What enterprise salespeople never talk about

Hiding in plain sight – The RFPIO opportunity
Photo by Craig Whitehead on Unsplash

Ever met salespeople who didn’t have stories to tell? Highly unlikely. They will tell you how they pulled off impossible targets, drank their bosses under the table and tamed imperial customers. They’ll tell you road stories, hard-luck stories, and just-missed stories. But there’s one subject they never bring up. It goes by several names – tenders, bids, or RFPs (request for proposals). It’s the cross they bear to succeed – every salesperson’s nightmare come true. Pages and pages of dry facts to be filled out day after day. There’s no escaping the deadline and the sheer monotony that accompanies it. But it has to be done – because it brings in the money.

It’s the lifeline that keeps billion-dollar businesses going. You don’t hear about it because it is homework. Every sales ace has figured a personal way to tackle it. Excel. Google Docs. Confluence. Salesforce. But it remains their secret weapon – something that can’t be shared or scaled to make things easier across the organization. That’s where Ganesh Shankar, one of the founders of RFPIO, working alongside an enterprise-level team saw the opportunity to create a new business – by solving a widespread problem instead of sticking with a personal workaround that he used as a product manager.

The insider edge

The scale of the problem was known only to enterprise salespeople

In a conversation, Ganesh touched upon the monumental scale of the market the company has dived into. It encompasses several verticals – from technology, financial services, infrastructure, and maintenance, to name just a few. The estimated value of RFPs issued by the US government for the projects it undertook in 2015 was $1.5 trillion. Add $1 trillion from state governments and local businesses. And another $1.5 trillion from large and mid-sized enterprises across the US. On average, a company spends around 2-4% of every contract’s value to respond to it – even before they win or lose. Simply responding to RFPs is an addressable market upwards of $80 billion, at a minimum. The efficiency that RFPIO brings to the process helps companies save an average of 30-50% on that spend.

As the residential subject matter expert, Ganesh’s expertise was continuously requested when new RFPs popped into his sales team’s inboxes. Even though responding to RFPs was not part of his main job description, it still occupied over 30% of his time. He knew there had to be a better way to respond to RFPs — so he set out to find it.

The building blocks of RFPIO

A simple but striking execution of the intent

One of the conceptual leaps that Ganesh made while building the product was that responding to an RFP was like managing a project, “Every RFP will have a deadline. You have to scope it out – how many people are going to be involved in filling it out…Then, it is no longer a document. It is a project. Whatever tool you design has to have multiple task elements, it has to have milestone capturing elements, it has to have deadlines for submission, all the typical project management stuff. Then content management. You have to be able to access and repurpose content easily, instead of drafting it every time. Many departments and subject matter experts may need to be involved. So they have to collaborate and contribute”

He details an experience with a client who submits million-dollar bids regularly “They have 40 different departments required for responding to every RFP. So even if only one person from each department gets involved, you’re talking of 40 people having to collaborate and deliver. That is not very common, but having 5-6 departments involved is”.

Learning from RFP submissions and integration

The RFPIO workflow

Ganesh talks of the difficulties involved in keeping track and learning from RFP submissions “RFPs tend to have a binary response. You know if you’ve won or lost. When you win, typically, customers who chose you will share all the information, tell you why they decided to go with you. If you lose, you don’t get to know more about why they didn’t select you. You thought it was a good match, but it goes into a black box.  That’s where the business intelligence and analytics from RFPIO comes in. Now let’s say, you submitted 20 RFPs and lost 18 of them. So, apart from pricing, the messaging is not resonating and something needs to be done there. So, you can compare language and phrases from winning vs losing RFPs and figure out where the deviations are and make the necessary changes”

He also saw the need to integrate with everything that salespeople were already working with: “It had to be integrated with existing systems and technologies whether it was Google Docs or Salesforce. Today, we have the largest number of integrations with existing products on the market, so people can work with whatever they prefer. So, these are the pillars – project management, content management, collaboration, business intelligence, analytics, and integration”

The proof in the pudding – customers

Getting well-known names on board

Ganesh spoke about the signups they have managed in less than 5 years “We have 40 companies from the Fortune 500, 10 companies from Fortune 100, we pretty much have customers in every continent, except Antarctica! We’ve opened their eyes to the possibilities of the RFP response system. We started off with the content management and the collaborative aspect and on top of that, we added all those different layers” 

And the number of RFPs some companies have to deal with is insane “Some of our customers, at any given time are dealing with 300-400 RFPs! A Fortune 500 company may have 1000-2000 sales reps across the globe and if even half of them are dealing with one RFP, the numbers add up

How RFPIO changes the process

Streamlining a manual process involving several departments
Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash

“Let’s say you receive an RFP and you have to work with 5 departments – five different people from those departments. What people used to do is break that document into smaller documents and send it to the people concerned for answers. Following up with them to get answers is one aspect. When you get the replies and then consolidate, they have to be formatted into the right slot with uniform typefaces, so that it does not look shoddy. 

With RFPIO, you only send them links to fill with the appropriate deadlines. Their responses are merged and consolidated into the allocated slots with the right formatting, standardization and the corporate identity set by your company.”

The branding approach

Customer stories drive the engine

Why RFPIO? They were looking for a name that was short, instantly identifiable with the sector and RFP Input/Output gave prospects a clear idea of what to expect. They did not consider any logo option other than the arrow pointing upwards integrated with the ‘R’ from the name. The colour green was chosen because Ganesh wanted it to be refreshing compared to the tedium of the previous process used to fill out RFPs. One of the asides was that the arrow points to the Northwest, the region of the United States where RFPIO is located (Portland, Oregon). He jokes that they don’t have a ‘garage startup’ story. It was about solving a real problem, not an imagined one!

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Author short bio: I head Ideascape, an agency that I started in 2004. I have over 35 years of experience building brands in businesses as diverse as payroll services, software, cycles, HR services, hospitals, hospitality and project management.

We’re a boutique creative agency but we provide the full range of branding services in partnership with several associates in digital marketing, web development, and event management. This blog is a collection of my experiences and my point of view on marketing and advertising