This month I will address some very important practical tips around the process of responding to requests for proposals. While the tips below sound very logical, you would be surprised by how many submissions lose because of not following instructions.
Think of an RFP as a test that your potential client is giving you. With all of the content requirements included in the RFP, they are also trying to figure out how you respond to direction, what risks you take, and what you completely ignore. It’s like an IQ and personality test combined! Think of each question as asking what you would do and how you will do it.
If there is no mention of providing an executive summary — do it anyway. Whether you include it in the RFP itself, in the covering e-mail, or physical package, it’s a great way of summing up your strong points and engaging your reader.
Read the questions and answer what is asked
So many respondents simply cut and paste their web site marketing materials that directionally, but not specifically answer a question. You can start with previously written material, but tailor the answer to the asked question. Your winning competitors will.
It is unacceptable not to answer all of the questions asked. If you choose not to answer a question, such as reporting the revenue of your firm, just answer your partnership agreement, which prohibits disclosing that information. Don’t skip questions. Answer them or give the reasons why you are not providing answers.
Contact the designated RFP point person only
If there are instructions to only contact one person who is in charge of the RFP, don’t contact anyone else. Go through the designated contact person. Many people have other contacts within the prospective client’s organization and think a quick call, e-mail, lunch, or after-work session will not matter. It may not, but it may. Do you really want to risk losing existing or potential business because you can’t follow instructions?
On the other hand, if they don’t prohibit you from asking questions of any one in the organization, by all means ask away. This may be a reverse test to see if you will ask questions to demonstrate passion, proactivity, and a tangible desire for the business. And you will be able to make your pitch more relevant. I have seen RFPs lost by not asking questions when allowed to!
Submit the response in the proper format
If you are asked to submit the response document in a particular format and naming convention for the file, do it exactly as required. Law firms tend to try and pdf everything even when they are asked for a Word or Excel format and you may be disqualified if you ignore these instructions. Also be careful to provide exactly the right version of a requested electronic format. When they ask for doc and you provide docx, they may not be able to read your file and disqualify you.
Don’t use IP without permission
If you haven’t got permission to the prospect’s intellectual property such as its logo, don’t use it. You may think it doesn’t matter, but you are a lawyer and are supposed to know trademark laws. Using intellectual property without permission may be a sign to them of the quality of law you practise.
Submit the response a day or more before deadline
This gives you a front-row seat and if the recipient can’t stand the suspense and flips through your submission before receiving others, he or she are unconsciously comparing all others to the benchmark you’ve set.
Note that if the prospective client sets a day deadline but not time deadline, assume the time deadline is end-of-day for their time zone. I think I lost an RFP once because we assumed the time deadline was midnight instead of end-of-day.
Always discuss AFAs whether asked or not
If you’re not bringing up alternative fee arrangements, and are still only quoting hourly rates, beware: your time in business is limited.
Both content and format matters
Books are judged by their covers. You may find this hard to believe, but you can write the best legal content and still not make the short list because the RFP wasn’t presented in the format and order requested, and is ugly. Pleasing formats please people initially and invite them to dive into your content. (Humans are generally emotionally driven decision-makers and then rationalize the emotional decision.) Ugly presentations are harder for people to get past, and it makes it difficult to get into the content. Why risk it? Make your submission pleasing to the eye and easy to read.
Most times, you are competing against other law firms for business but today, you are also competing against your prospect’s in-house legal department. Recent RFPs I have participated in are very interested in how you are going to work with the in-house department to act as one, aligned, sharing, and collaborative team. Recognize, appreciate, address, and embrace this business reality. Never ignore it.
Always conduct debriefs
Win or lose, your best chance of improving your responses and gaining some competitive intelligence is asking for it. Arrange for a debrief and ask about what you did well and how you can improve. You will be surprised as how many people are willing to help you!
That’s it for RFP tips. If you have any further questions that you want an opinion and advice on, by all means, send them my way.