How to Create an Adaptable and Effective RFP Response Template

Your services, solutions, and other offerings are ideally suited for public corporations, prominent foundations, and/or the government. As a result, your company responds to a constant stream of RFPs—requests for proposals—throughout the year. But overseeing an effective RFP response system isn’t easy.

Here's how to craft a winning RFP response.

Your services, solutions, and other offerings are ideally suited for public corporations, prominent foundations, and/or the government. As a result, your company responds to a constant stream of RFPs—requests for proposals—throughout the year. But overseeing an effective RFP response system isn’t easy. The pace can be aggressive and the workflow non-stop: as a result, you often wonder if your RFP response team, as a whole, is doing each opportunity justice. 

What’s your overall RFP success rate? Is there room to improve? In the past year, did you lose out on any opportunities you seemed particularly well suited for? 

As a copywriting agency that frequently supports business development teams by writing or copyediting RFP responses, we wanted to help. 

Since many RFPs ask similar questions, you probably have a master library or template (a brain-dump, so to speak) of standard, pre-written RFP responses. You may be using RFP software to help with tasks that include auto-populating answers, streamlining answer discussion, and managing the master template. 

How are your templated responses? Are you confident they sufficiently address reviewer concerns and objectives? Will they truly set you apart—and dramatically increase your chances of scoring high and winning? 

Since RFPs are (at least on paper) intended to reduce bias and award work to the vendors who are the best fit, chances are strong there’s a direct correlation between your answers and your win rate. This post is a 3-step guide for how to be more consistently strategic in your responses—and boost your RFP wins.

1. Start with context.

What’s behind this RFP? Why does the issuing organization want to know who your 5 largest clients are, what your growth trajectory has been for the past 3 years, and what kind of cybersecurity software you use? Which department has issued it, and what are their likely biases? 

Knowing these pointers is essential to establishing rapport—and core to all good writing. The strongest RFP responses contextualize the reader’s motivations first, before diving into what the vendor has to offer.

In contrast, RFP answers often skip this “why” step—and go straight into the “what.” “We do such-and-such.” “Our process involves so-and-so.” When any sales and marketing writing relies too heavily on the words “we” and “our,” there’s a tendency for the reader to draw a mental blank. That’s because “we” and “our” are about you, not them. Even if you build eloquent and precise answers, the prose still doesn’t score high for relatability, engagement, or interest. Readers can’t see themselves, their organizations, or their priorities in what you’re saying—so it’s easy to miss the relevance. 

What’s more, “we” and “our” type answers tend to address features, not benefits. Sentences like “We have a best-in-class technology platform,” “Our customer support team is unrivaled,” or “We are an award-winning agency” might seem like reasonable things to say—but what do they amount to, at the end of the day? Are they differentiating—or does every other company say (like, exactly) the same thing? Do they even mean anything, or are they just a bunch of buzzwords? Most of all, do they generate desire in your audience—or prompt readers to think, “Yeah, well? So what?” 

On an intellectual level, readers know that advanced technology, attentive support, and earned awards are valuable, but you’ve essentially failed to connect the dots to spell out precisely why these things should matter to them and the project at hand. Your audience is left to do that cognitive processing on their own—which increases the likelihood they’ll just shrug their shoulders and soldier on, unmoved and unimpressed.  

Instead, start by acknowledging the reality of the reader. Echo the challenges they face or the outcomes they desire. In a section that references quality control, you might lead with, “Quality output is the result of a thoughtful, consistent process. Our process….” In a passage detailing the way you guard proprietary data, you might begin with, “Ransomware remains steeply on the rise. Our cybersecurity safeguards…” This way, you contextualize the viewpoint of each reviewer—and cast yourself as an able and empathetic problem solver. These edits may result in light touches to your answers (not complete overhauls). But the difference will be night and day.  

Imagine this graphic without the left hand images.
Suddenly, the images on the right don’t make sense.
Without a problem to solve, there’s no need for a solution.
The same goes for your RFP response answers.
Position yourself as the solution to a problem—and give context.

2. Get to the point, fast. 

In the land of RFPs, dense, droning answers are the norm. This is understandable (hey, you have a lot to say!). But it can creates problems on two levels. First, it’s difficult for you and your team to parse the most relevant information for that RFP. Second, density quickly becomes your reader’s problem, making it impossible for them to discern why they should award the project to you. It’s best to make the content in your library as direct and concise as possible, for your team’s sake—but more importantly, your readers’.

From the standpoint of a quality-focused copywriting team, there’s another drawback to the “more is more” approach. For a seasoned RFP reviewer, a long-winded answer can signal an inherent deficiency, i.e. a weakness the vendor is trying to work around or explain away. If you ask your child why they didn’t turn in their homework, it’s far better to hear “Because I forgot”—which takes responsibility, cleanly and directly—than a long and strenuous litany of excuses, justifications, or other defenses, no matter how eloquently mounted. 

Here are some universal tactics:

  • When it comes to your strengths, declare them: boldly and matter-of-factly—and substantiate with data. 
  • When it comes to any limitations or constraints, admit them quickly and simply. As Bill Bernbach said, “A small admission gains a large acceptance.” We couldn’t agree more. 
  • Consider opening your answer with a simple yes or no, a number, or other short answer, followed by more detail. This gives the reader the information they need right away, and lets them choose whether they want to dive in deeper. Question: Do you have sufficient cybersecurity protections in place? Answer: “Yes. We employ X software and conduct Y checks and balances. Here are the details on our approach…” This short-then-long technique provides your reader instant reassurance, and a convenient way to access additional detail as needed. 
  • Keep paragraphs to around 3-5 sentences. If you can’t, break longer answers into headings, subheadings, and individual paragraphs—not endless and daunting blocks of text. 
  • Sprinkle short sentences—and smaller words—amidst longer, more complex sentences. This is downright pleasing to the brain. As the old wisdom goes, “True words aren’t fancy, and fancy words aren’t true.” Short, simple, scannable answers make it easier for your team to assemble and customize your response—and easier for your reader to see why you’re the right choice.

3. Humanize everything. 

At the end of the day, the people who review RFP responses are just like you, regardless of function or seniority. They have bills and kids and dogs and plenty of other things competing for their attention. So spend time making sure what you write is directed toward humans: 

  • Walk them through each answer as if you were giving a wonderful tour. Be empathetic, magnanimous, friendly, and clear. 
  • Be easygoing and conversational, not jargony or academic. Stay away from overly clinical language—and weave in real insights from past experiences you’ve had working with real people and organizations, whether named or not.
  • Remember that humans process decisions through emotional filters. So build urgency. Get inside their heads and paint a vivid, realistic picture of what the world looks like if you’re them. The closer you hit on their experience, the bigger of an impression you’ll make.
  • Unify your tone. Very likely, your response library contains answers doctored by a range of stakeholders. This is essential: you need the depth and nuance of the subject matter expertise captured in each templated answer. But it could result in a random-sounding mess—a little IT (dry and technical), a touch of C-Suite (sweeping and visionary), a tad product marketing (feature-driven), and four parts strategic partnership (relational and perhaps salesy). All of these different voices can end up being jarring to readers—and distract from the value you have to offer. Hand these over to a single designated writer—and give them free rein. 

Don’t overdo it, obviously: be sure to balance the possible with the believable. But never, ever forget that humans decide based on emotions—then justify their decisions later with rationale. The same holds true for your RFP readers and their entire stakeholder landscape. 

Humanizing language for RFP responses is our specialty at MarketSmiths. If you’d like help getting your response template in tip-top shape, get in touch today.

Paul Rosevear

Paul Rosevear

What do you get when you combine the soul of a musician with the mind of a writer? Copy that sings. And for the last decade, that’s precisely what Paul has delivered for global brands, bootstrap startups, and everything in between. When he’s not hard at work crafting top-notch communications, you can find Paul hanging with his wife and two young daughters, singing and playing guitar for The Vice Rags, or roaming the streets in search of the nearest slice of pizza.

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