Who’s Afraid of RFPs


Through Polished Design, Filling Needs and Strict Obedience to Directions, Small Businesses Can Compete for Big Projects!

By Andrew Smith


For small businesses and solopreneurs, there is no secret to writing winning proposals. The process involves following directions, providing thoughtful solutions to the problems highlighted in the RFP, investing a bit in quality design, and practice!

“For small businesses, we generally see a lack of confidence because it’s a new process and probably out of their comfort zone,” says Rick Harris, CEO of the Association of Proposal Management Professionals (APMP). “But if you follow the procedure and directions, you’re in the game. We try to get people over the fear of sitting down and writing something. We say ‘relax,’ you’re going to write dozens of these over the next year.”

Do As You’re Told!

One of the biggest mistakes small businesses make when responding to RFPs is settling for ‘close’ or ‘good enough,’ Harris says. He offers two important directives: 

  1. “Always be compliant. Read the request for proposal several times and make sure you have everything they ask for. When your potential customer asks for something, give them exactly what they asked for. Eleven pages is not 10 pages.”
  1. “The second suggestion is to emphasize accuracy. Your proposal is a direct reflection on you, your work and your business.”

Invest in Success

Harris emphasizes using your best people and making a small financial investment to optimize your chances of success. He shares five more tips:

  1. It seems obvious but so many folks fail to do it—Make sure everything is spelled correctly. “A tool like Grammarly is good, but we also recommend that you find a reliable editor and proofreader. They’ll not only catch typos but also find ways to tighten your proposal even more,” he says. 
  1. “Understand what the customer wants. Hire a local graphic artist to make your proposal stand out, and don’t do it on the cheap. Make sure you’re giving the customer the slickest thing you possibly can.” 
  1. We’ve all heard about the importance of mirroring the gestures and expressions of someone we’re trying to impress, like a potential employer or client. The same approach applies to graphics. Harris says, “Take a look at their website and make sure your proposal incorporates the same fonts and colors. It’s a subliminal thing, but one that helps them see you as a potential partner, and one that gets your proposal in the ‘need to reread’ stack.”
  1. Avoid trite phrases like ‘We are humbled,’  and ‘best in class.’ Evaluators are tired of seeing those terms,” he says, adding “And avoid spelling and grammatical errors at all costs. If you they find two typos on the first page, your proposal is out.”
  1. Finally, make sure your proposal offers concrete solutions. “Every RFP is a need to solve a problem, so go through it and see what they’re looking for and then include a list of solutions your business can provide.”

Your best people should always be closely involved in the proposal development process, Harris advises. 

“If you’re a small company going for $10,000 or more in business, isn’t it better to give your business the best shot by spending $500 for a good-looking proposal that you can then turn around and repurpose? 

His final suggestion may be the most important. Always provide a fair, achievable price in your bid. “Don’t increase your price for a company that has money and don’t underprice to close a deal. If you underprice, get the job, and can’t deliver, it will haunt you forever.”

For more thoughts on how small businesses can make big impressions through polished bids/proposals, check out APMP’s book Writing Business Bids and Proposals for Dummies or visit www.apmp.org