Justin has more than 15 years’ experience as a writer and editor. He read History at the University of Oxford and has previously lived in Japan and China. He joined Copylab in 2013.More articles from Justin Crozier
Requests for proposals (RFPs) are crucial for any investment business.
Although you might win clients by reputation or through longstanding relationships, responding to an RFP is an opportunity to enhance your reputation and begin new relationships – and, of course, to win new clients.
By necessity, these documents are long, detailed and thorough. Most companies assemble their RFP responses by drawing on a database of previously prepared answers – often using software such as Qvidian.
But it’s all too easy to let that translate into dull, by-the-book answers – making for a response that’s a drag to write and a chore to read.
An RFP response needn’t be like that. Energising your RFP copy is a win-win proposition – good for writer and reader alike.
In this blog and the accompanying white paper, we set out some strategies and best practices that can help improve your RFP responses.
We’ll consider questions of voice, rhetoric and content one by one. And we’ll also look at best practice in editing the assembled response – and at what you can learn from your previous efforts.
The first thing to consider is your corporate voice. Think of how your company compares with its peers.
Have you got a hundred years or more of history, stability and reliability behind you?
Or is your USP your state-of-the-art, factor-based, algorithm-driven, smarter-than-smart-beta strategy?
Different kinds of companies demand different kinds of voices. You want to reflect the strengths of your company in the way you write.
Most asset managers are more likely to create bespoke responses for institutional clients, responding to every aspect of County Council Pension Fund’s question.
But it’s important to put just as much effort into developing responses to ensure your place on the big third-party platforms.
But you also want to avoid the potential pitfalls that come with your circumstances.
If you’re based in oak-panelled offices, you might want to watch that you don’t sound stuffy, complacent or out of touch.
And if you’re all about the future, you don’t want your investment process to come across as unproven or untested.
You should also think about the client and adapt your voice accordingly. If the client has an old-school air, you might want to play towards that in your responses.
And if they’ve got a hard-headed, just-the-facts approach, you should respect that when answering their questions.
So deciding on your corporate voice isn’t a one-off thing. Instead, you should aim to modulate your delivery according to the client.
RFPs differ from brochures and other marketing materials in that there is little doubt that your audience is made up of investment professionals, albeit of varying levels of expertise.
But ask yourself, are you an institutional house or a retail house?
Are you both?
And how does this change your responses?
One important aspect of ‘voice’ is which person you write in. Many RFP answers are written in the third person.
There’s certainly a place for this, and it may be what some clients expect.
But your reader is a human being, and it’s easier to engage with someone who addresses you as one human being to another.
So don’t forget the first person – or even the second person.
Using different registers can help make your RFP content fresher, friendlier and more engaging. Which person to use is always a judgement call – but in general, it’s better to err on the side of being personal.
In large part, an RFP response is an exercise in rhetoric – the art of persuasion.
The purpose of the response is to persuade the potential client that your investment strategy fits their needs and – more importantly – that it offers a better fit than the competition.
The role of rhetoric in an RFP is to show your capabilities in the best possible light. There’s a real art to this, and it’s one that many RFP writers would do well to immerse themselves in.
One of the most important aspects of any RFP response is to show the success of your investment strategy.
When you have a solid record of performance, you can let that do much of the work for you.
But you may often have to contend with performance figures that aren’t helpful over certain time periods.
So how do you ensure that you show the data in a way that accentuates the positives?
One of the most important rhetorical considerations here is the power of but. This simple conjunction packs a lot of power.
There’s an old saying: everything before the but is BS. It makes a crude but effective point.
The reader tends to discount the statement that comes before but and to put more weight on what follows.
Which one shows the fund in the better light?
Another important rhetorical consideration is how you present your investment managers.
Your managers may be industry veterans with considerable reputations.
If so, do you choose to play those reputations up, to maximise their impact?
Or play them down, on the understanding that the managers’ reputations will have preceded them?
The latter approach might give you space to focus on aspects of process that are less well known but equally attractive.
There’s no right answer here, but there’s a lot to think about.
Conversely, if your managers are less well established, you need to find ways to present them effectively.
As much as you can, focus on concrete achievements rather than blank blocks of experience.
Consider these two examples:
Although the second response is significantly longer, it also provides much more detail.
And it’s worth observing that it highlights the manager’s ‘greatest hits’; less impressive aspects of her career are simply omitted.
Typically, an RFP will ask about your company’s competitive advantage.
Most commonly, the response to this question will take the form of a bullet-pointed list covering years of experience in the asset class, on-the-ground resources and manager experience.
Here, the most important considerations are the order of these points and their relevance to the client.
For example, a client with an emerging-market mandate should see your emerging-market expertise at the top of the list.
This may seem obvious – but if that expertise has been further down the list for responses to clients with global mandates, it may be left that way out of habit.
So it’s important to tailor the list to match the requirements of the particular RFP.
Equally, you shouldn’t be scared to leave out material that you use in most responses because it’s not relevant to the request in hand.
Don’t obscure your most important points by occluding them in irrelevant information.
Finally, think about your competitors.
If you know that most are lacking in an area that’s one of your strengths, consider shifting that strength to the top of your list.
There may be times when a single sentence or even a single word is an appropriate answer: ‘yes’ or ‘no’, perhaps.
But in most cases, you’re going to want to add detail and supporting material to bolster your answer.
Be careful here. While every answer presents an opportunity to strengthen your case, you should always be sure that you’re actually answering the client’s question rather than just dumping text that you happen to have ready.
It helps to focus on hard facts and concrete achievements.
For example, you’re asked about whether you carry out regular company visits in emerging markets.
A general statement about the value of such visits is going to carry less weight than the actual numbers of countries and companies visited each year.
And if you can bring in the importance of your local offices in this, so much the better.
Also, how do you turn a difficult question to your advantage? The last thing you want to do is not really address the question and come across as misleading.
Let’s say you’ve been asked, What is your ESG policy?, but you don’t have one.
In the below example, the investment team and the company are spoken about in the third person to essentially say that the company doesn’t have an ESG strategy, without actually directly addressing and properly answering the question:
An in-house approach to ESG may be an important factor, particularly for institutional investors.
The below version might not convince them, but in using the first person, you ‘own’ the fact that you don’t have an in-house capability and you address the question.
You’re now free to talk about the advantages of your approach.
Whatever the issue is, addressing the question and doing it in the first person can make it easier to argue for your company’s approach.
Once your RFP answers are in place, you should always – always – review the entire document to ensure that it is consistent in style and tone.
The answers are likely to have originated with different teams and different writers, so you need to smooth out any resultant bumpiness.
If you have a company style guide (and you should), make sure that this is applied to standardise spelling and voice.
But that’s just the start. The most important part of the editing process is to make sure that your responses answer the questions asked.
One of the best – if most embarrassing – ways to do this is to read the entire document aloud. This will take time.
But it’s a great way to test whether a question has been adequately answered.
As you read through the document, look (or listen!) for extraneous information – and cut it out when you find it.
If it doesn’t help with the question, it doesn’t belong in the answer. Don’t waste your reader’s time with it.
Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it’s also a considerable asset in an RFP response. The temptation is always to cram in as much as you can to answer any question. The danger, though, is that your main points can get lost in a mass of details. The old saying about not seeing the wood for the trees applies to RFPs too.
Remember your reader. The briefer and clearer the text, the easier their job will be. And it’s your job to make theirs easy – and, within the limits of the RFP process, even pleasant.
One approach that often helps is simply to impose a word count on yourself even when you haven’t been given one. Try to reduce each answer by 10% or even 25%.
This may sound arbitrary, but it will force you to produce leaner, fitter responses.
How do you do this? By taking out unnecessary words, phrases and even sentences. By making sure that every word pulls its weight in the passage. And by preferring the active voice.
This approach is particularly important when using a standard answer from a database. By cutting it down, you’re likely to be improving on the original.
Here’s an example:
Even in a complicated RFP section, such as trading, there are ways to ensure the reader gets the information they need in just a few lines – we make individual decisions for every account, but we do aggregate some orders, and at times we agree an average price.
That is all this section needs to say, and we say it in 49 words as opposed to 111. There is only one extra line in the before version – this is all about stripping out unnecessary words.
Never think of your RFP answers as dead documents – preserved by mummification in your database.
Your company is changing constantly, and this will be reflected in its strategy, its personnel and its outlook on markets. Make sure that your RFP responses reflect that.
When you create variant answers for an RFP, always save them in case they come in handy for a similar client.
And make sure that your database is sufficiently well organised that these variant answers can be easily found.
Any feedback that you get from a prospective client is invaluable. That’s true whether you won or lost the mandate.
Take any criticism on board – and take note of any praise. What worked and what didn’t? If you can answer those questions, you’ll be better set up for the next RFP.
The RFP response is only part of the client-winning process.
Even the best RFP can be trumped by a strong client relationship, a winning sales team or an investment strategy that is simply a better fit for the client’s requirements.
Nevertheless, the RFP part of the process is often important.
And sometimes it’s crucial. By ensuring that your RFP response is lean, clean and polished to a sheen, you’ll be ensuring that it plays that part as best as it possibly can.