The RFP contender spectrum

Regular readers of our posts know how strongly we believe in making a fast bid/no-bid decision and then developing a detailed strategy before beginning to write content.

But your chances of success depend even more on what you do before the RFP is issued.

The contender spectrum

Winners of most large contracts have worked with the issuer for months—and often years—before the RFP hits the street. They’ve become trusted advisors and preferred candidates to win the contract. Below this status, other bidders fall along a spectrum, depending on their relationship with the prospect.

This creates a pecking order of RFP contenders as follows:

  • RFP shaper: The prospect considers you a friend and trusted advisor, invites your input and is actively helping you win the contract. He or she invites you to comment on the draft RFP—or, ideally, to write key sections.
  • Inner circle: The prospect sees you as a trusted advisor and proactively shares information, but can’t or won’t favour you over others. You know the economic buyer and several other evaluators and influencers, and you understand their strategic and hot button issues.
  • Well-respected: The prospect knows and respects your company and business developer(s), but doesn’t consider you superior to other candidates. You need to ask the right questions to uncover strategic and hot button issues—and even then the prospect may not always be candid.
  • Rest of the pack: The prospect doesn’t know your company and has likely never met your business developers or senior executives. You have little or no inside knowledge of the prospect’s issues and may have only learned of the RFP post-release.
  • Disliked: From direct experience or by reputation, the prospect has a negative impression of your company. Evaluators will—consciously or not—tend to underscore your technical narrative to lessen your chances.

Our experience

Large private sector contracts often go to an RFP shaper. Many public sector procurements are monitored by fairness watchdogs—but even those decisions often go to companies with close client relationships, if only because inside knowledge enables them to tailor an offer that meets all the issuer’s needs at a price that isn’t inflated to protect against unknowns.

Inner circle and well-respected contenders round out the field of likely winners or close runners-up. The rest of the pack and disliked contenders are long shots at best.


If you and your team are making a bid/no-bid decision and strategy on the basis of hunches and assumptions, rather than facts, you are not in the top three categories and are unlikely to win. This may seem self-evident, but we still receive regular calls for proposal assistance from companies in this position.

If the prospect knows and respects you, it’s worth trying to learn if a competitor has the inside track. You may still decide to bid, especially in two-envelope systems—in which case your best bet is likely a “skinny” offer with a correspondingly low price.

What to do

If you are chasing RFPs for large contracts with companies you don’t know, consider investing in and carefully managing pre-RFP discovery. Meanwhile, take advantage of our free bid/no-bid decision tool and bid proposal strategy processes, so you are clear-eyed about your chances.

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