The response to a request for proposals (RFP) requires thoughtful, thorough and timely information. The RFPs that law firms receive today are very specific to the services required and to the buyer’s needs. No two RFPs are alike. They ask for significant information, documentation and demonstrable experience, and the issuers want responses only to their questions. The issuers require brevity. They require specificity—the resulting proposals are not “copy and paste” documents. And they require attorney involvement. This is not an exercise solely for the marketing and business development teams.

The varying elements and requirements of buying organizations and their procurement teams make the RFP response process challenging, but if done correctly, the results will be worthwhile.

There are some key parts of the process that can mean the difference between a win and a loss in the RFP game.

The Right Steps

Engage your marketing and business development professionals. A critical step in responding to RFPs is building a highly effective proposal team. Be sure that the right people in your organization are involved in preparing the response. This team should include your proposal writer, business development, strategy and pricing personnel, and the lead attorney. In some instances, more than one attorney might have to become deeply involved.

Critically evaluate the RFP. Among best practices is one crucial step: evaluating the RFP to determine if responding is worthwhile. Responding to an RFP should not be automatic. Instead, one of the best ways you can increase your return on investment is to be selective in the RFPs you respond to. Determining whether to respond requires more than a cursory look. Examine the issuer’s needs and requirements, determine their intent and decipher the code as to what their priority is—pricing, service, consolidation or counsel/panel change. Why did you get the RFP? Do you have a good contact inside the organization? Why did they decide to open up the bidding process? Is there an incumbent? Research the buyer’s trend in procurement. Is there a practice of issuing RFPs, but not granting new awards?

Make a determination on whether you will respond or pass. It is important after the evaluation to determine whether you should respond. How do you know if it’s worth responding? You can use various scorecards. However, three questions are most important:

  1. Do we currently have business with the entity issuing the RFP? If not, have we done work for them in the past?
  2. If we have never worked for the issuer, do we have substantive professional relationships with people inside the issuing organization?
  3. Are the required services in our “sweet spot” and have we had success in this area?

If you answer “yes” to all three questions, then the project is a go. If you answer “no” to all three questions, then the project is a no go. If the only “yes” is to question two, then you should discuss the strengths of the relationship(s) and if you might have a champion inside the organization. If the only yes is to question three, then you should evaluate a strategy to develop a response package that may competitively position you based on what the buyer values.

Run a conflict check. This may seem elementary, but it is an important step. You do not want to learn about a conflict after telling the issuer you intend to respond—or worse, after submitting your response.

Deal with pricing early. Once you determine to advance the project, it is important to deal with pricing early in the process. Today’s RFPs increasingly ask for alternative fee arrangements (in addition to discounts). Get to understand the prospect’s volume quickly, as well as other factors that may influence pricing. You do not want to be trying to figure out a profitable plan as the deadline looms.

Pick your team at the beginning. Since the RFP landed on your desk, you are the lead for the response and you will be responsible for making key decisions. An RFP typically asks about who specifically would do the work. The RFP will require varying subsets of information about each team member. It is important to determine up front your staffing plan and to make sure the team members are on board and ready to contribute content as needed.

Actively participate in the process. Your marketing and business development professionals can help with formatting, standard verbiage and research, but as the attorney who will coordinate the service and delivery, you will have to provide strategy, plans and insight. The final document must exhibit your expertise, knowledge and experience.

Follow all instructions. Do not deviate from the directions in the RFP. If the issuer wants the response in a spreadsheet, that is what you produce. If the issuer wants the response uploaded to an online portal, use the technology. If the issuer wants questions answered in a particular order, then you go down the line. Even if the questions appear to be the same, answer them as asked.

Focus on the buyer. Make your strategy less about you; rather, focus on the buyer’s needs. Do not underestimate that the issuer asked for exactly what they require. Nothing more and nothing less. If in doubt about the requirements, ask for clarification during the allotted period.

Be specific. Having the right information, demonstrating a solid strategy, and delivering the response in the manner requested will demonstrate that, among your competitors, you are the best option for serving the issuer’s needs. As noted earlier, you must answer the questions that are posed, but there are six things to keep in mind as you weave the themes throughout your response:

  •  Service: What are you offering?
  •  Process: How are you going to deliver it?
  •  Advantage: How do your services and processes benefit the buyer?
  •  Differentiation: What can you bring that the competition can’t?
  •  Evidence: Why should the buyer believe you?
  •  Price: How much will it cost?

Avoiding Missteps

A thorough and well-prepared response to an RFP is always welcome and appreciated by buyers and their procurement teams. In the same vein, a poor RFP response is an encumbrance that takes up valuable time, money and energy on both the buyer’s side and yours. This can all be avoided by following the above recommendations.

Not having a structured and defined RFP response process contributes to missteps. Having a strategic approach will put your organization in a class of its own. You will avoid missteps if you have a process, are able to collaborate, are selective, adhere to the RFP requirements, focus on the buyer, staff correctly and bring value through your pricing strategy.

This article does not cover all the variables that crop up when responding to RFPs, but these are some of the primary components of the process that can lead to a fruitful result. Many of these same principles can be applied when preparing a pitch to a potential client that is the result of your business development efforts outside of an RFP.

Kevin L. Sullivan is a member of the board of directors of the Legal Marketing Association and chief marketing officer at Fisher & Phillips, a national labor and employment law firm. Maxine Wilson is a client development manager at the firm, where she manages the RFP response strategy and content development process.