Can You Send Me a Sales Proposal? I’m Sorry, We Don’t Do Proposals


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Why Responding to Proposals you did not Influence is a bad idea

In sales we get the opportunity to learn lessons by making mistakes and those lessons usually serve us well through our careers.

Occasionally we get to learn the same lessons over again, either because it was so long since the last time it happened and we forgot, or maybe we moved into a new line of business and went along with the buyer’s request, because we were learning the ropes in the new market.

In December, I received two proposal requests; an inbound lead and an inbound phone call from seemingly genuine and very nice people. I typically generate about 50 inbound leads per month, but these are not proposal requests, they are downloads of ebooks or whitepapers or webinar registrations.

I don’t advocate salespeople selling complex B2B products sending proposals when they are solicited by prospective customers and they come out of the blue. Why?

But what if the buyer has been reading your blogs for a while and follows you on Twitter….what’s wrong with sending a proposal?

To understand my reasoning on this point we need to take a closer look at how customers buy and I will use the IMPACT cycle from the book Why Killer Product’s don’t Sell, by Dominic Rowselll and Ian Gotts to illustrate this point.

The Universal Buying Process IMPACT

There is a pathway or process that all organizations follow to reach purchasing decisions. This process does not vary across industries or even regions of the world, because it is inextricably linked to instinctive human behavior. It is just the speed that organizations or individuals travel through the process that differs. The process is called IMPACT.

Identify – Mentor – Position – Assessment – Case – Transaction

The IMPACT process may be followed in a formal way or it may be tacit and informal. It may involve large numbers of people, both inside and outside the organization, or it may be driven by one individual. It is guaranteed that any idea which leads to a purchase in an organization, be it corporately or personally driven, has followed this process.

The six key phases of the process are easy to remember as they have an enormous IMPACT on your company’s performance:
buying process

Every purchase goes through all six phases, with or without the supplier’s assistance. What differs between the four different buying cultures is the point at which the supplier is given permission to engage with the customer and this is governed by product maturity and risk. If you are selling commodity products, you will be engaged at transaction. If you have a hot new disruptive technology product, early adopters looking for a jump on the competition will seek you out and you will be engaged at Mentor

The reason that most salespeople don’t recognize this process is because the customer goes through the process on their own, and only invites the supplier in for the last one or two steps. This correlates strongly with current research that indicates the buyer is 60-70% through the buying process when they first contact vendors. But more of this later. First, let’s understand the IMPACT process.

Phase 1: Identify

Buying Impact
The identification of ideas for changing or improving a business that are good enough to warrant investigation. This is the ideas phase. This may be the executive team going on an offsite with strategic consultants to plan its future. The executive team will be looking for ways to grow revenues, create competitive advantage, increase shareholder value, contain or reduce costs. That is, it is “blue sky” thinking looking out into the future to see how technology will help the company become more competitive or impact its markets.

Phase 2: Mentor

Buying mentor
Enrolling a mentor (evangelist) to the idea to validate it. The executive team will take the breakthrough ideas or big bets and give them to someone in senior management to act as a mentor for the ideas. These ideas are not for public consumption, and the mentor should only work with his close team and trusted advisors to ratify the thinking. The mentor will be scoping and testing the ideas, reading thought leadership articles, downloading whitepapers and looking for feasibility, credibility, and political acceptability as much as he can without drawing undue attention. If the decisions are not accepted then the ideas get buried forever.

Phase 3: Position

Buying position
The public decision to make resources and budget available to invest further in the idea. Buy-in is the big challenge because it involves managing politics. But why do politics play such a major part in this phase? The answer is simple.
The announcement of a new initiative is an announcement of impending change. And change will always produce an upsurge of emotions, both positive and negative. The mentor will need to find a sponsor, because to move forward into the next phase will require resources (money, people, time) to assess the value of the initiative. The sponsor will be the person or body of people with enough political muscle to get the resources.

Phase 4: Assessment

buying assessment
The assessment of the good and the bad in the idea. The Assessment phase plays a very important part in the post-Enron corporate world where legislation now ensures company officers are held accountable for their decisions. Particularly ones involving investment and strategic direction, which has made the Assessment phase a big hurdle. But the Assessment phase is not about cost justification, it is an evaluation of everything, both quantitative and qualitative. And some executives would see this as personal insurance, keeping them out of prison.

Phase 5: Case

business case
The creation of a quantified business case and assignment of resources/budget to it. The mentor will use the output from the Assessment phase to build a business and investment Case, possibly including solutions. Then, the Case can have a budget actually assigned to it and will be made public. If the organization requires that all external purchases are done via competitive tender, then this is when those tender documents are created and distributed.

Phase 6: Transaction

Buying Transaction
The confirmation of the project to all internal and external stakeholders and to the suppliers. Procurement will raise a purchase order and negotiate contracts for the solution put forward in the Case. Depending on the solution, market and company approach procurement may need to drive a formal procurement with competitive tendering, beauty parades, and all the fun and games that this entails.


If you have not influenced the buying process prior to Case and you are selling complex B2B technology, then the chances are that someone else has. The fact that the transaction is about to happen and you receive an invitation to respond typically means that someone else has been influencing the buying cycle and the customer is ready to make the buy. Because the buyer needs three bids, the usual suspects are rounded and up with whispers of promise from the buyer are suppliers are enticed into providing a quotation.

Your quotation serves as a benchmark against which the chosen vendor will be asked to compete on price. Unless you are selling commodities, say no to RFP’s.

Get the book, Why Killer Product’s Don’t Sell, it’s a very good primer on buying behavior and may help your company realign the way it serves its customers.

Download the Killer Products Whitepaper

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Mark Gibson
Mark Gibson has been at the forefront of developing sales and marketing tools that create clarity in messaging value for 30 years. As a consultant he is now engaged in helping sales, marketing and enablement teams to get clear about value creation. Clarity attracts inbound leads, clarity converts visitors into leads and leads into customers, clarity builds mindshare, clarity engages customers, clarity differentiates value, clarity helps onboard new hires clarity helps raise funds, clarity + execution win markets.


  1. Mark, I certainly agree that getting surprised by an RFP is not a good thing. At least that was true in the “old days” when reps were more engaged early in the sales process.

    But now that buyers are more empowered to research and create a short list without sales involvement, doesn’t that mean reps are more likely to be surprised? With upwards of 50% of the sales process being completed without rep engagement, it would seem like the odds of NOT influencing deals would have to increase.

    Also, while I’ve given out the same advice to not respond to RFPs, it’s easier said than done. Even if the odds are low, it’s hard to resist giving it a shot!

  2. Hi Mark and Bob,

    My firm is in a unique position. We manage sales training company evaluation and selection processes for mid-size and large companies. In other words, we define the requirements and issue the RFPs. The wrinkle here is that the recipients are sales training companies. Many of them are industry leaders.

    How do we get them to respond to a blind RFP when they teach their clients not to? I took some time to write this blog post recently. I wonder what your thoughts are about it:

  3. Great article Mark! While I’m overstating things a little with this title, if you haven’t been engaged in the customer’s buying process and in shaping the RFP, the probability you will win is very low. You can be certain, someone else has been there shaping the customer expectations and requirements, someone else has better relationships and better understanding of what needs to be done.

    From a customer point of view, why would they want to do business with someone they barely know. Even in the most rigid of procurement environments, the Federal Government, there are RFI’s and a number of pre RFP activities that are critical to being competitive in the final RFP process.

    Most often, receiving an unsolicited RFP means you are RFP fodder–they’ve been required to get a number of bids, but your probability of winning is very low.

    While Bob’s statement about 50% of the sales process being complete prior to any sales involvement is valid (some studies put this at 70%), this doesn’t mean it is right or even good practice — either from a sales or customer point of view.

    All it means is that sales has not been able to create compelling enough value for the customer to engage them in helping them buy. This trend is really a cry for changing the role of the sales person. Customers no longer need sales people to educate them on their offerings—they can self educate on the web.

    But customers still need help in understanding how to buy. Customers still need help in knowing the right questions they should be asking and looking at. Customer still need to know they are missing opportunities and need to change resulting in a buying process.

    Sales people need to redefine their role and ability to create value for the customer. Responding to RFP’s they haven’t been involved in is the lowest form of value creation and results in the lowest odds of winning.

    Thanks both to you Mark and Bob for the interesting discussion.

  4. Dave, your firm has worked hard to establish that an RFP will give respondents a fair shot at the deal. I really like that you assure providers that (per your blog post):

    It's a real opportunity.
    It has senior executive sponsorship.
    It is budgeted.
    The timing of the events, including launch and roll-out are short term.
    ESR has performed the requirements definition and wrote the RFP without any influence at all from any supplier.
    No supplier has been in the account since ESR was involved—therefore no one has the inside track.
    Every provider that receives an RFP has an equal opportunity to win. ESR will never solicit proposals from any company we don't feel is qualified to win the business.

    But when an RFP request comes “out of the blue” as Mark posted, the respondent has no such assurance. In fact, it seem more likely that the RFP was influenced by someone else with the inside track.

    So if buyers want vendors to play the RFP game, they need to build some trust, too. Otherwise buyers may find that top solution providers won’t waste their time, and an RFP may result in *not* getting the best solution.

    I wonder, though, just how realistic it is to think that buyers will go to this trouble. Especially if their independent research find several providers that seem qualified. So long a few will be play the game, the buyer gets leverage and probably a decent solution if not the “best.”

  5. Hi Mark,

    I thought I would share an approach that John William’s had his sales teams use when he was SVP of Sales for StorageTek. When his company got an unsolicited RFP, he would have it reviewed to determine what competitor’s fingerprints were on the document.

    Once they figured that out, they would then actually respond to the request, but with a twist. They would start off by thanking the prospect for the opportunity and explaining they had reviewed all the questions. They would then also state that they were surprised that “N” key issues weren’t listed which they knew the prospect would want to consider to ensure the success of the project. These were of course designed to emphasize the strengths of their solutions and point out weaknesses in those of the lead competitor.

    In their response, they then provided their answer to those questions. They then stated that they would be more than willing to answer the rest of the items if the prospect was willing to add their suggestions to the RFP. John’s experience was that 1 in 7 or 8 times, the prospect would get spooked by the issues they hadn’t considered enough to open up the evaluation process again.

  6. Dave, I’d argue that marketing needs to step into the breech. Simply exhorting reps to engage earlier seems like swimming upstream. Yes, they should try, but it’s not going to work in all cases.

    Many customers don’t want to engage early with sales reps, but they will engage with companies in other ways. Content marketing can help provide buyers with “draft” RFPs which can help influence RFPs without reps direct involvement. In fact, I’ve seen content like this put out by some software companies.

  7. There is very little chance you’ll get a positive ROI out of the bidding with multiple others on an RFP you didn’t know about before it was posted.

    If you didn’t help write it, that’s a bad first sign. Even if the buyer doesn’t really know what they need, they’ve invested enough time in the RFP that few changes are going to be made at this point.

    And if you don’t already have a relationship with the organization or decision-makers, you’re no different than the other bidders. And that, my friends, is a race to the bottom on price.

    Not likely a place you want to be…

  8. Bob, I would agree, but with the proviso that we need to redefine the sales and marketing processes, integrating them to respond more appropriately through the entire customer buying process.

    Challenger and similar models, would have sales people engaging even before marketing and getting people to think about doing things differently. Marketing might provide finely tuned content afterwards until the sales person needs to be re-engaged.

    I still worry about the “last mile” problems through the entire buying process. Anything marketing provides, any web research is, by definition relatively general. It doesn’t translate specifically to, “What I Need, What I Should Be Looking At,” etc. This is where sales people are indispensable.

  9. Thanks to all of your comments. Jim, interesting approach if you have market muscle.


    Your comment echo’d the thinking that influenced me to respond in the first place. OK, they are an informed buyer I thought, they have done their homework, they read my blog….I will respond.

    I declined to bid on the other one when I established the prospect was talking to one of my competitors.

    Unsurprisingly, I came 2nd. in a “close run thing” on the one I decided to bid, and was assured that my proposal would be kept close at hand should the chosen vendor screw up, LOL.

    So for my business, from now on, there will be no proposals. We will discuss with prospects what an engagement could look like, understand buyer objectives and agree deliverables and if the prospect is qualified and I’m convinced they genuinely want to work with me exclusively, will jointly create a statement of work.

  10. Jim, this is a great tip. Instead of just saying “no,” why not get more creative and test if the RFP is fully baked or if the buyer is open to ideas.

    If the RFP looks like a set up for a competitor and the buyer is not open to any input, then that’s the time to decline.

  11. Mark, your comment and direction is interesting, and I imagine might serve your business well. However, there is a difference between declining a response on a RFP you haven’t been involved in and not competing.

    It serves the customer well to get advice and guidance from several sources to build their requirements and needs. It can create a higher quality RFP, as well as raise the standard for competing.

    I will always compete vigorously through the sales/buying process. If I don’t think I can compete to win, I may abandon it at some point, but I will compete.

    The only area that is a pure waste of time is getting involved after everything has been done. If I haven’t “written” it, then there is no chance that I can win it.

  12. Bob,

    You’re right. Typically buyers don’t go to that trouble. That’s why I said it was a unique situation.

    Unfortunately for a number of reasons, some companies must respond to RFPs, even if they win one out of twenty. Newer companies respond just to establish themselves.

    A few years ago I worked with a very well-known, large professional services firm that responded to every RFP because they had a reputation of being elitist and snobbish. Responding was their way of communicating to the market that they were “down to earth” (the senior partner’s words to me).

    For those who must respond because you don’t have any other leads: 1) start doing some effective marketing NOW, and 2) in the meantime, read RFPs Suck. Some good stuff in there.

  13. Hi Dave,

    Read your blog article. I see the need for your service and understand both sides of the argument.

    If you invite ten vendors to an RFP, because you preselected those with the criteria to satisfy client needs, they theoretically they each have a 25% chance of winning.

    I would not be responding to RFP’s with a one in 10 chance of getting shortlisted. It seems the missing step is for you to short list the vendors and pick 3, or 4. After all it’s your insight and knowledge of the market the customer is paying for….you should know who the players are that can satisfy the customer criteria.

    If you give a shortlist of 4 vendors a 25% chance of competing on a level playing field you are likely to get more responses.

    Thanks for the comment.

  14. Dave,

    In the opportunity I no bid, I found out after the event that the reason i was invited was that their talks with my competitor had stalled….price was too high.
    I was being invited in to stoke the competitive juices and even though the prospect assured me it was a level playing field, it was not. Customers lie to get you to respond for the reasons mentioned in the blog…they whisper enticing offers of consideration, but what they need is a couple of competitive bidders to get the price they want….especially in sales training.

  15. I was a proposal manager for many years. I have spent many hours preparing RFP responses that I knew would never be won.

    Unfortunately, when a salesperson receives a high dollar value RFP, logic sometimes goes out the window. All they see is dollar signs, and since the salesperson (or their manager) is usually not the person that has to spend hours compiling the RFP response, they often have a hard time saying no to an RFP. This is especially true if they are behind on quota.

    Whenever I suggested not responding to an unsolicited RFP, I was accused of not wanting to win and not wanting to support sales. Needless to say, I moved on and got out of the RFP business.

  16. Great comments and terrific article, Mark! First get an appointment. No sense spending huge time on a proposal if they won’t meet with you first. No appointment? No response. And if you do have enough market pull to get an appointment, why not try to get additional decision makers to attend that meeting. For example….

    One of my clients sells document management systems, and received an RFP from a large financial institution. My client called the CIO (who had written the RFP) and requested a meeting with both the CIO and the Sales VP – the salesperson felt that the bank should also be looking at selling their documents online, an application that the CIO’s RFP didn’t address. So the revenue potential would be of interest to the Sales VP.

    Just because a competitor has influenced the RFP doesn’t mean that they have effectively influenced the RFP. If you can help the client to recognize that they have overlooked something important you can quickly go from laggard to leader on the deal.

  17. Mark’s blog focuses on commercial, B2B RFP’s. Of course, where I’m from in the Washington, DC area, RFP’s are common procurement instrument for Federal government agencies. Vendors must answer RFP’s if they want to win contracts. But many–not all–know the game. They have to, as some proposals involve long lead times, and vendors often invest millions of dollars in the bid process. This demands careful assessment of the risks and opportunities.

    Because commercial firms see RFP’s less frequently, they often let emotions take control and the temptation to jump on the opportunity overrides sensibilities. RFP’s appeal to our voyeuristic interests. We get a quick look into what the prospect wants, and assume precision in the questions. We know details about the project that would have to be painstakingly discovered without the aid of the prepared document.

    But most often, we find considerable ambiguity. And from having completed many RFP’s in the commercial world, I can attest that when the vendor answers ambiguous questions, interpretations always favor the vendor. And prospects should not delude themselves that their questions are “tightly worded.” They’re not.

    But that might be beside the point, as I agree with most that RFP’s are a low-probability win. It might be worth taking a page out of the book of government contractors. Before the company (note: I did not say salesperson) invests in responding to the RFP, a thorough risk assessment must be taken to determine the likelihood of winning. Responding to RFP’s is very time consuming, and companies always have a choice whether to respond. Just wanting to “be in the game” is not a compelling reason to commit a sales rep’s time, or many hours of technical and support staff resource.

    The most memorable advice I received about responding to RFP’s comes from a sales training program I attended (I’d rather not share the name of the company): If the provider of the RFP won’t allow the salesperson access to the decision makers prior to responding to the RFP, 1) measure the thickness of the RFP, and 2) take an equivalent thickness of marketing material and place it in a binder to send back to the prospect. Oh, make sure to include a cover letter.

  18. A solid piece of advice that gives you a solid “out’ to handle the situation covered in this article, thanks for commenting!

  19. If you don’t respond to inbound requests for quote, how do you generate most of you business?

  20. I agree Bob. While my company has generated a lot of business through unsolicited RFPs, the process is often a time waster leaving a lot of people spinning their wheels. The rate of return has declined sharply since September 2008. More and more, proposals are being used to generate ideas which the client then turns around and implements internally or with the lowest cost provider.

    I have done a lot of blogging about the pitfalls of the RFP process targeted to both suppliers and prospective clients. I hope you and your visitors will add your comments.

    Incentive Travel Proposal Ethics: Direct vs Third Party Model

    Corporate Incentive Travel: When & how to Request a Proposal

    Incentive Travel & Event Planning: Responding to Third Party RFPs

  21. I think the approach needs to be nuanced according to your organisation’s circumstances. Most of the companies I work with are in relatively new, immature or rapidly evolving market spaces – and they tend not to do much Government work. In these environments, if you’ve been effective in need creation, the situation may rarely go to RFP.

    But if you receive an RFP and haven’t influenced its content, you’re almost certainly column fodder. When I say influence, though, I don’t mean to say that you have to have written it. I mean that you can see your approach reflected in the document.

    As earlier commentators have observed, this influence won’t always come exclusively or at all from the sales person; marketing has a critical role to play in educating and influencing the market. But it’s more than this: marketing needs to communicate with the market place in a way that creates intrigue and the desire to learn more, and stimulates the prospect to engage with the vendor earlier in the process than they would otherwise have done so.

    Early engagement seems to be key. But if you can’t achieve early engagement then at least make an informed assessment about whether the opportunity is worth pursuing and whether you can influence the prospect’s thinking from this point in. Too many average sales people are really bad at making these judgements (the top performers are fine – they tend to have too much respect for their own time to go on wild goose chases).

    At that point, as in almost everything else about improving sales performance, the line manager needs to step in – and play devil’s advocate and challenge the sales person’s often irrational exuberance. I suggest that managers should always force the sales person to justify the effort required in responding to an RFP – with the default being, don’t waste your (and our) time unless you can present a really sound, BS-free case.

    Might you sometimes end up rejecting an opportunity you realistically could have won? Occasionally. VERY occasionally. But you will certainly have freed up a boat load of time that could have been used far more productively.

  22. A lively discussion. My recommendation is not to reply to blind RFP’s if you haven’t had a chance to learn about the client’s needs and potentially influence the requirements.

    That said, consider taking the time to determine what your win rate is on unsolicited RFP’s (you’ll have to look back and try to remove any RFP’s that you wired or influenced). The 2 extremes I’ve see with clients:

    – A bar code manufacturer enjoyed a 25% win rate on unsolicited government RFP’s.
    – A software company that had won 3 out of 141 unsolicited RFP’s with an average response time of 60 man-hours!).

    As you can imagine, my advice to the first company was to keep responding and to the second to stop the madness by taking the following approach.

    Rather than refusing to respond, my suggestion was to contact the person that issued the RFP (usually an administrator), thank him or her for asking for a response and then say to justify XX hours to respond, you would like 1 hour meetings or phone conversations with 2 or 3 titles you believe you’d have to speak with to understand their situation and make a meaningful response. This amounts to a “quid pro quo” in that you are bartering your response in exchange for the ability to do a professional job in making a recommendation.

    If the administrator won’t give you access, my suggestion is to write a letter indicating that your corporate policy is not to respond to unsolicited RFP’s. Document that in the event the RFP administrator has a change of heart, you stand ready to respond after being granted the interviews you’ve asked for.

  23. Hi Anne,

    If I have not influenced the buying process with an inbound lead and have had a dialogue with the prospect prior to receiving a request for a proposal, then I will be endeavoring to establish who they have been talking to prior to contacting me.

    The way people buy is universal and it follows the IMPACT cycle. Typically it takes several months from the time I am first contacted before there is a requirement for an SOW. After this time, the prospect is qualified and we have decided to work together.

    THanks for asking.

  24. Think about it carefully before you decide’ is, I guess, the sum of all the advice here. Thanks everybody.

    But because I spend so much time in the company of professional buyers (for our research) I would caution on appearing to be too negative about the RFP.

    The competitive tender is at the core of professional procurement, whether it takes the form of an RFP, an eAuction, or the normal let’s talk to a few potential suppliers. All our research with buyers shows that. So, even if your category (product/service) has escaped it to date, it is something that we are all going to be seeing a lot more of.

    When it comes to getting the best deal Buyers cannot be monogomous – the reasons why we have spelled out here: However some RFP’s may be one step to far in terms of our customer pre-qualification criterion.

    It makes sense for the buyer to bring the principles of the RFP into buying (regardless of what is being bought), but the seller has to decide if and when it works for him/her. For most of us selling complex solutions out of the blue RFPs, with no possibility to interact with the buyer before submission don’t make sense.

    Just like anything else the competitive tender process can be done well, or badly. RFP spam, for example, serves nobody and engaging in a process which is being applied badly serves nobody.

    There are lots of different types of RFP and how they are applied by the buyer very important. A key factor here is that the process for buying office supplies, has to be different from that involved in buying a complex software solution.

    However being open (and being seen to be open) is key – for example the seller saying; ‘great love to compete for your business, but before we commit to responding can you share some more information with us, or can we get together’.

    When the buyer starts sharing their plans we can hopefully bring a new perspective, new ideas – things that they may not have thought of.

    Buyers are under pressure to get the best deal and to show a robust process for ensuring the same. It is our job as salespeople to help them to get the most competitive solution for their business.

    So, RFP’s don’t scare me. I see them for what they are. Most important of all I get to chose how, or if I will respond.

  25. Mark,

    Your comment makes sense from the supplier’s point of view. However the client doesn’t see it that way. They want to make certain they aren’t missing anything by having ESR cull the list. We would have much less work to do with only three or four finalists at the outset, but it just doesn’t work out that way.

    Another point: You say you wouldn’t be responding with a one-in-ten chance of winning.

    Remember this isn’t a lottery. The client’s requirements are very well documented and the providers are selected according to how well they meet those requirements.

    So if I were on the supplier side and I saw a very, very strong match between my proven capabilities and the requirements, I definitely would throw my response into the ring.

    Back to my first comment… This IS an unusual situation in that the best supplier wins.

  26. I still think the B2B sales profession is in denial about the changes that are happening on the buyer side. This discussion mainly reinforces the notion that B2B sales wants to be in control of the process and if they can’t influence the RFP, sales will take its ball and go home.

    I do agree that every situation is different, and there are no pat answers. In complex B2B, it’s certainly fair to ask for a meeting before investing tons of resources on a deal that the competition has wired.

    But in many other cases, for less complex and/or lower dollar commitments, I predict that more sales organizations will get “surprised” by RFPs in the future. That’s because buyers are completing more of the process without sales engagement, and companies can’t afford to have reps in the field “influencing” every possible deal.

    Ray is really the only one in this discussion who has brought up good and valid reasons why buyers can’t afford to be monogamous, and RFIs or RFPs are part of their buying experience.

    I appreciate all the answers, but I’m being provocative here because this sounds like more of the same, not a creative answer to the age of empowered buyers. There’s no expanded role for marketing, for example, and marketing may be able to help get a foot in the door before the RFP is fully baked.

    For more on this, read my recent article: B2B Sellers, Wake Up! Adopt Buyer Experience Management, or Get a Pink Slip from Customer 2.0.

  27. Bob, I think you’re being unfair to B2B sales professionals. They know they’re no longer in control, if they ever were. But this doesn’t mean they should do wasteful things just because a potential buyer asks them to.

    Like Dave Stein, I’ve written many RFPs as part of my business advising technology buyers. Mine are also vendor-neutral and legitimately competitive. But I would never send a RFP without first speaking with the vendors — even those I know well. A good salesperson will always have reasonable questions they need answered, and frankly they deserve the courtesy of a conversation before being asked to make a significant investment of resources.

    Sadly, many self-generated RFPs are done by people who are not skilled in procurement. Some are using RFPs effectively, as a way to gather detailed information about products they have already determined are qualified and — equally important — to explain their requirements in enough detail to allow a meaningful response. Others are trying to shortcut a more considered selection process, and are mostly just hurting themselves. (Of course, we’re talking here about complex products — if it’s just copier paper, you buy on price and specs and that’s that.)

    It’s extremely tempting to say that any buyer who won’t spend time with a salesperson is a bad buyer and likely a bad customer, so you don’t want to sell them anyway. But that reeks of sour grapes — and while it’s probably true in many cases, you hate to walk away from sales where it isn’t. Those are, presumably, the cases where a detailed understanding of the client’s needs isn’t required: for example, in selling marketing automation software where, truth be told, many products will meet most buyers’ needs. Of course, those buyers are probably going to make their decision based mostly on price. So perhaps the rule is, you reply to a blind RFP if you’re qualified and pretty sure you will be the low bidder. Otherwise, it just doesn’t seem a good way to spend time. (Standard caveat: every company’s business is different and you may find blind RFPs are productive. But if you knew that, you wouldn’t be trying to set a policy.)

    That said, of course it’s part of marketing’s job to try to tilt the playing field by putting out lots of great materials, including draft RFPs. But no matter how well they do that, companies will still need to decide how to respond when a blind RFP appears.

  28. David, I probably was a bit unfair.

    I’m just challenging this elite group of B2B experts to think harder about whether the dramatic change of buyer behavior requires an equally dramatic change on the part of B2B Sellers — and I include marketing as part of the Seller team.

    It does worry me that the advice given is essentially the same as what we would have given 5, 10, or 20 years ago. The consensus appears to be more of the same. Maybe that’s true, but I’m pushing to see if there are more creative approaches out there.

    Thanks for joining the discussion!

  29. Bob, Okay, now that I’ve defended the honor of my friends in B2B sales, maybe the question is this: how should companies respond to the rise of ‘user-generated’ RFPs, given that they’re becoming more common? By ‘user-generated’, I mean RFPs that are not created by procurement professionals and, generally, don’t seem to be thoughtfully created or sent to well-targeted distribution lists. Since that’s a new phenomenon, there are no old answers to fall back on.

  30. Yes, I think that would be a productive discussion.

    My hypothesis is that more Buyers will be researching solutions independently of Sellers, and potentially surprising *everyone* on the RFP list.

    Obviously not for very large/complex purchases. But I’ve seen too many cases of “that will never be bought online” … until it was.

    And I agree with you that user-generate RFPs will become more commonplace. There are plenty of sites that attempt to help buyers compile a “top 10” list of potential software, for example. That cuts out sales reps and even experts like you.

    So maybe Sellers should consider the possibility that *nobody* is wired into a deal, and the (non-procurement) Buyer is just trying to find the best solution with an RFP.

    Seems to me it’s incumbent upon the Seller to not just sell the solution, but to sell why engaging is worth the Buyer’s time.

  31. I generally agree with the sentiment expressed here. And, if your plan includes no improvement in marketing and sales effectiveness, I recommend that you ignore RFP’s. Having said that, I feel the root cause of the problem is the transactional way companies view their markets. It is not unusual for a company to buy a list, execute some marketing activity, send “leads” (raw, unfiltered, unqualified) to sales and then start over 3, 6, 9 or 12 months later doing the same thing.
    The problem with that approach is that if you happen to have missed a buying window you are out of luck. A better bet is to qualify and nurture the market consistently, thereby increasing the likelihood that your company will be at least short-listed when the prospect is ready to buy rather than being on a long list of vendors receiving an RFP, or worse (not even getting invited to the dance).
    Marketing’s role in this is to effectively nurture potential opportunities (those with latent pain) using multi-touch, multi-media and multi-cycle campaigns. While email is one element of this (via a marketing automation solution or otherwise), it is not enough by itself. Let’s say your market contains 1,000 prospects. At least 300 of them (30% – the Alpha list – strategic or otherwise named accounts) should NEVER be contacted using a marketing automation tool. These companies are too precious to treat like the human equivalent of a pin ball – capturing your attention when they have hit the right bumpers and scored enough points. These accounts REQUIRE individual touch strategies including the human voice.
    The next 400 accounts can be approached using a combination of marketing automation and human touch (less human touch than the top 30%). A sample of the bottom 300 should be tested (using both a tool and human touch) to make absolutely sure they even belong on the list.
    Marketing’s job is to improve the odds that you are called on to help write the RFP. Their job is not to produce scored "leads' that end up being ignored or driving smaller deals with lower level decision-makers. I continue to be astounded at the amount of money large companies spend driving leads that are ignored by sales. While my response barely scratches the surface on a fix – I can assure you that one-to-one is the solution, not one to many. If you improve marketing and sales effectiveness, you won't be sitting around waiting for RFP's.

  32. Mark,

    I always thought you should not respond to an RFP that you did not write.

    I was doing some business development consulting for a small company in New Jersey that had received an RFP from the largest logistics provider in the world. The CEO did not want to respond since it was obvious that it was baked for a competitor.

    I advised him that the only way we should respond is to change the game, which was to come up with a totally different, but better, cheaper and smarter solution than what they were asking.

    We got an approval from the RFP response team and submitted two solutions. One they were asking and one that we developed.

    They liked our solution and we won a multi-million dollar global contract. I have attached a link to a blog that I wrote describing what I learned from that RFP response.

    Note, we never met them face-to-face and had never worked with them before or had any realtionship with them. This deal was completed in less than 3 months.


  33. Thanks everyone for the really great comments. Jay, I read your article and found it to be an eye-opening approach and one I will try the next time I get a request – provided there is a fit.

  34. Bob,love the line ‘it’s incumbent upon the Seller to not just sell the solution, but to sell why engaging is worth the Buyer’s time.’ I guess another of saying the same thing is that we must show how we can help the buyer to buy.


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