RFP pitching tips — times have changed

Simone Hughes
Make it Count
Wondering what I should write my next column about that would directly and quickly help you win more quality business, I was struck the other day by the increased volume of requests for proposals our firm has been participating in (and mostly winning).

What struck me even more was the big shift in how RFPs are written, assessed, and awarded — and how this has led to a seismic shift in not only delivering legal services to clients but value as well.

Let me give you some history so you can understand how to differentiate yourself and win more business today.

Eight years ago, when I led my first legal RFP, they were very cumbersome. Having come from a global human resource firm with extremely sophisticated clients and internal RFP response teams, (think about mobile RFP SWAT teams each composed of a strategic planner, writer, webmaster, and graphic designer that would fly to your office and help you manage a pitch), the legal industry in all aspects was pretty backwards a decade ago. I had little support and many lawyers felt they didn’t even have to write content because it was all “just a marketing thing.” In fact, most RFPs were made up of long, irrelevant biographies and practice area profiles cobbled together.

Those were the days RFP consultants knocked on the doors of our clients and promised they could reduce their legal expenses dramatically by creating competitions with their legal services providers. Those initial RFPs were LONG, rarely on point (the consultants generally were not acquainted with the legal industry), and either had subjective outcomes or outcomes based on the consultants’ “point systems.”

Five things seemed to shift in the legal industry:
•    We started to spend a lot of money and time on producing RFPs;
•    A lot of weak choices were made;
•    A separation between in-house legal departments and law firms emerged;
•    In-house legal departments were starting to be run by their procurement people; and
•    Legal services started to become a commodity.

While this sounds like a bad thing for our industry, I think it was a great thing and a saviour for those lawyers and firms that chose to rise to the occasion and evaluate their response strategies. Little did they realize they were, in fact, preparing themselves for reinvention due to these forces and the dramatic increase in global competition and technological advances.

Lawyers and firms that opened themselves up to ask what they could actually do for clients’ benefit and to think about being client-focused, efficient, and differentiating are well-positioned today to win more business, survive, and thrive. Being market-led or running your business based on client value (i.e. defining value, creating value, and delivering value) is the sustainable strategy of lawyers and law firms today.

So, back to you, a practising lawyer with an RFP on your desk and a history lesson under your belt; what now? How are you going to approach your RFPs in a winning way? Funnily enough, my previous articles outline a strategic approach to any business opportunity and can be applied to responding to RFPs in this way:

1.    Understand your potential client (do some research and if you can, phone and ask them a lot of questions about their business, aspirations, and perceived business and legal challenges).

2.    Find the best people to present to this client. I have found many lawyers think they can do any legal work. Unfortunately today, clients are focusing on hiring specialists and not generalists. This might not seem like a smart business choice for you personally, but referring clients to other people will, in the long run, benefit you. Clients want relevant experience and are not really willing to have you learn on their dime anymore.

3.    Research your competition, and other lawyers in your market and practice area. What do you do that differentiates you among your peers and delivers more benefit and value to clients?

4.    Think about the approach you might take to the RFP work. Clients want to see that you have not only done your homework on them and their issues, but you are so passionate about working with them you’ve already started the project. Position your response as if you are already part of their team and have kicked off the matter (off the clock).

5.    Be creative with fees. You can’t just quote hourly rates anymore. You need to be conversant with alternative fee arrangements and offer up innovative and value-driven pricing.

6.    Write the RFP with client value in mind and only include relevant biographical items and profiles. No one really cares what you did 20 years ago if it doesn’t have a direct impact on client value today.

7.    Follow up on every RFP won or lost. Understand why and build your learning into your next RFP.

My next articles will dive more deeply into facets of RFP responses and how you can win more quality business.

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