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Is Your RFP Response On Point? Tips for Learning Systems Vendors

Learning systems vendors: How can you develop a stronger LMS RFP Response? Tips from independent learning systems consultants at Talented Learning

You’ve been scanning inbound email messages for important updates when suddenly a new subject line catches your eye: Request for Proposal: LMS for ABC Corporation.” A qualified business opportunity is knocking at your door!

You greet the news with a mix of excitement and dread. This is a moment your sales team should relish. But preparing RFP responses can be brutal – especially if you blow it with unforced errors.

Fortunately, the proposal process doesn’t have to bring you to your knees. Paying attention to simple details can give you a significant edge. I know, because I’ve been on both sides of the evaluation table.

What’s Wrong With This RFP Response?

Let’s briefly return to your business opportunity. You rally your team and spend many hours developing an RFP response. Then what?

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Boom. You’re unceremoniously bumped from the evaluation process. It’s not the first time. In fact, it’s happening more often lately.

You know your product is a contender and you deserve a shot at closing the deal. So why are you losing at the RFP stage?

If you’re persistent in seeking feedback from buyers, comments like these may sound familiar:

  • “You didn’t focus on our business. Your answers seem like boilerplate product copy.”
  • “We needed answers to all our requirements, but you skipped some items.”
  • “It looks like multiple people contributed, but no one coordinated your response.”
  • “Your statistics, graphics and supporting materials are out-of-date.”
  • “Your pricing model won’t let us compare apples-to-apples.”
  • “The deadline extension you requested pushed our evaluation schedule way off-track.”
  • “With so many spelling and grammar oversights, you didn’t seem very interested in us.”
  • “You didn’t follow our format, so we couldn’t score your proposal as highly as others.”

Having participated in more than 200 learning systems evaluations, I’ve seen some monster misses. I’ve also seen proposals die by a thousand tiny glitches. Believe me, those details add-up!

But vendors have more control over RFP outcomes than you may think. Let’s look at some basic factors…


9 Ways to Build a Winning RFP Response

Below are some of the most common issues I encounter, along with ideas to improve your odds of success:

1) Do you respond to every requirement?

Sounds obvious – but you’d be surprised how many vendors ignore requested input.

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Take time to respond to every item in an RFP, even if you think it’s unnecessary.

And before you send your response, ask someone else on your team to verify that every requirement has been addressed. I guarantee your thoroughness will be rewarded.

2) Do you insist on client discovery sessions?

Would you trust your car with a mechanic who says, “We’ll take it from here,” without any discussion? The repair shop may be able to diagnose and solve the problem independently. But why take that risk if it’s not necessary?

Blindly submitting an RFP response can be just as risky. Although the documentation may seem complete, some important context may be missing.

As a vendor, you can demonstrate leadership by seeking clarification. Even if no additional details surface, your discovery efforts will indicate genuine interest and a proactive approach to client communication.

3) Does your proposal draw outside cookie-cutter lines?

LMS buyers don’t evaluate software vendors on product features and functionality, alone. Factors like industry expertise, professionalism and culture fit also matter. So it’s wise to avoid one-size-fits-all proposal templates.

A response that isn’t customized looks half-hearted. And that could mean your solution won’t receive serious consideration, even if it’s a perfect match.

4) Do you offer a smart pricing strategy?

What kind of value do you place on your technology and services? Focus on two key pricing factors:

  • Avoid complexity

It’s important to be complete. But it’s even more important to keep it simple. Too many options (per user, per transaction, unlimited user pricing, and so on) can lead to inaccurate comparisons and misunderstandings.

To minimize confusion, gather intelligence about financial factors during the discovery process. Then recommend the best pricing structure for your client’s situation. If other options are available, note that you would be happy to discuss alternatives.

  • Don’t let implementation costs cause concern

I recently reviewed a global rollout proposal with license pricing of about $250,000, and a disproportionately low implementation cost of only about $35,000.

The vendor didn’t explain this pricing methodology until we requested additional information. Although we finally received clarification, uncertainty about implementation influenced scoring for other aspects of the RFP response.

5) Does your proposal have a consistent look-and-feel?

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I’ve seen more than a few proposals filled with patchwork quilt formatting – including wildly different font styles and sizes. First impressions are lasting. If your RFP response doesn’t look cohesive from start to finish, don’t expect a positive reaction.

Do you think I’m arbitrarily emphasizing style over substance? Remember that your proposal is like a calling card. For better or worse, it’s a reflection of your brand.

Cut-and-paste production methods may save time. But don’t forget to give your document a full end-to-end editorial sanity check before sharing it with decision-makers. (That includes one final update to the Table of Contents as your last production step!)

6) Are spelling and grammar tight?

Whoever said, “the devil is in the details” could have been looking at spelling and language usage in some RFP responses I’ve reviewed. Of course, Microsoft Word and other tools are a big help, but pay attention to the basics:

  • Make spell-checking your last move before submitting your proposal, so the final version is fully reviewed and corrected.
  • Configure spellchecker rules to support learning industry terminology:
    • Your default version of Microsoft Word may not review capitalized words (like SCROM vs SCORM). But you can change the settings to accommodate common acronyms.
    • Remove similar words from the dictionary to avoid misuse. For example, I deleted “leaning,” so I’ll see a flag when I enter that instead of “learning.”
  • As with the final formatting review, ask one of your team members to proofread the final version of your proposal before you submit it. A fresh set of eyes can spot small issues like punctuation errors, duplicate words, unanswered questions and missteps in logic.

7) Is your input timely?

Do you want to raise doubts about whether your technology and features are ahead-of-the-curve? It’s easy. Just attach an outdated reference document.

Recently, I crossed paths with a hosting FAQ attachment from 2015! Does that mean this vendor hasn’t touched any aspect of its hosting environment in nearly 5 years? No changes to LMS security measures, disaster recovery or technology infrastructure? Sounds unlikely. But because there was no way to verify, I eliminated the vendor from consideration.

To avoid a similar fate, update your materials at least once a year – ideally every 6 months. And don’t forget to change the document revision date.

8) Do you avoid “spin”?

What happens when an RFP specifies a feature that isn’t in your platform? To avoid saying “no,” do you rewrite the requirement so you can twist your reply into an affirmative answer?

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Whenever we see this kind of response, our BS meter snaps into action. Why would you mislead a prospect or change the subject – especially when an honest answer could add points to your score?

Instead of dodging the question, offer a workaround. Explain how other clients have solved the same issue. Or talk about how you responded with a product enhancement when another client faced a similar product gap.

9) Are you optimizing your score?

As you might expect, we score RFP responses to determine which vendors will move forward in the evaluation process. As a vendor, it’s your job to maximize that score. Start with these suggestions:

  • Understand how scores are calculated – What is the rating scale? Are certain features mandatory? If you don’t offer those capabilities, should you decline the opportunity? Weigh the pros-and-cons up front, be decisive and communicate openly.
  • Answer each question succinctly – Clients want clear answers about features. Begin each reply with a simple “yes”, “no” or “partial.” Then explain why your feature offers unique value or how clients benefit.
  • Remain mindful of deadlines – Delivering a proposal late or asking for an extension is a red flag for prospects who may wonder if their needs will overwhelm your organization. When I was responsible for proposals, I developed a schedule for each RFP team, to ensure that contributors knew their responsibilities and due dates.
  • Stand out from the crowd – The demo phase is your best opportunity to stand out, make your solution memorable and let your personality shine. However, your RFP can help in several ways:
    • Embed a video – Nearly every RFP response starts with a company overview. Why not set the tone with a custom video introduction from your CEO or another executive, thanking the prospect for considering your organization?
    • Insert screenshots – Images can make your story more compelling, especially in the technology section. Screenshots break the monotony of text-heavy narrative and easily add more meaning than words can express.
    • Inject other visual sizzle – Insert creative punch in other ways. For instance, use different colors to distinguish questions from answers, or embed company logos next to references.
    • Show your personality – Does your company culture encourage employee innovation or customer centricity? Incorporate this in your tone and other elements of your proposal. Prospects want to do business with people they like. If your organization seems approachable, you’ll build a stronger connection even before you’ve met in person.

Closing Notes

These RFP response ideas are inspired by real-world opportunities I’ve experienced as a vendor representative, and now as an LMS selection consultant. Most are easy to implement. However, because they’re overlooked by so many vendors, they can help you outshine the competition.

There are many more ways to improve your chances of being chosen as a finalist and ultimately landing new business. I’ll discuss some of those ideas more fully in future posts.

In the meantime, if you want detailed advice about how to increase your qualified opportunities or win rate, consider a formal RFP response analysis or other LMS vendor services from our team of experts. To discuss your specific needs, contact us!

 


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Gary Underhill
About Gary Underhill (3 Articles)
Gary is a Senior Analyst at Talented Learning. His career spans nearly 40 years as an award-winning business technology solutions consultant and sales professional. For the last 20 years, he has specialized in LMS and talent management software, serving customers of leading vendors such as Saba, Meridian, Expertus and Community Brands. You can connect with Gary on LinkedIn at Gary Underhill or via email at gunderhill@talentedlearning.com.
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