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IT RFP: How to influence the bid as a channel partner

Channel partners may find the formal RFP process challenging, but they can influence the bid in advance -- and boost their chances for success -- through digital marketing.

Winning a request for proposal is similar to the lottery: You can't win if you don't play. And like the lotto, the odds are seemingly stacked against you -- unless you're the incumbent partner -- and that leads many to opt out and not even bother. The problem with this scenario is there's a big assumption attached to it. I'll explain.

When it comes to IT services, IT RFPs are usually put forward by a business for one of three reasons: to get a stalking-horse bid for their preferred provider; to meet internal requirements for competitive bids; or to gather information to help them implement the service on their own.

OK, fair enough. But what most people assume is the requesting party -- and, in turn, the responding parties -- assessed the business problem and needed solution correctly. That's a big "what if" and, for many IT service pros, reflects one of the biggest dangers of actually bidding on an RFP at face value.

So, what's the answer? Work to influence the bid in advance through strategic marketing and, more specifically, digital marketing.

Digital marketing articulates the value you provide and helps to influence decision makers at various stages of their buyer's journey, which starts well before they issue an IT RFP or even a request for information (RFI). Here are a few examples of when to pursue digital marketing.

Before the RFI or RFP

Depending on the study, buyers are 57% to 70% of the way to a purchasing decision before they reach out to potential vendors -- in many cases, by issuing an RFI or RFP. Whatever the percentage, it's too long to wait. Instead, you can influence what ends up in those requests with your digital marketing initiatives. Indeed, nearly three quarters of all business buyers are conducting more than half of their research online before making an offline purchase, according to Forrester Research. This is your opportunity to get them thinking in a way that plays to your strengths.

Work to influence the bid in advance through strategic marketing and, more specifically, digital marketing.

Educate potential buyers with information,  such as blogs, white papers and infographics, about the pain points they may be experiencing, as well as the tools needed -- e.g., case studies, product reviews, ROI calculators and so on -- at various decision points in the purchase process. Post this content on your website, social media channels and, in some cases, paid media channels. Be sure to use search engine optimization techniques and keywords to make sure your content is easily discovered by prospects in an online search.

Engage buyers with your sales team earlier in the buying process with Content marketing. Research from LinkedIn showed 92% of buyers engage with sales pros who are known as industry thought leaders -- a reputation you can drive with content. Content also arms your sales team with additional value to share with prospects in order to maintain those critical touch points during the buying process. Early engagement is critical because completing an IT RFP in a vacuum makes it difficult to determine the scope and approach. Instead, you want to collaborate with customers to define the problem and design a solution. Ultimately, you want them to really think about their challenges and how your company can solve them.

You also can accelerate today's complex team-based decision process by helping various stakeholders reach consensus. In a 2015 blog, CEB recommended marketers do the following: Prime buying groups with a common language; help stakeholders share perspectives; enable internal champions to advocate offerings and get other decision makers on board. You can do this through various tools, such as primers, business cases for different stakeholder types -- business, financial, technical, user and so on -- and talking points for objections, respectively. Showing you understand the stakeholders' roles and responsibilities through your content can be key to helping them see your sales reps as trusted advisers.

When the RFI is issued

An RFI is a firm's way of gathering information about your company as a potential vendor, such as your rates, experience and reasons they should select your organization. Financial terms and timetables are left to the RFP. If you are asked to submit an RFI, this is your opportunity to influence the forthcoming RFP by articulating the client's business challenges and how you would address them. If you do it well, you could change the dialogue around what the client is looking for in an offering and improve your chances of winning the formal bid.

When the RFP is released

If you make a considered decision to answer an RFP, don't phone it in by replying with a canned response. Instead, you need to differentiate your proposal based on the value you've articulated in your marketing. Try reframing the description of your offer to make it stand out from the competition. Remember, you are selling an offering with a business outcome, and not a list of equipment and services.

Why expend extra effort answering an IT RFP if the lowest bidder ultimately wins? I have it on good authority that cheapest offer doesn't always win -- value does. I was reminded of this by the CIOs who were part of CompTIA's End User Commission at the organization's Annual Member Meeting in March. The panel also shared the following advice for responding to RFPs:

  1. Put your best foot forward -- show the client who you are and what you are about.
  2. Share your best and final price, and stick by it, because you may not have the opportunity to negotiate.
  3. Articulate your best value proposition -- why they need your company and your offering.

I started this article posing a question: Should you participate in IT RFPs? The answer is yes, if you are going to put in the time and energy to propose an offering to customers' problems, rather than providing pricing for what they have specified. Ultimately, it must be a proposal you can stand behind because it aligns with your stated value proposition and is the right solution for the business.

Next Steps

Read about the importance of a channel marketing plan

Take a look at some examples of RFPs

Learn about opportunities in the K-12 education market

Dig Deeper on MSP sales and marketing

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