How to Ask Questions in a Proposal Process.

Have you ever heard, that the person asking the questions controls the conversation?

The next part of that sentence clarifies that it is the right questions that do all the work. You can build trust, introduce yourself and keep the answerer aligned with your goals. So how do you get questions into your RFx process?

Almost all RFx have a question period. A time that the Requestor has designated to identify concerns over their request. Answers are either delivered as soon as available or as an addendum. All bidders get the same question release. There is usually a hard deadline to ask questions as the requestor doesn’t want a last-minute question to derail the process for all other bidders.

So what should you ask? As in all things in the proposal world, there are some strategies to incorporate. The first general strategy is always to show an openness to working with the requestor. You must build rapport and goodwill in all your questions. Use emotionless or non-critical language. Make your email questions formal with a salutation and opener instead of dumping a list. Also, respect the requestor’s time and try to bundle and limit questions. After that, it is about the questions you ask. I bundle these questions into three categories Clarify, Spotlight and Compete (CSC).

In Clarify, we ask about terms, concepts or issues in the RFx that we don’t understand or need more information on. The key here is to try to make it easy to answer. You don’t want the question to create more confusion, so closed questions are preferable. Work with the account manager on drafting questions that make the best assumptions. If you are completely off base, the answer will reflect that. The other question you can ask is about a change in the bidding process. This could be as simple as an extension (make sure you justify why) to a more complex change in the requirements. All questions of this type need solid reasons for the request.

Sample Clarify: On Page 6 you indicate that the bid must be submitted by email, and on page 10 you indicate that all bids must be sealed and delivered – Please confirm which instruction should be followed?

In Spotlight, we highlight competitive advantages that we have over other bidders. You can ask leading questions here, indicating that you have access to something the requestor needs but attaching it to another requirement. For example: ‘We see you want a cloud solution. Can we confirm if your company also needs High Availability Load Bearing servers and Disaster Recovery built into the offer?’. It is essential to keep the client’s needs in mind. It would be best if you spotlighted something that works with the solution you are proposing and will return value to the client.

Sample Spotlight – Would you be interested in value-added services around machine learning-assisted communication to help end users quickly deliver messaging?

In Compete, the goal is to limit the field of competition. Like Spotlight, you can highlight key advantages you have that are hard for others to meet. Unlike Spotlight, the goal is to impact the RFx by increasing the requirements or reducing the possible bidders. In Compete questions, you attempt to raise the bar the client needs. As with Spotlight, your Compete questions must deliver value to the client. This strategy is challenging. Account managers or senior heads should approve the strategy here.

Sample Compete – Competitor has no support for other languages. “What other languages does buyer name do business in, would you like highlights of language support we provide?”

So what don’t we ask?

First, be careful in pointing out errors. Multiple parties or consultants make RFx documents from previous versions or by committee. This creates errors. I recently had an RFP document from two other RFIs for different products. When this happens, you can state your assumption, and then ask to confirm while referencing the text from their document. You can be more direct for grammatical, spelling, and mathematical errors.

Second, RFxs can be reissued if you ask questions beyond what the current bid tender can handle. This can be a boon if your offering can handle it and the client’s budget/needs match it. It can also end your relationship if you over-promise or can no longer meet their new requirements.

This is how we handle questions when addressing an RFx. This is often the proposal manager’s first communication with the potential client. Make interactions friendly, eliminate confusion and then use CSC to develop a questioning strategy. Never disrespect the requestor, and don’t confuse them with solutions they don’t need. Show that you want to deliver value, and you will go a long way to winning the RFx. When in doubt, ask yourself the question: ‘How would I want to be asked’ and you can make questions a winning part of your strategy.

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