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“Can you give us an RFP template to share with our client?”, asked one of my company’s customers recently. “We can Google it but you can save us the trouble if you have something readymade”.

Good they didn’t use Google – there’s lot more to sharing an RFP template than Googling, downloading and handing over a standard template. B2B technology providers can use the opportunity to “share an RFP template” as an opening for introducing specs favorable to their product or service in the evaluation process. By shaping the purchase process in this manner, they can substantially increase their win rates.

But they need to play this right. Most prospects are savvy enough to see through one-sided specs and throw the vendor’s RFP template – if not the vendor itself – out of the purchase process.

Shaping an RFP calls for “outside-in” thinking, where you start from the customer’s pain area, spec a solution that alleviates the pain and also happens to showcase your differentiators.

Let me illustrate this approach with the following case study:

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The prospect was a large company with multiple production facilities and a wide network of regional and zonal offices. The company wanted to purchase and implement an ERP solution and invited all leading ERP vendors for a pre-bid conference. One of them was the protagonist of this story – let’s call it ACME. Its sales manager had a good rapport with the prospect’s CIO and was invited to share a sample RFP template.

To give you a bit of background about the market: ACME implemented its own ERP. Whereas its competitors just sold their software and left it to the customer to get it implemented by a “third party implementation partner”. ACME touted self-implementation as a strong differentiator on the back of the logic that, since a product owner knows the product best, it should be the one to implement the product.

In line with its usual strategy of using self-implementation as its USP, ACME added the following spec into the RFP template:

“Self-implementation: ERP vendor should implement its package by itself.”

Like it happens often in sales, the logic that makes great sense for a vendor crumbles when competition enters the picture. That’s what happened here.

ACME’s competitors billed their third-party implementation partner network as a major benefit, saying this provided access to global best practices and brought superior program management skills to the implementation. They also thwarted ACME’s thrust on self-implementation by saying that ACME was too small to attract third party implementation partners, which is why it had to do its implementations by itself.

In effect, competitors persuaded the prospect that, by touting self-implementation, ACME  was merely trying to create a virtue out of a weakness. As a result, ACME’s attempt to stipulate self-implementation in the RFP went out the door.

This was a big blow to ACME because self-implementation was a major plank of ACME’s pitch. It was about to lose the golden opportunity to steer the purchase decision in its favor by spec’cing the RFP.

This is when ACME brought us in.

We dug deep and were able to spot a fundamental flaw in ACME’s tactic: “Self-implementation” was an “inside-out” attribute. While ACME did try to convert the feature into a benefit, competitors were able to counter it effectively by promising other benefits from their third-party implementation offering.

In our experience, an “outside-in” perspective has a much better chance of working – not just in an RFP but in all stages of the sales process. Here, the spotlight is on the prospect’s pain area. All benefits and enabling features are shaped by alleviation of the pain. Not the other way round as is the case with an “inside-out” approach.

After a round of brainstorming with ACME’s team, we came up with a different spec:

“ERP product vendor must take responsibility for the success of implementation”.

Now the RFP didn’t forbid use of third party implementors. It just asserted that the product should work for the customer – a very logical ask from customer’s point of view. It also sought to mitigate the risk of failure, which was – and still is – is a clear and present danger in any enterprise software implementation. No prospect in its right mind could argue against this stipulation. And so the spec was inserted into the RFP and circulated to all the vendors.

Since ACME was doing the implementation by itself, it was a no-brainer that it took the onus for its success. That was not the case for competitors who wouldn’t / couldn’t underwrite implementations done by third parties.

This gave ACME the winning edge.

Let me hasten to add that we need to be careful while writing specs like these so that they don’t pose an undue risk to the vendor, especially when it comes to implementation of enterprise-grade software with hundreds of locations, thousands of employees and countless moving parts. We mitigated the risk for ACME by specifying a set of success criteria and multiparty roles and responsibilities.

—–

I highlighted the importance of spec’cing an RFP in What Happens Before A Prospect Contacts Sales?. Getting ahead of the RFP is the only way for sales to escape the blindzone caused by the modern Buyer 2.0 purchase behavior.

Like a veteran B2B sales manager used to say, “if you get an RFP without working on it in advance, you’ve already lost the order”. Although his statement is two decades old, his words ring more true today than ever before. As McKinsey highlighted in a recent report, “two-thirds of B2B deals are lost before a formal RFP process even begins.”

Vendors can shape an RFP on several dimensions including core product features, company stature and attributes of the total ownership experience. While we’ve used the example of ERP to illustrate how to do this right, the basic principle contained in this post can be adapted for any kind of B2B technology product or service. If you need any help with this, we’re always there!

Ketharaman Swaminathan On May - 19 - 2017

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