The process appeared to be straightforward.
Provide Amazon with a great pitch for why your area should be the home of its new headquarters. From those proposals, Amazon picks one ‘lucky’ community and builds its HQ2 there, bringing with it the promise of tens of thousands of jobs and the ensuing waves of economic prosperity.
Of course, hundreds of cities across North America jumped at the chance to respond to Amazon’s RFP. City halls and state legislatures pushed through bills and amendments to make the proffered tax breaks, financial incentives, and payroll rebates possible.
Then, things got quiet. The proposal and evaluation process moved out of the public eye to behind closed doors. Eventually, Amazon announced two winners: Long Island City, New York and Arlington, Virginia. Then, things got loud.
The backlash in New York was swift and powerful. Local groups and even some local politicians pushed back against the huge incentive package offered to the ecommerce giant and its uber-wealthy owner, Jeff Bezos. Ultimately, Bezos pulled the plug on HQ2 in Long Island due to the opposition and focused their efforts in the Washington, D.C. area.
So, with most of the bidding cities back where they started on this particular request for proposals, what can you learn from them to make your RFP response process better?
9 lessons Amazon HQ2 delivered on how to respond to an RFP
Don’t let pricing make your winning response a loser
In the Amazon HQ2 proposal process, some cities pulled out all the stops, promising millions and even billions of dollars in incentives. In some cases, bidders needed to change legislation in order to access those funds and redirect public money to make those promises.
It seems Amazon was focused on the bottom line. Places like Toronto that opted out of playing the money game were overlooked.
In your own proposals, remember that sometimes the RFP issuer will only evaluate on price. Be wary of pricing your proposal so that even if you end up winning the RFP you ultimately lose out because you undercut yourself.
There will always be someone who can throw more money or other resources at the project or someone who is willing and able to take a hit on price this time just to secure the business. Price out your RFP response so that it’s a win for both you and the client.
Make sure you have complete buy-in
Don’t go rogue. Get buy-in from ALL stakeholders within your company. This is especially important if it’s a stretch goal, like a dream client or a project scope you haven’t tackled before, or will require a ton of resources, some of which you may not control, like promising man-hours from people in other departments.
Some Amazon bidding cities experienced a disconnect between the priorities of the municipal and state governments involved in their proposal. This is partly what torpedoed the winning Long Island City bid, which was spearheaded by New York state but then opposed by local politicians, citizens, and interest groups.
Once you have buy-in, present a united front. When the local government got sidelined, it left a bad taste and made them less likely to get along to go along, especially once constituents got up in arms.
Set the proper tone for your response
Decide who you want to be and how you want to present yourself and your company.
Some long-shot cities, like Calgary and Kansas City, took a humorous approach to stand out a bit. Most of the finalist cities, however, were ones who took the RFP seriously and came back with solid plans for incentives and strategy.
Take the overall tone cues for your proposal from the RFP and the issuing company. In most cases, and especially with government RFPs, the tone will be straightforward and no-nonsense.
If your brand has a more whimsical feel, it’s not that you have to hide it. Just use it judiciously, maybe more in the sections that are about your company and less so in the sections that are about the prospective client's pain points and the solutions.
If there is a huge disconnect between your brand identity and that of the RFP-issuing entity, you might want to reconsider if it’s worth it to respond. Which leads into...
Evaluate whether the opportunity is worth responding to
Make sure the RFP is legit before you go all in on it.
Some business observers say that Amazon was simply sniffing out which way politicians and city planners were leaning on their opinions of the e-commerce giant. Amazon may have already had a plan in mind (or even in motion) and just wanted to do a ‘temperature check’ with this RFP process.
Think long-term. Proponents in bidding cities argued that the handouts and tax cuts would pay dividends as jobs were created. Those against said there would be no guarantees that putting all the city’s development eggs in one Amazon box would pay off.
Would responding to this RFP be short-term pain for long-term gain or just all pain, no gain?
Keep this in mind before diving headlong into a complicated, and potentially costly, RFP process. Would it be better to put your own resources into prospecting or sending other proposals than going after this particular one?
Determine fit first
Don’t get blinded by a big name or a flashy, competitive opportunity that means you could lord your win over your competitors. Are you there for the right reasons?
Yeah, it might be a cool or prestigious or lucrative or what-have-you project but if there’s not a fit with the issuer it’s not going to work. Do you have similar values as businesses and a shared vision for the project?
For example, Amazon has tried to block unions from forming within its employee ranks. However, its chosen area for HQ2, Long Island, is known as a workers-rights stronghold. That alone may not have been enough to tip the scales against a partnership, but both sides should’ve expected some of the pushback and protest that followed.
Watch out for veiled or vague requirements
Amazon said it was looking for a location with a “business-friendly environment”. After the company infamously clashed with governments in Seattle, many took that as code for “How much red tape will your city put in our way?”
If you’re responding to an RFP that seems to make allusions, think about how far you want to take it. Bidding cities interpreted “business-friendly” differently, from “we’ll assist Amazon in navigating our city’s bureaucracy” to “we’ll give you a full-time city hall concierge to expedite your plans.”
And, when in doubt, you can always ask. Many RFP issuers will allow questions on proposal requirements until a certain amount of time before the submission deadline.
Don’t inadvertently make yourself look bad
Don’t include information that could potentially be unflattering to you, like when upstate New York politicians argued that if HQ2 wasn’t going to Long Island City, it should go to Syracuse because that area is well-known for devastating poverty.
It may be the truth, but don’t put yourself down while trying to win. The politicians were trying to point out that their economically depressed area could really benefit from the jobs and other boons a big company like Amazon coming in could provide. But that doesn’t spell out what’s in it for Amazon or provide any specific incentive.
Similarly, don’t insinuate in your own proposal that you’ll do a great job on the project because you’ve got nothing else on the go at the moment. You might think that the client will see that as a positive—we should pick this company since they could start right away! But, on the flip side of that, boasting about being idle doesn’t inspire much confidence.
Watch out for politics
As mentioned, many of the responses to Amazon’s RFP included collaboration among two or three levels of government. But it was the conflict between politicians at the local and state level that helped sink the winning proposal.
Involving the government is likely to complicate things. Governments, whether local, state, or federal, have their own sets of rules, restrictions, and requirements.
If you’re responding to government RFPs or one that will involve governmental input or consultations, here are some things to keep in mind:
- Make sure your response includes all required sections, information, and supporting documents. If the RFP asks for it, it needs to be in your response.
- Ask your questions early, as there is sometimes a Q&A deadline prior to the submission deadline.
- Hit the submission deadline. Proposals received even minutes after the deadline are disqualified.
Stick to the requirements
In addition to the usual tax cuts, payroll rebates, and other financial incentives, some cities went a bit further afield with their proposal.
Those proposals offered things like private transit options, “concierge” service for the company at city hall to expedite things like permits, and even changing their city’s name to Amazon, Georgia.
Some of the shticks were hailed as cute, creative, or clever, but none of the proposals that included a gimmick ultimately ended up winning. (To be fair, some of these cities were piggy-backing on the Amazon RFP for a little publicity and were seen as long-shots to begin with.)
How does this link back to your proposal process? It’s not like you were ever going to change your company name just to win an RFP.
Well, in many cases, proposals that go outside the bounds of what the RFP asked for won’t be considered. You think you’re being cute, while the RFP issuer won’t even bother looking past the shtick to see any of the good stuff in your proposal.
Delivering your winning RFP response
Your RFP response proposals might not get a spotlight on the international stage, but they still have a prime role in your sales team’s success.
Even without the high-publicity stakes, you’ll want to make sure your proposal creation process is efficient and that you’re submitting RFP responses that are thoughtful, comprehensive, client-focused, priced competitively, and not too outside the box.