Every time I get an unsolicited Request for a Proposal (RFP) I’m reminded of the movie, Dumb & Dumber. In this film, Jim Carrey's character is rejected by the girl of his dreams when she gave the odds of them ending up together at 1 in 1,000,000. He responds enthusiastically with what's become a classic line: "so you're saying there's a chance". This isn’t unlike the reaction many salespeople, and their leaders, have when an RFP they weren’t expecting comes their way, isn’t it? No? Just me?
I recently worked with a client in the aerospace business and he would tell me it wasn’t unusual for them to get a Request for Proposal (RFP) from out of nowhere. These RFPs typically dangled the carrot promising huge $$ for the winner and in some cases, could be worth 2-3X his business unit’s annual quota. And as exciting as it was for his growing firm to be “on the short list” of vendors being asked to bid, his win rate on unsolicited RFPs runs in the 3-5% range.
Or in other words, he had a 1 in 20 chance of winning the bid. Almost always, he sends a nice “thanks, no thanks” response to the unsolicited RFP. He’s a smart man but still, declining to bid on some RFPs is way easier than it sounds especially to a fiercely competitive and overly optimistic sales professional.
I thought about this a few months ago when I opened my inbox to see an email from a gigantic organization with the subject line: “You’re Invited to Respond to our Request for a Proposal”. This is exciting news! Sure, my firm has never worked with this organization or any others in their industry. Their requirements didn’t really match what we do but were close enough in some ways. Scanning past 20 pages of other details I landed on the section outlining the projected $$ amount, you know, the what’s in it for me page. Things start to get interesting at this point.
I mentally calculated the impact this revenue could have on our business which revealed this was the single largest opportunity in the history of the company. And yes, I did the math on the potential commissions even going so far as to fantasize how I’d spend the check (don’t judge me, you do the same thing! J). On my left shoulder, a voice was telling me “it’s a trap, don’t get sucked in by the lure of the unsolicited RFP”. On my right shoulder, a voice was growling at me “come on dude, get some courage and take a chance, if you’re really as good at sales as you think you are, you can convince them to give you the business”.
I called the company and talked to procurement to see if I could get a little more information. They were very nice to me and told me they hand-picked my firm to receive the RFP from their research (re: they Googled: the top 100 providers in our industry…or something like that I imagine). When I asked if there was any wiggle room on understanding or expanding their requirements, they said not really, but go ahead and propose what you think is best and they’ll consider it. I’m thinking “so you’re saying there is a chance!”
In a very friendly way, the procurement person told me she couldn’t provide any more information or allow me to talk to the people who would actually benefit from the solution being proposed. All the information was in the RFP she said, and any questions could be submitted in writing and they’d respond to all the bidders in mass. Swell. She assured me, if we make the first cut, we’ll get to meet the evaluation team during the in-person presentations. I take this as a personal challenge and now I’m also thinking (not rationally) I’ll be danged if my company is not at least making the first cut!
We have a tool called a “Win-Win Probability” which factors the critical information we’ve gathered about an opportunity and, using an algorithm we’ve built, calculates a % chance of creating a win-win outcome for us and our client. Or in other words, it takes the emotion out of the equation and gives me a logic-based probability of being successful. Our score on this deal? It was a whopping 4% win-win probability with little hope of getting any better before I was required to submit our proposal. Still,…you’re saying there’s a chance, right?
Let’s summarize what we know about this opportunity:
- We received an unsolicited RFP from a company we’ve never worked with before.
- We don’t know anyone who works at this company.
- We have never worked with any company in their industry.
- Their requirements sort of match what our capabilities provide…if you use enough imagination.
- We won’t be allowed to talk with anyone at the company who actually needs the solution they’re seeking before submitting our proposal.
- We have zero clue who else got this RFP and they won’t share that information.
- If we won the RFP, it would represent the single biggest contract of any opportunity we've been presented in our history.
Given there was a 96% chance of not winning the business and estimating it would conservatively take us a collective 100+ hours of work to prepare our proposal, I had a go/no-go decision to make. I knew responding would force me to put other more qualified opportunities in the pipeline on the back-burner and would also be a pretty costly endeavor to boot. I also knew that finishing 2nd in this RFP bake-off would be the worst possible outcome; much like having the 2nd best poker hand.
But did I mention this RFP was the single largest opportunity in the history of the company…(so you’re saying there’s a chance…)?
What would you do?
For 24 years, Andy Smith has been helping some of the world’s leading sales organizations, including Honeywell, MasterCard, ExxonMobil, Microsoft, and others increase their effectiveness through improved sales process execution, better sales coaching, consultative sales skill development, and higher CRM adoption. Andy holds a degree from Baylor University and prior to joining AXIOM he served in senior sales leadership roles for Sales Performance International, AchieveGlobal, and Acclivus Corporation. He started his career in sales with Xerox before joining ExxonMobil where he discovered his passion for the sales performance improvement profession. Andy lives in Denton, Texas. Ask Andy about his very average golf game, radio broadcasting of high school sports, or his three adorable grand babies.