References Through the Eyes of an RFP Manager

“Provide contact information for three references of similar size/spend, in our industry, who have been your customer for more than one year.”

Ah, the reference requirement part of an RFP. For an RFP Manager, this phrase can mean days, maybe even weeks, of reaching out to account managers, calling in favors, and asking and asking again, “Do you have a reference like this that I can use?”

When responding to an RFP when there isn’t a tool like ReferenceEdge and a reference program manager/team who’s got your back, references can be a challenge
As a former RFP Manager, I know most of the teams I worked with didn’t really understand what I did all day, they just knew they didn’t want to do it. Maybe this is your impression of RFPs as well 😊. If your RFP Managers understand your world, and you understood theirs, working together will be that much easier and lead to goal attainment, for everyone. Proactive communication with the RFP team can ensure successful reference uses and contribute to winning outcomes.

If you’ve never been part of the process, there may be some aspects of the RFP world that you don’t know, for instance:

RFP Season is Real

Most RFPs require three to five references. Multiply that by the number of bids your RFP team responds to each year. And some months are more popular than others due to budget cycles.

The RFP Decision Process Can Be Long

Prospects set the RFP timeline, can extend it, and sometimes seem to forget about it. Leaving everyone waiting to hear if they’ve made it to the next round.

These long timelines can also mean a long wait for feedback. Learning the outcome of a reference use is an important step in the reference process. It’s also important for the RFP Manager and Sales team to know when references are being contacted as it can shed light on where their bid stands in the review process.

For the reference program, this feedback includes insights into what questions prospects are asking references, which could help your program refine reference search criteria or lead to the recruitment of new references to fill knowledge gaps.

Reference Consistency

Reference requirements vary by RFP. Some require contact information in the first round, while others ask only for company names. Listing Company X as a reference in round one means providing contact information at Company X in round two.

Changing reference details in later rounds may raise questions (e.g., Is that now an unhappy customer?) no one wants to field.

Including questions like “When will reference contact details be required?” or “At what point in your timeline do you plan to make reference calls?” as part of the RFP Manager’s standard Q&A submission will help set up a successful reference use. Working with the RFP Manager to develop these questions will provide you and the reference program with more information on which to base your reference selection.

Sales Initiatives Affect RFPs

If your Sales team has been tasked with driving new business in a specific segment, expect to see an increase in RFP reference requests related to that initiative. If this is a new customer segment, the reference database may have limited matching references. Close communication with the RFP team regarding the new initiative and any insights they have on the number of RFPs they are expecting can help the reference program prepare to meet demand.

RFP Reference Differences

RFPs can require more references than non-RFP sales, and have fairly detailed reference requirements. Buying company procurement departments are known for asking for the impossible.

Most RFPs allow for a Q&A window, and that’s the opportunity to identify specific reference attributes. The criteria are similar to what salespeople search on, but not identical. There may be some attributes  your RFP peer would find immensely helpful, such as a customer’s tenure, previous provider, etc.

The Right Time to Not Comply

Not providing references when requested is a risk and could lead to disqualification from the RFP process. But, sometimes it’s the right decision, and one made by the Sales team. This choice could be based on past experiences with the prospect, how they respond to Q&A, or maybe there’s a consultant involved.

Providing a case study or customer interview with the promise of contact information at a later stage is a great way to softly decline the reference requirement. Having customer content that addresses various segments and use cases will help move the RFP response to the next round of consideration.

Summary

If you haven’t already done so, reach out to your RFP Managers and start a conversation. Working closely to understand each other’s needs and challenges will lead to a productive partnership.

5 Tips for RFP Reference Success

  1. RFP Season Awareness – Find out if there are RFP cycles for your Sales organization, so activity spikes aren’t a surprise.
  2. Search Support – Does your reference database allow RFP managers to surface ideal reference customers? For instance, the company’s tenure as a customer or competitor displaced may be RFP essentials, but not current search filter options.
  3. Reference Use Follow-Up Ownership – Determine who owns this role and how to handle it because it is important to closing the loop and continuous improvement.
  4. “Best” Reference Considerations – Q&A windows in the RFP process provide valuable insights for finding the best match. Safe (i.e., stable, reliable) reference accounts are most desirable given the extended timeframe of most RFPs.
  5. Forecasting Future Demand – The RFP team will know about new sales initiatives early on, and they may be a program manager’s primary means of anticipating different reference needs.
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