Daily Management Review

Carrying it off in international RFPs by betting on national identity


The world of international RFPs is considered sometimes as a realm reserved to large multinationals. But not only can mid-sized firms perfectly well take the cake in transnational calls, but margins are often substantially worth the effort. Such deals, however, require certain skills in the process of making the offer, lest the sales attempt be stillborn.

Before considering which strengths to build, risks and liabilities must be assessed. Whatever the message you are trying to send across the border to your prospect, there is a risk that it will be scrambled by the distance. For this reason, it is essential to promote clarity in the communication during the negotiation. This implies a skeleton crew, a strictly selected and limited number of people who will interact with the client. If anyone and everyone within your company communicates with client teams, the global message will give a repulsive feeling of confusion, and scare the client off. Tom Gimbel says: Assign Responsibility when crafting an RFP that could result in a substantial increase in revenue, it’s easy to have too many cooks in the kitchen. We started the RFP process by assigning clear responsibilities to team members, ensuring the appropriate people were taking lead roles in the project. We also kept the RFP team compact, but diverse, specific to their expertise. Limiting the RFP team to three to five people simplifies and expedites a winning response.” There’s plenty to do in an RFP, but 5 people maximum should be enough, and their tasks should be strictly defined. Whoever is in charge of assessing the cost of sales on the deal is not in charge of negotiating prices, or communications and image will suffer.
A second ground rule for international RFP is to assess the potential loss due to the projection. This military principle applies perfectly well to companies, and is often used by businesses ahead of the deal, before they decide whether they want to run for the deal or not. In the beginning of the 1980s, the United Kingdom fought Argentina, in a very level battleground, despite the British Army and Navy far outranking its Argentinian counterparts. With every mile London had to project its forces, it lost a little power, and this principle applies to businesses, too: what you may easily be able to do in your homeland may prove terribly complicated when trying to replicate abroad. 
Bringing a demonstration model to the client’s doorstep, if selling goods, may hit all sorts of speed bumps: transport delays, customs clearance, etc.  Not to mention that, if you have competitors in the deals who work closer by, the number of opportunities to snatch face time with the prospect will greatly surpass yours. If there is a language barrier, the complexity may prove insurmountable. Steli Efti, an expert on international RFPs, recommends that If you're a German company for example, start by expanding into the Austrian and Swiss market, instead of trying to sell to Chinese companies. It should be obvious, but all too often companies make the size of the opportunity the deciding factor, not taking into account the complexities involved in entering a completely foreign market.” Be they technical, informational, linguistic or even financial, the resources at your disposal around your area are far above what they are abroad.  Just like an army, your power will deplete quickly with every mile, and resources will dwindle - a parameter which, if overlooked, can launch you into a doomed RFP, far from home.
Betting on yourself is probably one of the most potent parameters in the deal. Whether the buyer is resorting to a foreign supplier because his own country doesn’t possess the skills you have, or because your country is renowned for mastering the skill needed : the buyer is looking overseas for a reason!  It would be a shame to let the potential of mystique go to waste. Thomas Savare deals almost exclusively with international RFPs, as CEO of French company Oberthur Fiduciaire, one of the few printing companies in the world to print banknotes for central banks.  While the skills in his company are secretly guarded, his competitors have comparable skillsets, so he puts his money on his country’s reputation for artwork and creative design. “However apart from security, Oberthur Fiduciaire also acquired a real competitive advantage derived from its French touch with respect to designing of bank notes, according to the company’s CEO. “It’s a job that requires a highly developed sense of aesthetics… Thanks to the expertise we have developed over time with central banks around the world, we see how the symbolism conveyed by a banknote is important in the eyes of our customers,” he points out in an interview. Whatever your country is renowned for, it is likely part of the equation which brought your prospect to consider your offer. Stressing this point can make the difference with your competitors.
Logistics around a deal, which have always proven simple while dealing home, can turn into a logistical nightmare when dealing abroad. Keeping the deal as simple as humanly possible, or having a solid agent on the spot, proves essential, will safeguard your business from falling through and turning into a mess which will surely tear the trust. Because, in the end, be it through the technical abilities your company holds, or through the image it projects around the world, it all boils down to the same factor which applies to national RFPs : trust. Going about it is simply different on the international chessboard.