When you are engaged in a complex sales process in which you are meeting face-to-face with the potential buyers, you know how to interpret what The Whale Hunters calls “The Buyers’ Table”–the literal and figurative table around which your team interacts with people from the whale’s team who will influence the final decision of whether or not to buy from your company. But when you are engaged in responding to an RFP or RFQ, are you still paying as much attention to the buyers? Whether you can see them and talk to them or not, there remain many buyers who will influence the final decision. And their influence makes itself known at very different stages of the review process. Here’s a guide to the RFP Buyers’ Table:
- Early Review Team
- RFP Consultant. Is the company to whom you are responding making use of an RFP consultant? If so, that consultant wields a great deal of power over the early reviews. In addition to coaching and perhaps writing the RFP specs, the consultant most likely has a stable of vendors that they will encourage to apply. They have a vested interest in one of their client vendors being chosen. If you don’t know the consultant and you’re not among their preferred referrals, your odds of winning are greatly diminished.
- Compliance Gatekeeper. Someone or some group of people have responsibility to review proposals simply to ensure that you followed all the rules. Did you submit all required documents with appropriate signatures? Did you follow rules for number of pages, number of words, margins and font size? Did you answer every single question? Does your proposal follow exactly the format in which questions were presented? The compliance person is looking for a trivial reason to exclude your response, especially if the organization has received a large number of responses. Not fair? Maybe not. But it’s absolutely the way things work.
- Procurement/Buyers Review. There is a professional buyer or buyer team responsible for reviewing and vetting each response. They decide which bids to forward to the end users and other influencers. They have a great deal of authority, but how closely they work with the end users varies considerably from one organization to another. But you can be certain that if your proposal does not satisfy the procurement officers, it will not go forward to the people who will actually use your products and services.
- The “Caribou.” Several people serve in roles as “technical buyers.” They are typically the people who engage with your team in delivery and project management, or people who are advisors to them, such as HR, IT, Contracts, Training, Customer Service, and so forth. All of these people will weigh in on the decision once your proposal has passed the Procurement review. If you are responding to a federal or state RFP, there may be an external review committee whose subject matter expertise and (possibly) political views influence how they score your proposal. External reviews are conducted by the National Institute of Health, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, H.U.D., and many more. Small Business Research Grants (SBIR) proposals are subject to external review committees. The better you understand how your response will be judged and who will be involved in its evaluation, the better you can respond (OR decide not to respond)!Incumbents and other “eels” may also be involved at this step. Incumbents are sometimes provided with bid information from competitors (which I consider to be highly unethical, but that is a topic for another day) and may be consulted by some of the caribou. If your prospect has or could have the capability to perform your service in house, people in those departments may lobby for in-house rather than outsourcing, acting as eels to you.
- The Polar Bear(s) The caribou make their recommendations upline to a person or persons who are responsible for the final decisions. In a corporate environment this may be a joint decision by Purchasing and a senior VP of the division that is buying. In a government environment it will be a Contract Officer, who is being advised by a senior official with decision-making authority. Legal and fiscal personnel are involved at this level, many of whom have the ability to reject or revoke a deal or demand changes in terms. Financial negotiations may be extensive at this point in decision-making as well as decisions about delivery schedules.
Sometimes during an RFP process, if you find yourself among the top three to five bidders, your team will be asked to make a live presentation. Prepare for this long before you get the call–by then you may only have a day or two to get ready. Always assume that your team will be invited to sit at the Buyers’ Table, and you will improve your win rate with RFP responses. When you are deciding whether or not to respond to an RFP, understand that the more people you know and with whom you have an established good relationship at the Buyers’ Table, the better your chances of winning. Conversely, if you don’t know any of them, and they don’t know you, it’s a real long shot. So keep that in mind whenever you decide to invest precious resources in preparing a bid, as well as making yourself vulnerable by putting a detailed bid in fron of people whom you don’t know. The RFP process is a must to master in many industries. Finding and cultivating the Buyers’ Table is an essential feature of your process for winning.