Unseating an Incumbent Part 1: Why Doing Work Beforehand is Vital to Winning RFPs

In the RFP process, there is a standard “roadblock” we help many clients face with courage and confidence: unseating an incumbent in order to win a newly issued request for proposal (RFP).

What follows is the beginning of a two-part series for this month. The first part will focus on what factors go into the difficulty in unseating an incumbent. In other words, why is it important to identify how difficult it is to unseat an incumbent? We’ll also touch on traditional models in attempting to unseat an incumbent, and why those methods typically don’t work out in the long run.

In the next post, we’ll discuss how to attain success in the area of unseating an incumbent. There are multiple facets to this crucial component of the RFP Process, and Theme Strategic Proposals wants you to walk away from these two posts with confidence to win your next RFP, and prove that your business has what it takes to serve any given client.

The Gist of Unseating an Incumbent

In short, you won’t always know why businesses or government agencies are issuing an RFP. If it’s a public sector bid, then most organizations are likely required, by law, to go to RFP. That doesn’t mean the business is unhappy with the incumbent—in fact, there are RFPs that state “we are required by law to issue this proposal” which suggests that it is the incumbent’s proposal to lose. When a prospective client reads a proposal, they need to be motivated to change from the incumbent.

Incumbent (noun): one that occupies a particular position or place (or in our case, the contract you’re going to take from them 🙂

Everything being equal, the incumbent will typically win the proposal.

Even if the client doesn’t like the incumbent, you have to convince them that your proposal is so technically or financially appealing that the client will put in the work to transition everything to you.

This includes negotiating new contracts, transferring data from the incumbent to you, developing new marketing programs, and creating new relationships with you. That’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work that your proposal needs to justify to the business.

Think of it this way: if you’ve had the same mobile phone service provider for six years, and a different service provider comes to you and says, “We really want your business, and we will match everything that your current provider can do!” Is your first instinct to transfer your data, create new logins, and learn how to read the new bill, all to get the exact same level of service? Probably not. You need an incentive to switch providers, such as a new phone or lower monthly rate. That will make it worth your while to change, and that’s the same mentality in the proposal world as well.

Traditional Bidding Methods

There are a couple more key factors to bidding when there’s an incumbent to unseat. These points are rooted in traditional bidding methods and a mentality that says “It’s always been this way, so why change now?”

For starters, many RFP bidders don’t investigate ahead of time the level of a client’s satisfaction with the incumbent and pain points. Bidders often see the RFP as the first strike against the incumbent, when in fact if an RFP is the first time a bidder learns of the opportunity, the bidder has likely already lost.

While bidders may think that if they do this enough times a prospective client will eventually  say “Yes,” it is time and resources being taken away from more fruitful efforts.

The Knowledge it Takes to Win New Business

Knowledge is power, right? You can’t propose a targeted solution if you don’t know the client’s problem. In the same way, you can’t ghost a competitor if you don’t know the name of who you’re competing against.

You can’t develop winning themes if you don’t know how to win. If you are gung-ho about pursuing an opportunity blindly there is still better-than-nothing intelligence that may have some value. If the business is a public company, you can review annual reports to get financial and product information. You can do an online search for some of their proposals so you can see how they pitch themselves to the market. You can ask (but not overload) specific questions to the business about their pain points and what they’re trying to solve with this proposal. 

Set Yourself Up for Success

We’ve written before on the power in a solid go/no-go process which should address incumbency and customer intelligence when determining whether to pursue an opportunity. If you’re trying to unseat an incumbent that has been with a business for three consecutive contracts, you will need to do more than just submit a standard proposal.

You will need to know why the business is even thinking about working with another vendor, and when you find that out, then you can develop a strong, targeted proposal that will make a business think about changing. If you’re not ready to do that, you may want to pass on that opportunity after all.

But if you don’t pass on the opportunity, and you decide to go for it . . . what are your next steps?! Stay tuned for the pragmatic “how” in unseating an incumbent.

The fact you made it to the end of this article means you’re already a step ahead of the competition.