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RFP doesn't Mean Respect For People

oh boy! another rfp

Thoughts on Wasting Everyone’s Time

I get the occasional RFP (Request For Proposal)…it says so, right there in the subject line of the email! Oh the thrill… our next best customer just sought us out for no particular reason. High fives all around!

With two parts anticipation, one part skepticism, and the ubiquitous drum roll playing faintly in the back of my head, I open it up. Which version will I get? The one with 6 pages of fill in the blanks with information that is easily obtainable on our website, followed by 11 pages of requirements based on outdated SEO techniques? Or perhaps it’s the hyper-focused version where the requirements are so rigid that only the incumbent agency could be qualified?  

Oh, now I remember why I don’t typically respond to RFPs. I’m sure whomever wrote this was very proud of themselves. Lots of words, not much substance, with instructions about as easy to interpret as a credit card contract.

So, here’s what going through my mind:

Is the RFP a result of Policy? Is there some mandatory client policy where they need to get 3 or more proposals? This is almost always the case with government, and certain public contracts, but sometimes it’s just standard operating procedure. The concept of putting a contract up for bid is great for the host company to get the best agencies for their project needs, and it theoretically gives several agencies an opportunity to win business they might not otherwise had a chance with. If everything is on the up-and-up, your odds are only as good as the number of agencies competing for the prize.

Is there an incumbent? Am I being used as a pawn to give this client leverage with their current provider? I was recently asked by the president of another agency that we occasionally partner with on larger projects, to submit a losing RFP. Yes, you heard right, they were the incumbent, and their client asked THEM to get 2 more bids against themselves so they can check off the box and move forward and get down to business. In fact, they wrote the proposal for me and just asked that I email it in so as not to waste anyone’s time. Yes I played along because I didn’t want to waste another agencies’ time unnecessarily.

Do I know this client? If I don’t already have at least a peripheral relationship with the client, like a referral or a previous conversation, that means they probably found us through a superficial Google search, and we’re just another warm body to meet their requirements. The chance of winning the contract is almost zero.

Is this just an intelligence gathering tactic? I’ve talked with clients who admit they occasionally send out RFPs as a form of brainstorming to gather ideas for potential solutions that they plan on managing internally.

There goes an hour of productivity just for filling in the blanks. Of course I can always look forward to the unforeseeable hours of developing proposed solutions based on lofty goals and dubious background information. It’s a bit of a crap shoot. It’s like going to Las Vegas and rolling the dice…except in this case, I have to first manufacture the cubes, and hand paint each of the spots on all six sides.  In actuality I do appreciate the opportunity, the best client we’ve ever had, came from an RFP. I should at least consider it.

How do I really Handle RFPs?

If it’s something in our wheelhouse, like the glass or education industries…or something intriguing that requires a complex inbound marketing solution, I will probably take the next step.

For me, the next step is not filing out the RFP, it would most likely be to contact the client through email or a phone call asking for clarification on one or two strategic points. I assure you that I am actually looking for that clarification, but I also want to get a feel for the client. How serious are they? Do I get a warm fuzzy from the conversation, and is it someone I want to build a relationship with?

If I walk away with the sense that I understand what they really need more than they do, I might run a few ideas by them and ask if the RFP structure must be strictly adhered to. If they’re OK with me free-styling it, I might write the proposal based on how I would approach their needs rather than on the formality of the RFP.

If on the other hand, they don’t reply to my email, or give me a substantive response to my questions in any way, I would assume they are not as serious as I am, and that this will be a waste of my time.

Why RFPs aren’t much better for the Client:

There isn’t a tremendous amount of downside for the client, particularly if they are just checking off the RFP requirement box. But even if they are serious, the format of the RFP may be stifling creative ideas, and the client just winds up with a collection of mediocre proposals to solve an unconfirmed issue.

If the client was truly serious, they would certainly want to get a feel for each of the agencies they are considering. They aren’t doing themselves any favors by having their initial evaluation essentially be a “fill-in-the-blanks” questioner. After all, hiring an agency like us is a bit of a marriage, and we should probably go out on a date or two first.

RFPs may work for buying commodity items like office furniture or airplanes, but not so much for buying professional services like consulting or advertising. Ultimately the cost of responding to a RFP is high, and the probability of winning the contract is low.

Before you start spraying RFPs into cyberspace, consider picking up the phone and getting a feel for the agency, and giving them a fair chance to get a feel for you. Who knows…you might come away with information and ideas that your form couldn’t possibly uncover.

If you’ve sent out RFPs, or like me have responded to RFP’s, how did that work for you? I’d love to hear your experiences below ↓

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