Bluebird on blurred background representing unexpected RFP or RFQ
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6 steps to deal with an unexpected RFP or RFQ

Table of Contents

How to handle and unexpected RFP or RFQ

We’ve all experienced it. The unexpected invitation to reply to an RFP or and RFQ that pops up in your email inbox. It could be from a prospect that you have been pursuing for a while. It may be a customer that you have known for years. That doesn’t mean that you can’t win, but it does mean that you need to qualify this Bluebird carefully. Here’s how:

Why an unexpected RFP or RFQ is not a good sales opportunity

So, should you try to catch the bluebird or not? It’s tempting to try. After all, it fits the definition of a qualified opportunity, right? You know: Budget, Authority, Need, Timescale. It’s all there in black and white. And that’s exactly why you should stand back and look at it with a cynical eye. You see,  if you didn’t know about the unexpected RFP (request for proposal) or RFQ (request for quotation) before it was written, you are joining a game where the rules have been written by the other competitors.

Creating an RFP or an RFQ costs customers time, money, resources and lost opportunities. That means that they have to precisely describe what the customer wants, how much they are prepared to pay and by when they want to project delivered. Very few customers have the expertise to draft and issue an RFP or RFQ without first talking to potential suppliers or retaining consultants (who will also have talked to potential suppliers). This means that the information requested in the unexpected RFP or RFQ that is now sat on your desk, is based on a vision of a solution that has been created by one or more of your competitors.

So, because you were not involved in the preceding discussions, you don’t fully understand the customer’s problem or their vision. All you can do is make some assumptions based on the content of a document that is designed to get information and not to give it. This means that you don’t know where the value lies, you can’t engineer your solution to match that vision and you may have no sponsor inside the organisation. Do you still think it is a qualified opportunity?

How should you approach an unexpected RFP or RFQ?

unexpected RFP unexpected RFQGiven that you cannot compete effectively at this stage, you must try to change the field of play. In other words you need to find a way to understand the customer’s problem and vision so that you can properly qualify this unexpected RFP or RFQ and maybe even get it changed. The problem is that the people involved in drafting and evaluating responses, will have spent a large number of man-hours and be invested politically and emotionally in what they believe is the right solution. There will be a huge resistance to change.

Your first task then, is to work out if you can change the RFP or RFQ. This means very carefully evaluating the request and determining if you have the ability to deliver what the customer wants and what additional defining competences or capabilities you could add that the customer has not asked for.

If you can genuinely find some differentiators you need to honestly assess whether the value that you bring is significant enough for them to change their RFP or RFQ and under what circumstances they might recognise the additional value. If you honestly can see an opportunity to generate more value for the customer, then things are looking brighter. But now you must qualify the opportunity.

Why you need to change the RFP or RFQ before you respond

Remember that all RFP or RFQ documents are intended to do one of two things:

  • To get the lowest possible overall cost or
  • To get the preferred bidder(s) through to the next stage

 At this point, the customer has no idea that you can add value to their vision. So you cannot be a preferred bidder. This means that in the box-ticking, point-scoring exercise that follows once all of the responses to the RFQ or RFP have been analysed, your added value actually has:

  • No box to sit in – other than the “additional information or benefits” section where it will only be evaluated in the unlikely event that all other elements are equal
  • No points value – as the customer has not recognised the significance of your added value

If you simply build your increased value into your response without first selling it to the customer and persuading them to include it as part of the evaluation, it will probably have no impact at all.

How to change the RFP or RFQ

Once the RFP or RFQ has been issued, some organisations – especially public bodies – have a policy of not allowing the buying team to talk to suppliers before they have evaluated all of the responses. That presents you with a real challenge.

Unless you can arrange a meeting with all the key players; you cannot begin to make the changes you need. So don’t be put off by the policies.

This is one of those situations when you must call high in the organisation; that is the only place where there will be enough power to force those meetings to happen. The person that you call also needs to be outside the purchasing committee (to avoid politics and emotional baggage) and needs to be someone who will see the benefits of your additional value. 

When you make these phone calls you need to use the significant value that you have uncovered in order to secure the meeting. That is all you are aiming for at this point – a meeting to discuss additional significant value to your customer.

The chances are that the initial meeting, and certainly any subsequent meetings, will be attended by the people who drafted the RFP or RFQ. So, it is crucial that the meeting is 100% positive. You must position yourself clearly as an honest broker who has discovered a way to create additional value for the customer.

Be clear about your strategy for the sale

If you can persuade the RFP or RFQ team to begin to explore the additional value you need to decide on your overall strategy. Do you want to:

  • Re-engineer the RFP or RFQ so that you have significant advantage and can take the whole deal
  • Divide the purchase so that your offering is separated from the main purchase and budget
  • Partner with another – ideally stronger placed – vendor to provide part of the solution

Declining to respond to an unexpected RFP or RFQ

It may be that your evaluation of the RFP or RFQ shows no significant advantage or that the customer doesn’t agree with your assessment. It’s also very likely that you cannot arrange the meetings that you need.

In all of these cases, there is probably no point in investing time, money and resources in creating a response. That’s a bitter pill to swallow; especially if your sales pipeline is a bit thin, but it may be the best option for you. If you decide to proceed, you certainly shouldn’t forecast it as a meaningful opportunity.

If you decide to decline, do it with a reply that keeps the door open and positions some additional benefits (even if you can’t see that they need them at the moment). Something along the lines of:

‘Thank you for your request to propose a solution (or quote). Having evaluated your document, we have concluded that you are not currently looking for a solution that includes:

  • Benefit statement 1
  • Benefit statement 2
  • Benefit statement 3 …

Therefore we have decide not to propose a solution (or quote) this time, but would like to remain in contact with you as your requirements change.

The bluebird RFP or RFQ – last thoughts

The next time an unexpected RFP or unexpected RFQ presents itself, give this process a try. While I can’t guarantee that following this process will work every time, I know, from experience, that it does work more times than simply responding with no attempt to talk to the customer.

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