Winning an RFP

By Robert A. Potter

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The best way to win a request for proposal (RFP) is to understand the motivation and process driving the selection decision. Knowing as much as possible about why and how businesses are chosen over others makes it easier to craft a successful approach.

The formal RFP selection process is like a funnel with three phases: search, screening, and selection. Each phase is based on decision criteria that become increasingly selective and subjective. The number of candidates eventually narrows down to a single winning service provider.

Search. Decision criteria during this phase are inclusive and designed to gather as many alternatives as necessary to assure a good decision. Inclusion is based on the company’s awareness of, and access to, candidates with relevant capabilities.

Screening. This phase frequently uncovers too many choices to be individually evaluated. Standards for comparing similar characteristics are set, and these criteria are used to eliminate all but the few competitors that most closely align to decision criteria.

A vendor can avoid being eliminated during the screening phase by determining the decision criteria, building preferences that fit its strengths, and positioning its capabilities to those criteria. For each criterion, the vendor must be able to clearly articulate how it is different and why that is important to the buyer, making it difficult for competitors to match up.

Selection. The short-listed candidates are invited to meet the decision makers and present their cases. All vendors that make it this far are well qualified, so decision criteria expand beyond capabilities to the unique rational and emotional fit of one provider over the rest.

The winner in the selection phase will be chosen based on emotional preference value: subjective and nonverbal decision criteria that include comfort (charisma and familiarity), confidence (in the vendor’s understanding of the buyer’s needs and situation), and commitment (the vendor’s demonstrated loyalty to, and enthusiasm for, the company and the project).

In a word, trust.

A vendor can build emotional preference by focusing on what is different about a prospective buyer. Trust can be built by engaging the buyer personally; for example, instead of telling the buyer what the vendor will do, giving a preview of what a working relationship with the vendor will be like and showing how the vendor will make a good partner.

Robert A. Potter is the author of Winning in the Invisible Market: A Guide to Selling Professional Services in Turbulent Times (R. A. Potter Advisors LLC, June 2003). He is also the managing principal of R.A. Potter Advisors (, a marketing and sales strategy consulting practice for professional service providers.




















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