How to: respond to requests for proposals – steps to win without pitching

At its core, pitching is parting with your thinking without compensation. Whatever your line of thought about pitches – and whether you engage with them or not –  they are a standard part of agency life and you should have a process for dealing with them just like anything else that crosses your path.

I recently read an excellent article from Blair Ennis about how building an agency one request for proposal (RFP) at a time is a painful and potentially humiliating way to grow a business. Ennis, who is the ‘Win Without Pitching’ Founder and author of The Win Without Pitching Manifesto’ brilliantly summarises the steps to take when a request for proposal comes through.

I’ve dropped the main themes below, but you can read the full article here.

The four priorities of winning without pitching

Before considering a response to a RFP, consider these four salient points about heading off the request before it gets that far.

Win without pitching

This is all about setting up a proactive selling strategy, so you secure a new client before it gets to a competitive process. Pitching is essentially parting with your thinking without compensation. If you build a relationship with a new prospect before it gets to a competitive pitch stage, you effectively miss this step.

Derail the pitch

If your prospect lets you know that they are already in discussions with other agencies, your aim should be to derail the pitch process they believe they need to take to make a decision. This happens by derailing the pitch process, trying to get the prospect to put aside their process and instead take a series of small steps with you.

Get the inside track

If derailing the pitch fails, then you should be trying to get the inside track. Almost always, someone in the process has more inside knowledge than another, if it’s not you, then the odds are already stacked against you.

Pitch or walk

Winning business via the above methods only happens if/when the prospects recognises your true value. If they don’t then hold yourself accountable that you’re pitching with long odds. If you choose to walk at this stage, then you need to do so with professionally so as to retain the possibility of work in future.

How to deal with requests for proposals (RFP’s)

 Step one – Ask ‘Why Us?’

If the request for proposal comes from a prospect you believe fits well with your area of expertise, then you should straightaway ask them ‘Why Us?’. This helps you, and them, recognise why you’re in the running. Did they simply google all local agencies and send out the request to all? Or did you come highly recommended, or they saw the work you had done for someone they admire? If you’re considering pitching, knowing you are already seen as a good contender, not just ‘another lot of ideas’ is essential.

Step two – say no

You should always be clear that you don’t usually respond with RFPs. At this point, you’ll likely get an inside track into the flexibility that might be afforded to you – or not. Following this first objection, be sure to ask a set of questions to determine their need and your expertise. Ennis encourages questions such as:

  • What are you looking for in an agency?
  • What expertise do you recognise we have that will help you solve your challenges?

This flips the RFP on its head, instead putting you in the drivers seat to see if the prospect qualifies as someone who fits well for you.

Step three – substitute the suggested next step

The next step for your prospect would likely to see you come back and pitch. Instead, suggest an intermediary step that further qualifies if the pitch is worthwhile. If the prospect is local, suggest ‘why don’t we come and meet your team for a 45 minute meeting to see if we’re right for you’ or organise a Zoom meeting instead if face-to-face isn’t viable. If this step is denied, it’s almost certainly time to walk.

Step four – use case studies

Using case studies takes away the need for a full proposal of new ideas, and may help the prospect feel reassured about the standard of your expertise. Case studies allow you to talk about how you would approach the current prospects problem – framed through how you have done it for others – rather than spending infinite amounts of time defining how you would specifically solve their challenges.

 Step five – suggest phased engagement

After a chat and case studies, suggest a phased engagement of work for the prospect rather than a pitch. Pick some small steps you know they want to tackle and give them timeframes and a mini campaign with budget. Set timeframes and an opt-out clause which allows them either their money back or a return to their RFP process if they are unhappy. Ennis adds “If they like what they see but are sticking to the process and want your written proposal, now’s the time to reassert that you are not in the proposal writing business. The relevant, detailed case study that you’ve just shown them, is your proposal. “We propose to do this (case study) for you.” Remember, the proposal is the words that come out of your mouth. The document is the contract that is produced only once the proposal is agreed upon in principle.”

Step six: seek concessions

If the prospect is demonstrating that they recognise and value your expertise, that they really think yours is the right firm for the job, but for reasons of policy or politics they need to go through the RFP process, then it’s time to see if they will walk their talk and show you the inside track by allowing you concessions to the RFP process. It’s negotiating time. Concessions can be made on costs (will they pay your travel costs or pay you fairly for work they’re asking of you?), on what you will submit as an RFP response (case studies versus free thinking) or a host of other areas. If the prospect is willing to treat you differently then it may make sense to proceed on the newly negotiated terms.

Step seven: walk… for now

People want what they cannot have. If there is no concessions and no inside track then it means it’s time to walk, but with a polite professionalism that will preserve any future opportunities. “It doesn’t seem like there’s a fit here. Why don’t you go ahead with your RFP process and if you don’t find what you’re looking for, feel free to give us a call. We’d be happy to have another conversation with you at that point.”

There is always another day.

The above is all great advice, much of which I suggest to my agency clients. If you haven’t already, then be sure to sign up to my weekly email, Rambling On, for more practical agency advice and articles.



Search the whole etc Playbook...

We have 100's of articles to help you with leadership, growth, talent and running a better business.

Agency Founders Surgery - free 1 to 1.

If you have something on your mind, a challenge you’re wrestling with or just want an alternative point of view, I’d be very happy to lend an ear and maybe help you start to unpick the issues.