Why do your Data Centre Proposals Fail?

The statistics are clear – the demand for data centre services is growing fast.

The question is though, are you seeing a commensurate increase in your own sales success?

If not, then you should read on.

Responding to an RFP

I have lost count of how many times I have seen data centre service providers produce a proposal that is clearly doomed to failure.

In fairness, of course not all losses are due to errors of approach. We all know there are cases where the RFP is largely a token activity for compliance reasons, with the decision already having been made.

However, focusing on problems you can’t control or influence is futile. In reality, there are very large numbers of cases where the process is open and potential providers simply don’t position themselves for success.


In what follows, I’m going to explore some common failings that might explain why you’re not getting the hit rate you require out of your proposals.

Read the RFP!

It’s amazing how often companies issue a response where by page 2 or 3, it becomes blatantly clear that they simply haven’t fully read the original RFP.

There is absolutely no excuse for this. You must read the original RFP and show that you have read it in your response. Specifically:

  • respond to all the questions raised – even if you believe them to be irrelevant or misguided. Never simply ignore or ‘miss’ a question/requirement. If you can’t respond to a point, say why not;
  • if the RFP asks for a format to be used, do so;
  • always submit your response through the channels requested. Don’t try to circumvent the process by petitioning a more senior or another person in the company you happen to already know etc. This can cause major resentment and ill-feeling should you be perceived to be trying to bypass the chain of command. Note – this does not mean you should avoid networking inside the potential client as part of your overall sales engagement activities (see below).    

Do your account intelligence/due-diligence/sales engagement

Sitting down to write a proposal based exclusively on a reading of an RFP is theoretically possible but it’s unlikely to be a platform for a successful outcome.

Your proposal must be credible. In order to be so, you need to know the target client’s business and show that you do by making as many statements as possible that link your proposal directly to their business situation. Specifically:

  • use Q&A sessions to hone your understanding of their RFP. This is best done face-to-face, as that gives you the opportunity to sell your own knowledge and build an embryonic relationship. If the client declines face-to-face, as some will, use video calls and/or questionnaires to get the information you need;
  • move around and build contacts within the client – if possible. Your primary contact might be say a senior IT person but you will benefit if you gain a broader understanding of, for example, the financial assessment criteria as seen by the CFO or other senior people in Finance. You’ll also be building visibility with key influencers in so doing;
  • if possible, avoid getting pushed into a sole contact/conduit into the company situation;
  • don’t overlook Procurement. We have significant commercial influence over the client’s final decision, so understand our requirements too.
  • do as much as you can to understand the end to end RFP/tender process and the factors affecting the decision making process; therefore position yourself and respond appropriately.  

This all has a concrete purpose in helping you fill in the holes in your understanding to permit the production of a fit-for-purpose proposal. Much of the technique here should be standard sales engagement practice.

Identify your audience and recipients – speak their language

It’s linked to the above but for emphasis, I’ll say again here that two things may be critical for your success probabilities:

  • you need to identify who will be making the decision;
  • identify also the key influencers. Keep in mind, key influencers can sometimes be surprisingly far down in a company’s hierarchy. For example, sometimes a CEO will give great weight to the advice of a relatively junior IT technical specialist, over and above the CIO’s input.

Typically, co-location decisions may ultimately be made by the CEO or the Board, with the CIO and other senior IT personnel’s recommendation.  

This can make the choice of language difficult but you need to get it right.

My advice here is to keep the executive summary and commercial proposition heavily inclined towards the business issues and metrics – notably cost/benefits. Keep the technical detail for responding to the specific questions which requires that type of response.  

Link the response to the client’s key concerns and prioritised objectives

During the sales engagement and market intelligence gathering phase, be sure you understand the client’s key objectives.

Critically, you must ensure that your response is in sync with your analysis of their needs. In other words, major on your capabilities, as they will deliver against the client’s prioritised objectives.

Frankly, too many proposals I have seen appear to spend a lot of time talking about things that the provider is interested in, rather than those the client is. Speaking at great length up-front about your capabilities in ‘XYZ’, when that is priority number 27 from your client’s perspective, is a very fast turn-off.

Presentations and Site Visits

If you have done well enough to be shortlisted for a presentation slot, it’s imperative that you have an agreed agenda which fits the scheduled duration as you may only have one shot to impress.  Make sure that the all Client’s key concerns are met during the presentation or at least tracked to be responded to at a later date.  Be prepared to run flexible presentations as executive management often want to address particular points in person rather than leave it to their team.  

If the presentation is coupled with a site visit, make sure everything runs as you stated within your proposal.  For example, the security access protocols must be evident to the client visitors.  

Be honest

Few data centres are immune from outages and downtimes.

Be proud of your availability stats and present them but also be prepared to acknowledge some of your challenges. Show how they compare favourably to industry standards (assuming they do of course!).

Stress scalability and flexibility

We operate in a volatile and unpredictable world. Many clients will be worried, even if they don’t openly express it, about the risk of solutions turning into an inescapable straight-jacket for the future.

So, make sure your response shows flexibility for future ‘what if’ situations. Show that you’ll stand or fall by your services and would help the client to migrate to another provider if required in future.

Prepare credible references

This should be obvious but it is often overlooked.

Make sure they’re mentioned in the response and that they are credible organisations.

Remember, a major multi-million enterprise will be looking for references it can relate to. In such cases, the harsh fact of life is that offering a small company with 10 employees just won’t cut it.

Allocate an account manager

This might be normal practice but surprisingly, it doesn’t always result in tight response management. However – it must.

Having different people from your organisation calling or visiting the prospect might be necessary, as demanded by their unique skill sets. Allowing that to happen in an unmanaged fashion though can result in embarrassing ‘right-hand, left-hand’ situations and the perception from the client that you’re not running a tight ship.

Remember, the client’s views as to your potential provider credibility will be formed initially by how well you manage and deliver the response to the RFP. If they see chaos there, then they’re unlikely to believe you’ll be capable of doing anything better in a data centre service context.

Be absolutely explicit about power supply bundles and related issues

Significant numbers of proposals are demolished by clients with a few simple questions.

This is usually avoidable, so make sure you’re not humiliated in this fashion by being very clear about what they’re getting in real rather than theoretical power terms.

By way of just a few examples:

  • If you have sold them a rack (or other unit) based on a maximum capacity of ‘n’ amps and ‘y’ kW, be clear at what percentage availability and over what time period. Selling 10kW when your overall site assumes only 80% of that could be provided for 75% of the working day might be fine but that must be made clear – not exposed by subsequent client questions;
  • if you’re offering dual A/B circuits, be open about what component of the power you’re selling them can be delivered over which. If you can guarantee 100% on ‘A’ but only 75% on ‘B’ – say so;
  • in situations where your UPS fails, confirm if the A and B circuits are on the same or different UPS.

The specifics here will vary hugely depending upon an individual proposal but the point should be clear – subsequent client questions should not make it look like you either don’t understand your own proposal or worse, that you were deliberately trying to hide things.  


Finally, whatever your pleas to the contrary might be, the very first thing many readers of a response will turn to is the pricing.

There is no universal solution to this because your figures may be fairly firm or more commonly with a first response, much less so.

However, little will generate a faster negative reaction to your response than where the pricing does not conform to the template provided or are so complicated as to make them totally unintelligible.

I’ll share some advice here based on knowledge of how clients respond to proposal pricing:

  • do not amend the pricing template provided with the RFP/tender
  • if given the latitude, prepare some form of easy-to-read cost summary tabulation. Keep it as simple as possible;
  • differentiate between fixed and variable pricing. Show where the client has some leverage to reduce actual bills where possible;
  • depending upon the exact nature of your proposal, try to give a price indication per kW or kWh for the power consumables. Many clients now look for this by rack, cage or overall. They’ll use it as one of the bases of a cross comparison between your proposal and others;
  • don’t hide or obscure pricing. Clients who start getting bills for unanticipated amounts (or who spot holes in your proposal in this respect) are rarely happy;
  • make absolutely sure the client understands any ‘lock-in’ implications. So, if your pricing could go up by 20% in year-2 of a contract, highlight that. We in procurement, take a dim view when have to sieve through the fine detail or subtext to spot any such issues;
  • explicitly highlight any potential pricing that have been deliberately and even legitimately excluded. Post-contractual billing exchanges of the “Oh, so you wanted cooling as well?” really don’t play well. Even if you’ve won the contract, termination may be around the corner.

The bottom line on pricing is very simple, your proposal must be clear and show unconditionally that it accurately represents the post-agreement billing reality.

The vaguer your pricing presentation is, the more caveats it contains and the harder it is to understand, the lower the likelihood of you winning the contract.