developing the need, shaping the prospect’s buying criteria, educating them on what to buy and how to buy, helping them understand what “good” is, getting time and financial commitments and creating a strong preference in buying from YOU.”

You can’t do that without control, and you certainly can’t do that via an RFP process. Another way prospects attempt to gain or maintain control is by demanding you skip steps in your normal sales process. For example, giving them a quote over the phone without any diagnostic process, or e-mailing them your quote instead of having a meeting with you to go over it. Both are examples of a prospect lording their “higher ground” advantage over you. If you allow it, you lose control and could very likely lose the sale and waste a lot of time. A serious prospect who trusts you won’t be annoyed or upset if you challenge them and insist on leading the process. Reread that last sentence again; there’s a lot of wisdom in it. Again, most salespeople roll over like a dog with their belly up, begging for mercy out of fear of losing the sale or being “too pushy,” which is NOT conducive to gaining respect or maintaining the image of credible authority in the eyes of your prospect. That’s not to say you should be a pushy, manipulative arse either. Finding the right way to stand your ground and maintain control (which is actually leadership) without being arrogant or egotistical is the key.

Bottom line, if you’re having to struggle for control in the sales process, it’s either because you’re dealing with a looky-loo who’s not a genuine buyer, or you’ve not built sufficient trust (or position) with them where you CAN stand your ground. If you want a good book on this topic, read The Lost Art Of Closing by Anthony Iannario.

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