Sales Training RFPs: What You Need to Know

Sales Training RFPIn this post I hope to accurately portray the perspectives of both the buy-side and the supply-side on the sales training RFP.  Leave a comment and let me know how I did.

A bit of background

As a seller, coming out of sales, sales consulting, and sales training, I have a love-hate relationship with RFPs. I love them when I’ve written or influenced their content and, as a result, have exerted some control over the customer’s buying/decision criteria, and won the deal. I hate them (or rather disregard them, in most cases) when one surprisingly pops into my inbox and I quickly determine that my competitor has had a degree of influence in its content.

When ESR first started sending RFPs to sales performance improvement companies on behalf of our sales training buyer clients, the responses were as you would expect. Resistance, frustration, and even anger.  After all, many sales trainers work with their clients guiding them through getting around the RFP process. Why should they do what they teach their clients not to do? they ask me. After all, they say, RFPs have been written or influenced by one supplier, putting anyone else who chooses to bid the business in a disadvantageous place. As a seller, I couldn’t agree more.

On the buy-side of the equation

When ESR is running a client evaluation, we perform the requirements analysis and definition. We do that independently of any provider or any influence they might have among stakeholders. Why does ESR insist on doing the requirements definition? ESR knows that whenever a sales trainer or consultant does a requirements analysis (their discovery process) it is most likely going to result in the highest priority customer needs matching the unique capabilities of the provider. It’s only natural. If I’m a trainer and have proven abilities in A, B, C, and D, I will gravitate toward challenges and opportunities for which A, B, C, and D are solutions for the customer. If the customer’s real issues are with E, F, G, and H, for competitive reasons I may not acknowledge that or, in some cases, I might not even recognize that those conditions exist. (I know I’m going to get some angry comments and emails about this from sales trainers who will tell me they are open and honest with their clients about their strengths and challenges. I’m sure that’s true in YOUR case, but after nearly eight years of studying failed sales training initiatives, we know what really goes on a lot of the time.)

Once the client signs off on the requirements definition, we propose a long list of providers based on a high-level match among those requirements and individual providers’ capabilities as we know them.

Sell to the customer in the way they want to buy

From the buy side, we expect anyone bidding for the business to understand how the customer wants to buy (by employing this process) and demonstrates willingness to work under those parameters.  It is also very important for our clients to understand how each potential supplier matches up against the prioritized criteria as stated in the RFP—criteria derived directly from that comprehensive and objective assessment we perform.

When ESR publishes the RFI or RFP, we assure each long-listed sales performance improvement provider that:

  1. It’s a real opportunity.
  2. It has senior executive sponsorship.
  3. It is budgeted.
  4. The timing of the events, including launch and roll-out are short term.
  5. ESR has performed the requirements definition and wrote the RFP without any influence at all from any supplier.
  6. No supplier has been in the account since ESR was involved—therefore no one has the inside track.
  7. Every provider that receives an RFP has an equal opportunity to win. ESR will never solicit proposals from any company we don’t feel is qualified to win the business.

In other words, we validate that this is a qualified opportunity where everyone participating has an equal chance to win. Many sales trainers have learned to trust ESR in this regard. They’d rather not go through this process, but they know it’s fair.

The short list

After the responses are read, analyzed, and ranked, a short list is determined. At that point ESR strongly recommends that the client meet with representatives from each short-listed company to answer any and all questions. That’s also the time when the client and the short-listed firms get to know each other.

ESR organizes and manages a finalist presentation day where each short-listed provider offers insight into how they will contribute to the customer achieving their sales performance goals and objectives. We also recommend that each provider to share with the client their differentiated and unique value and why they believe they are the best partner for the client.  Each presentation runs about three-and-a-half hours.

At that point the client evaluates each presentation among other factors and makes a selection.

The bottom line

As a result of this process, whichever provider is selected is almost guaranteed to have a successful implementation because all the risks and rewards and strengths and challenges of both provider and client will have been identified and discussed openly by both parties before a contract is signed.

Read a case study about how this process was employed from Selling Power magazine.

Note: If you’d like to learn more about sales training requirements, you can purchase the ESR/Report How to Understand, Define, and Meet Your Sales Training Requirements.

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  1. says

    Great post, Dave.

    I probably don’t talk about my buy-side experience enough, but I’ve spent years sitting in the director’s chair with a bullseye on my back, being pummeled by horribly-bumbled prospecting calls.

    I’ve also navigated through a host of vendor and service selection processes, as you’d imagine.

    Early in my career, I started being much more reactive to sales calls, but as the volume grew it became unproductive. Years later, I migrated to purchasing only through RFP, when I had a clearly defined need and something I was aimed at accomplishing. I often have vendors offer some ideas about what questions to ask on the RFP, which i find helpful to ensure I haven’t missed something, but I usually scrub their recommendations to ensure they’re impartial and fair for all (assuming impartial and fair is possible). I’ve also always kept my RFPs fairly basic, as a starting point, and primarily to:
    – Help me opt vendors in or out quickly, based on my critical criteria and their capabilities in those areas
    – To see who can read and absorb my criteria and what’s important to me, and respond accordingly. I’ve met a surprising number of reps/companies over the years who simply don’t absorb or listen to the clues, gems, or coaching I try to provide, and I weed them out quickly – I need a vendor/partner who listens, understands, cares, and – gosh darn it – can make me look good! 😉

    After that, though, I’ve usually gotten the list down to 5-ish, and then spend the time talking voice-to-voice to pare down to 2 or 3, to invite in for presentations.

    Some reps/companies really seem to excel at picking up the clues, direct advice, needs and desires, and progressing through the process. Other I could describe only as, well, “clueless.”

    Having been on both sides of the desk, it is certainly fascinating to watch the process unfold sometimes.

    • Dave Stein says

      Hi Mike,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      I think getting “ideas” to include in an RFP from vendors is what a lot of buy-side people do. It’s a good practice for many, but since we (at ESR) need to aver that there has been absolutely no vendor influence, we pass on that opportunity. I might also mention that a lot of companies seeking to run their own sales training RFP process find some number of provider firms unwilling to participate due to this potential influence, which could be perceived as favoritism.

      We have found that the statement, “This RFP has been written by (company name) with no influence from, or participation by, anyone bidding for this business,” goes a long way.

  2. says

    I know the received wisdom is “avoid the RFP” but I think we have to grow up and recognise that a more focussed and formal RFP process is a fact of business life. Certainly in the financial sector where I spend most of my time I see some organisations trying to navigate their way around the RFP process. I believe this strategy will result in being marginalised and picking up only the left-overs while the strategically significant projects will go to those providers who recognise the professionalism of the RFP approach. Vendors should have the confidence to work professionally and cooperatively with professionally run RFPs. As vendors seek to professionalise their own relationship management they should expect to work professionally with professional RFPs Vendors need the confidence to work within good RFP processes. It may be demanding and sometimes even tiresome but its the right approach for clients who want to buy the right solutions in the right way. If we aim to serve our clients and help them achieve their objectives we should welcome professional RFP processes.

    • Dave Stein says

      Hi Richard.

      Thanks for commenting. You’re someone whose opinion I respect.

      I think we’d agree to this: Sell to the customer as they want to buy. We can adjust our approach to one degree or another, but basically, if we shun their buying process and force control, we’re toast.

      Am I right about this?

  3. says

    That’s a fair point, Dave. And I do like the “Consumer Reports” approach (it’s all us, with no outside influence). I’ll give that some serious thought.

    I will say though, that I never had a challenge with it, nor have I had a vendor not wish to participate (if what I was seeking was in their wheelhouse). But that may be because I scrubbed things into perspective from my point of view (if I took their feedback at all) rather than taking any sort of obviously-slanted recommendation, and was authentic about it with everyone – if I asked one, I asked all, and did it openly. (I should have said that before but sometimes I try to not have my comment be as long as the post. 😉 I truly wanted to know if someone felt I wasn’t considering something. I also often reach out into “the community” or my network… colleagues, LinkedIn contacts, groups, associations, etc. Collective intelligence, or what i hear people call “crowdsourcing” today, can be pretty powerful, if you ask the right questions to the right crowd.

    As an example, years ago, the first time I researched psychometric assessments? Wow, that was interesting to say the least. I know you’ve reviewed some of those statistical validation studies. Ipsative, normative, various types of validity, yada, yada…. and everybody makes claims that you almost have to understand the science to judge or get the nuances. I had a lot to learn in a short period of time. For that first time, I asked everybody who got within 3 feet of me or popped into my head, it seemed. When vendors told me something, I tried to validate it elsewhere, but yes, I did include them in the RFP development and the “education of Mike” process, for that first purchase.

    Contrast that to when I was outsourcing some training development overload for the umpteenth time, and you can imagine I approached both differently. If, as buyers, we’re going to do the best job possible for our companies, sometimes I think we need to get off the “I’m an expert” bandwagon and be a lot more curious and inclusive. But that’s just me.

    And, yes, I know… it’s also an outstanding reason to engage a third-party resource like ESR, in those big, costly, critically-important decisions, *especially* when you are not an expert. One didn’t exist for psychometric testing back then (it does now, interestingly). Certainly, this is also a big reason I heartily recommend ESR’s selection services. (I suppose that seems like a shameless plug, but you know it’s true, so I have no problem saying it here.)

    More recently I’ve even left a portion of the RFP open, where vendors could tell me what they felt I wasn’t considering. (Clear opportunity for some Challenger Rep to show me some new insight, I suppose. 😉

    Anyway, that’s my (long) story and I’m sticking to it. 😉

    • Dave Stein says

      I love reading your comments, Mike, and it’s not because of the plug. There are some good lessons in here, and I thank you for those.


  4. says

    I’m coming to this discussion a little late, but it is a great discussion, and I’d like to take a contrarian position on this.

    I absolutely “buy” everything that’s been said–but it’s based on the presumption the customer knows how to buy! ESR provides a fantastic and very valuable service to customers who may not know how to buy–helping them avoid any pitfalls from this, sharpening their understanding of what they should be looking for, why, and who might most effectively address it.

    But what about those people who don’t know how to buy and don’t engage organizations like ESR? Sure, the web and self education is an alternative that helps, but it has some very important gaps. It assumes the customers know the right things to look for and are asking the right questions. It also assumes the customers know how to solve the “last mile” problem in developing their RFP.

    Those are BIG assumptions in complex B2B solutions. I once asked a number of CFO’s of large corporations, how many times in your career have you looked at a major new financial or ERP system. For all, it was fewer than 5 times–over a career. And each one of those was separated by many years–by that time, the issues and capabilities of the solutions had changed profoundly.

    What about those customers who don’t recognize they have a need to buy or change. This is where even earlier engagement on the part of sellers is needed. It’s where concepts like Challenger or Provocative Selling come in, helping customers discover they are missing opportunities, or can grow, or can improve their operations, or can…… when they have never realized it before.

    Sales people need to change their focus. They need to help customers buy. If they already know how to buy–and we’ve tested that, then we support them in the way they want to buy, helping and responding in whatever way we can. If they don’t know how to buy, we can create great value in helping them buy.

    Am I off the deep end?

    • Dave Stein says

      Dave, I love the way you think. You’ve added a great deal to this post. Thanks for taking the time.