Do you remember when you were in school, and you had to write an essay? If your experience mirrors mine, you had teacher after teacher hammer home the same point – the first paragraph is critically important. After all, it’s the first thing that the reader sees.
In the world of proposals, the RFP cover letter (also called a proposal cover letter, RFP response cover letter, bid proposal cover letter, RFP cover page, cover page for business proposal, etc.) is the first thing that the buyer sees. For all the time that companies spend crafting proposals, it’s surprising that the RFP cover letter is often an afterthought, rambling corporate pablum. But for you, dear reader, this presents an opportunity….
In the paragraphs that follow, you will learn
- What is an RFP cover letter?
- The value of an proposal cover letter.
- The components of an RFP cover letter.
- The best approach to a proposal cover letter.
Read on and find out how investing time in your RFP cover letter can boost your chance at a winning RFP response!
Don't have time to read the whole article? Here are the key elements of an RFP cover letter.
Take Notes: Keep good notes when reading the RFP, keeping in mind that you want to reflect the pain and goals back to the issuer in the cover letter. The RFP itself is the roadmap to best understanding the issuer's desires.
Start Strong: Consider playing up the pain of the pre-solution state and/or describe the positive outcome of a successful partnership. By reminding them of the issue they're trying to solve and its negative impact, you can increase the emotional resonance of your messaging.
Address Concerns: The RFP cover letter gives you, anticipate and address potential buyer concerns like your firm's size or lack of specific experience. Reframe these weaknesses as strengths: highlight past successes with similar clients or emphasize personal attention from your smaller team. Don't excuse, recast!
Run Through the Tape: A killer RFP cover letter finale reignites the problem you solve, extends a confident invitation for further discussion, and shines with genuine passion for your solution. This powerful combo leaves a lasting impression that speaks to their needs and sparks excitement for what you offer.
We go into greater detail about these specific tips later in the article. Keep reading to learn more!
What is an RFP Cover Letter?
Let’s begin by understanding what an RFP cover letter isn’t. It is not a multi-page document where you meticulously lay out your bid details, expound at length on the value of your product or service, and include matrix-style comparisons. Instead, your RFP cover letter should be a single page and addressed – yes, actually addressed as it is a letter after all – to the prospective customer. It should contain high-level, rather than super-detailed information, but still be customized for the recipient. The proposal cover letter is the first page in your submission and should be followed the rest of the proposal.
That’s it. And if you’re wondering why you’re reading an article that is longer than any good RFP cover letter should be, I want to remind you about where we started and think back to the intro paragraph to an essay that grabs the reader’s attention and sets the tone for the rest of the paper. This is your first and best chance to captivate your prospect.
The Value of a Proposal Cover Letter
You’ve poured hours (32 on average) into developing the perfect proposal, meticulously answering every RFP requirement. So, at this point, you simply want to call it a day. After all, who wants to spend one more minute working on a brief introduction? The best sales executives and proposal writers realize that like sprinters, they need to run though the tape. The race isn’t over when the proposal is written. You have an opportunity to stand out from the crowd before your prospect even gets to the meat of your proposal.
Let's be honest, most cover letters fall into the "Dear Sir/Madam" black hole. "Thank you for the opportunity, blah blah blah..." <Yawn> Your letter? It's the first handshake, where you look the counterparty in the eye and introduce yourself. This isn't just about meeting specs; it's about leaning into to authenticity and igniting excitement. Why did the prospect issue the RFP to you? There is a problem or need that your company is qualified to address.
A generic greeting, an RFP cover letter than reads like boilerplate, can undermine even a strong proposal. I get it; no one gets excited about responding to an RFP. But you’re close to the finish line and surely you can get excited about winning the business. Before we get into the contents of an RFP cover letter, here are three things to keep in mind when crafting your killer cover letter:
- Lead with authenticity. Your company may be providing the product or service, but the prospect is buying from you. Put a little personality into it.
- Connect to the pain/need. Whatever it is that you’re proposing should solve a problem for the prospect. Reiterate the problem in your own words to frame the rest of the proposal.
- Don’t oversell features and capabilities. Remember, this is just the first page of a proposal. The proposal itself is where you’ll have ample space to explain why your solution should be the winning one.
The Components of an RFP Cover Letter
Odds are that you’ve applied to a job and submitted a resume along with a cover letter. Unsurprisingly, there is a lot you can apply from a resume cover letter to an RFP cover letter. The major difference is that you’re representing your rather than yourself.
When drafting an RFP cover letter, you want to be sure to include the following:
- Addresses and date: You cover letter is, at its heart, a business letter. Make sure that it’s formatted as such and include the names of the key stakeholders as well as the physical address – even if you send it via email. You might be thinking, “Duh,” but a surprising number of people miss this and it conveys a lack of professionalism.
- Brief greeting: It’s enough to spend a sentence or two telling the recipients that you enjoyed meeting them and appreciate the opportunity to earn their business. Space is limited so you don’t want to invest too much here.
- Recap needs/pain: This is the first part of the aforementioned framing. You are going to restate the buyer’s needs in your own words. Lean into the “pain” if you can do so subtly.
- Summarize your value proposition: Again, this is the RFP cover letter, not the proposal itself. You want to briefly explain why your solution is a perfect fit for the buyer. If possible, cite other success stories and spell out areas of differentiation from competitors.
- Close: You can thank them again, invite them to send you questions, etc. But aside from that, just make it short and sweet.
Some suggest including visual design elements. Given the limited space you have (we’re not kidding about the 1-page rule), you are generally going to be better off not using them unless they are going to make a huge impact on your narrative.
As you write, remember that the prospect is, at least for the moment, the center of the universe. All of the things that you highlight that made your company special should apply specifically to the prospect. If you have offer X and Y and offer the world’s best X, it’s not worth mentioning if the buyer only wants Y. There are ample opportunities in the rest of the proposal for this kind of information.
The Best Approach to a Proposal Cover Letter
Every time you respond to an RFP, you are building a bespoke piece of content. It doesn't matter if you've received RFPs that were almost identical. We encourage you to incorporate elements of previous responses, particularly if they are successful. But it's important to bear in mind that regardless of the similarities when it comes to requirements, budgets, et al., the issuer of the RFP has its own concerns. Consequently, your RFP cover letter should speak specifically to that issuer. In this section, we'll cover key tips on how best to do that.
Take Notes When You Read the RFP
The person who writes the cover letter should be involved in the proposal process and certainly should have read the RFP. I’m not suggesting that this person re-read the entire thing, but rather take notes while doing the initial reading. This is an important step anyway as you want to track the requirements, nice-to-haves, identify areas where your solution provides differentiated value, etc.
The only difference is considering the cover letter while you are reading the RFP and taking those notes. You’ll want to keep your eyes open for a few things:
- Are there any specific things that come up repeatedly? Maybe there is an aggressive timeline, a budget constraint, or a usability concern. This is something you’ll certainly want to address in a cover letter.
- What is driving the initiative? Or put differently, what is the big honking problem that prompted an RFP in the first place? Be warned – this might not be explicitly detailed in the RFP itself. If that’s the case, you might consider reaching out to the buyer and inquiring. The answer will not just improve your RFP cover letter but could improve the proposal itself.
- What is the desired end state? If you can put the reader in a place where he or she feels psychologically comfortable, you could find yourself one step ahead of the competition.
Get to the Good Stuff Quickly
Odds are that you are not the only proposal that has landed in the issuer’s inbox. And while you aren’t asking for much time here – remember, the RFP cover letter should be limited to one (1) page – there is a strong possibility that there is more skimming than reading. This doesn’t mean that the cover letter isn’t important! But what it does mean is that you want to grab the reader’s attention immediately. You do this by putting your hook in the very first paragraph.
There are numerous ways to do this. A few ideas include
- Starting at the end. What? Specifically, describing the end state of a successful engagement in the beginning of the RFP cover letter. If you can get the reader feeling warm and fuzzy early on, that’s a win.
- Lean into the pain. An organization develops an RFP when they want to spend money to address a specific issue. What is that issue? How does the fact that the issue is unaddressed negatively impact the current state? Warm and fuzzy has its benefits, but turning up the pain is another approach that is often employed by successful salespeople.
- Remind them who you are. In some situations, you might receive an RFP from a buyer with whom you have previously developed a professional relationship. You should absolutely incorporate this into your cover letter, particularly highlighting past successes together. Positive experiences can sway buyers by adding a measure of emotional safety to an uncertain process. “I feel comfortable working with this person/company,” is a compelling sentiment.
Confront Your Weak Points
The RFP Response itself is going to provide a ton of detail about what your company does, how it does it, prior success having done it, etc. In terms of how you would provide a solution, it might be comprehensive. But it may not touch some of the points that could give a buyer pause.
When dealing with prospects that resemble the organization that issued the RFP, what are the concerns that they have? This is your opportunity to take control of the narrative around those concerns. Here are a couple examples:
Concern: “We’re concerned that you’re not large enough to take on this project.”
Answer approach: Discuss how you’ve worked with companies that are as large or larger, if possible. You can also turn your smaller size into an advantage by promising more executive attention and engagement as a deal with your smaller company would be relatively more impactful than it would be for a larger company.
Concern: “You don’t seem to have done a project like this before.”
Answer approach: Discuss your successes taking on other projects that seemed to be outside your core area of expertise. See if you can find alignment between your company’s vision and the project.
Remember, the goal here isn’t to excuse yourself, but rather to recast your perceived weakness as a strength. For example, as it pertains to the size concern, you don’t want to write, “Even though we’re a small company, we are confident that we can deliver on time and on budget.” Rather, you might write something like, “As a smaller provider, we are able to cultivate much more intimate relationships with our customers, which ultimately leads to better outcomes. I would be happy to connect you with some of them to learn how.”
If you've done all of the above, you should make sure you're like a sprinter and run through the tape. The finish line is so close, it might be tempting to just downplay the ending of the RFP cover letter. That would be a mistake. Just as hooking the reader early increases engagement, closing strongly can have a meaningful impact. This is your chance to cement a lasting impression and reinforce the value you bring.
- Reignite the spark: Don't let the momentum fade. Briefly reiterate the core problem you address and remind the reader how your solution ignites their desired outcome. Use strong verbs and specific details from the proposal to paint a vivid picture of their success. This final punch reminds them why your offer is worth serious consideration.
- Extend the invitation: Make it clear you're eager to dive deeper. Whether you suggest a specific follow-up action, like scheduling a meeting, or simply express your availability for further discussion, project confidence and enthusiasm. Use active language like "We welcome the opportunity to discuss this further" or "We're confident our proposal can propel you towards..." This confident call to action leaves the reader with a clear next step and fuels their next move.
- Let your passion shine: Genuine excitement about your solution is contagious. Infuse your closing with an authentic spirit that reflects your team's dedication and belief in the project's success. This human touch builds trust and sets you apart from generic proposals.
Remember, a strong closing isn't just about summarizing, it's about sealing the deal. By reigniting excitement and providing a smooth transition to the next stage, you'll leave a lasting impression that sets your proposal apart.
It would be folly to think that the RFP response and the RFP cover letter are equally weighted. The response is clearly more important. But the cover letter serves as an appetizer in advance of the main course. Go to a good restaurant and a people may rave about the amazing appetizers. They'll still order the entree, but the appetizer sets the tone.
Given the time you'll invest in drafting your proposal (a time that can be dramatically shortened with an AI RFP strategy and specifically an AI application for RFPs), it's worth being thoughtful in writing your cover letter. Every little bit helps.
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