I think there have been four unsolicited Request for Proposal (RFP) wins in the course of my sales career. Four. That’s an average of one every… never mind. Of course, that may suggest that I suck at RFPs. Or maybe the deal was skewed to the favor of some other vendor. (I’m going with the second one.)

Here’s my advice. Apply serious scrutiny to an unsolicited RFP. The unsolicited RFP is almost always a genuine time sink at a minimum or, worse, a chance to spill all sorts of confidential information that could easily end up with the winning vendor. Conversely, I think I’ve won essentially every RFP that I knew of and/or helped craft from the start.

It’s Hard to Walk Away

It’s easy to tell you to pass on a deal, and probably just as difficult to heed that advice. But experience tells me that you’re better off picking up the phone and making a cold call (or taking the day off and playing golf) than investing huge hours, energy, enthusiasm and your karma in longshots.

It’s also difficult to explain to sales management that you should skip this one. It’s not natural for salespeople to walk away from a deal (although there are plenty of instances where they should.) This is especially true when the request comes to you thirty pages thick, asking for prices and promising the beginning of a long and beautiful relationship. Alas, that beautiful relationship is probably with the vendor that helped them write the Request for Proposal.

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This is a lesson I was fortunate to learn early in my sales career. Here’s the scenario. AT&T was looking to launch a new initiative in a matter of a few months, and the opportunity promised to be enormous. We’d been invited because we had a reputation for being good at large-scale, systems integration efforts. Beyond those capabilities, we didn’t have any particular competitive advantages that we could emphasize. But we responded because at this particular company “That’s what we do.”

The Final Deliverable

We proceeded to amass a team to develop the response, answer all the questions, prepare an extensive budget and get it all packaged up for delivery. The final deliverable was beautiful, formatted and bound, and as professional as a proposal could be.

But I didn’t have a good feeling about it. Our costs seemed ridiculously high and our execution times long relative to what I would have expected, or what the prospect had outlined. Regardless, as the salesperson of record I dutifully submitted it a couple hours prior to the deadline.

It was the next day when I got the call from the customer, who it turned out was an outside consultant tasked with the vendor evaluation process. There was a noticeable distress in her voice as she asked me about our response. I answered her questions over the next couple of minutes, during which she seemed to relax. I then asked what was concern exactly, to which she replied with surprising candor. “Your response was four times higher than the next highest vendor response, and we were worried that we had missed an important step in our rollout strategy.”

Nope. They hadn’t. We just weren’t a good fit.

A Better Strategy

When you get that unsolicited Request for Proposal, figure out if you’re a real fit. Maybe you need to respond, even when you know it’s wired for the other competitor. Sometimes it makes sense to do so if only to help the customer bulk up the responses or as an opportunity to make this prospect aware of all your capabilities.

In the latter case, it’s often an infinitely better strategy to redefine the response and solution in such a way that it forces the customer to think differently about the problem. They ask for A, B and C, but you come back with a custom proposal and solution that puts your offering in the best possible light.

This approach should require less time and resources for you and your team. That’s because you’re drawing from existing internal resources and don’t have to adhere to their proposal format. You still look thoughtful and responsive, and perhaps provided some valuable consulting. But your renegade approach might cause them to rethink the project scope. Maybe they even scuttle the RFP process, prompting the client to ask you to come in under new circumstances to talk.

The unsolicited, surprise RFP (or its close cousin, the Request for Information) is usually a low probability shot. It’s a Hail Mary. And as much as we love watching that big hopeful but desperate pass into the end zone, it seldom ends in a touchdown.

And when is comes to the Request for Proposal problem, it’s not a strategy.