5 Tips for Successful Requests for Proposals (RFPs)

I recently read a post on popular event blog ready 2 spark regarding five reasons for businesses NOT to participate in a proposal. As blogger Lara McCulloch-Carter wrote, sometimes the worst thing a business can do is respond to every single proposal they receive.

When it comes to RFPs, most planners are more concerned about a lack of supplier responses; after all, when you put effort into searching for suitable suppliers and creating an RFP, it's quite a let down to not hear anything back. So, it was very interesting to read about RFPs from a different perspective—and it really sheds some light on why your RFPs might not be successful as you want.

I've taken Lara's great tips for businesses and shown how planners can address each one in their RFPs. With a few simple changes, you may be able to boost response rates. Or, you might realize you fall into one of the categories she describes, and decide to change up your process. In either case, you'll save yourself—and the supplier—a lot of time.

Here are the five tips and my advice to create RFPs that will build successful planner-supplier partnerships:

Lara's Tip #1: It doesn't fit with your business + sales strategy.

A supplier is going to bid for your business based on a number of reasons, not purely for the profit itself. They want to make sure that handling your proposal is a smart decision in terms of getting ahead in the market, staying on top of competitors, establishing a base of ideal customers, etc.

With this in mind, a planner needs to, first and foremost, select an appropriate list of potential suppliers for their event. If you already have a trusted catering company in mind to handle your food and beverage, why would you send an RFP to a restaurant as a possible meeting venue? This clearly would not fit their business strategy, and it doesn't make sense for your meeting either.

Beyond proper site selection, it's also important to include some background information on your organization and the types of events you plan. Let a supplier know the value of getting your business and how they could benefit from establishing a relationship with you for the future.

Lara's Tip #2: You haven't set proposal goals.

It's tough for a planner to anticipate a supplier's goals for proposals—what their ideal close rate is, how well they have succeeded in the past, etc. As such, you can't really use this tip to anticipate what a supplier needs from you.

However, I think the same advice should be kept in mind by the planner. What is the goal for your event? Do you have any unique requirements that you would like to have? What about the bare minimum requirements? If you don't set the goals for your meeting in your RFP, you can't expect to find a supplier that can meet them.

Lara's Tip #3: You can't offer a unique benefit to the end customer.

Lara advises suppliers to respond to proposals in which they can offer something unique and valuable. The question for the planner is, are you giving them the opportunity to do this? It's easy to rush through RFP creation by listing only what's absolutely necessary: your contact information, event date, meeting room size requirement, and estimated budget. But just as fast as you create and send that RFP will any potential supplier delete it from his or her inbox.

You need to be specific in your needs and wishes for a meeting. While RFP length is always a concern, you can be thorough while still being concise. Add some brief descriptions about your business objectives, or provide your event agenda. Give suppliers a chance to understand what you're really looking for, and you're more likely to get responses from those who can really do outstanding things for your event.

Lara's Tip #4: It's a fishing expedition.

Lara cautions, "Many clients use requests for proposals to ensure their incumbent is competitively priced or, in some cases, to drive down their incumbent's pricing with lower bids from other vendors." I certainly hope that's not your standard practice! 

There's nothing wrong with requesting multiple bids from suppliers—after all, comparing bids is the best way to get competitive rates and score the best deals. But sending out multiple RFPs should be done out of a genuine interest to find a suitable supplier at a good rate. If don't truly have an open mind about your future supplier, you're wasting both their time and yours in the RFP process.

Let suppliers know you're in the sourcing process for real. Provide information about this event, or other events, your organization has held in the past. Offer a venue history so the supplier knows roughly the level at which competitors may be. Even better, include some brief information about what has, and has not, worked with suppliers in the past.

Lara's Tip #5: They want the milk for free.

The question of whether or not a business should include the creative work in the proposal phrase, with no guarantee to win the business, is up for debate. And really, how a supplier feels about it really is not in your hands. What planners can do, though, is be clear and communicative about your RFPs so that a supplier feels comfortable in responding how they see fit.

Let them know every thing you are looking for in a response. Include information regarding when the decision will be made, and stick to it. If the answer is "No," say why. Little things like this will go a long way in solidifying your reputation to suppliers as a trustworthy planner. Perhaps things didn't work out for this specific event, but that's certainly no reason to burn bridges where you may want to have a relationship in the future.

The RFP process can be frustrating for both planners and suppliers, but it doesn't have to be. When you set out with the right intentions and make what you're looking for clear to suppliers, your chances of getting quality, well-priced responses improve. Look at your RFPs from the supplier's point of view as well as yours to find a win-win solution in the end.

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