RFP is Not a Four-Letter Word

Photo by Derk Purdy, via FlickrSome time ago, we were looking for someone to help us through the discovery phase of our website upgrade project. We issued a “Request for Proposals.” Phase 1: Show us that you have experience. Phase 2: If we’re interested, we’ll set up a meeting, you make your pitch, and we decide.

We got responses from some great firms. We ended up picking a really good one, and it was a great project.

But some consultants we wanted to hear from said, “I don’t do RFP’s.” Seth Godin recently wrote, “If it gets to the RFP stage, you lost.”

How did the RFP get such a bad rap?

When I worked for a marketing agency, we responded to tons of RFP’s, from public and private clients. Some we won, some we didn’t. Most were fair, but not all of them. That’s life.

I think I understand the issue.

RFP’s conjure memories of horrible rule-driven, price-based procurement. Public agencies are especially bound by these rails. The people I know who work in government don’t love them, but they have no choice. It’s torture, but it’s the law.

But simply winging it is not the answer for someone like me – believe me, I’ve learned that the hard way. So I need some process to cast a wide net, review multiple proposals, and make a smart decision. So I’ll call it an un-RFP.

I’m looking for help on a different project these days. When I sent out a notice last week on a few ASAE listservs, I was careful not to call it an RFP. I didn’t want to scare anyone away. I asked for names of consultants or agencies who could help us with a particular problem. I got lots of responses – not surprising in this economy.

I want someone who seems best suited to help us with our problem.

I want to make a decision based on the facts, not emotion, so there is some structure, but not a lot.

I want to be fair. So to the greatest degree possible, it’s transparent. I don’t share who’s bidding, but I do share the criteria and the process.

Price is surely a factor, but not the dominant factor. In fact, we have often turned down the lowest bid, because we thought someone else who cost more would do a better job.

So how do I find the best people for my project? Probably by doing exactly what I did –  I asked my professional community for advice.

But please – if you see a little structure or process behind the request, don’t freak out. It’s part of the game I need to play.

Besides, how you handle the review says a lot about how you’ll handle the project.


9 thoughts on “RFP is Not a Four-Letter Word

  1. Frank,

    As a consultant who rarely responds to RFPs, I’ll share my reasons with you. They include:

    * RFPs are appropriate for acquiring commodities but not for services that depend upon effective professional relationships, such as consulting;
    * Many RFPs are prescriptive, dictating a solution to be fulfilled rather than objectives to be achieved;
    * RFPs sometimes have incorrect or weak objectives given what the organization is actually trying to achieve;
    * RFPs encourage decisions based on price rather than fit, despite the best of intentions.

    RFPs for consulting in this style may lead to a lot of action but often fail to deliver results, in my experience.

    My approach is to have a discussion with the client about the objectives they hope to achieve. We work together on clarifying and honing those. We then look for measures of success on those objectives and the value of achieving them.

    Once we have conceptual agreement on those three items and agree these are worthy of a consulting engagement, I am ready to write a proposal that provides a tailored solution to the unique scenario they describe. This collaborative approach allows us to assess our fit for each other and creates better results.

    Requiring a proposal before talking skips the most important element of the process and locks you into methodology that may not be appropriate for you.

    David Gammel

  2. * Many RFPs are prescriptive, dictating a solution to be fulfilled rather than objectives to be achieved;
    * RFPs sometimes have incorrect or weak objectives given what the organization is actually trying to achieve;

    David, you are absolutely right…
    This exactly why our firm refuses to fill out long RFP’s, they do not fit our beliefs because they do not encourage creative thinking or more efficient/successful solutions. Instead we prefer to have a discussion with the potential client and discuss what their needs are so way may offer our expertise from the beginning hopefully saving them money and creating the possibility of superior result.

    I would also like to add that RFP’s assume that all firms are created equal which is never the case. Instead of leveraging the strengths of the firm you are instead forced to do what the RFP has asked for.

    One of the first things I did when when we launched our new website was to write a blog article on why RFP’s are outdated. I believe that article is relevant so you may view it by visiting: http://www.associadirect.com/archives/why-rfps-hurt-everyone-involved/

  3. OK, we’ve heard loud and clear from a two consultants – the people selling services.
    What about the service purchasers (i.e., “vendors”) out there? What do you think?

  4. As a person in engineering/information technology marketing, I see RFPs a lot and have to respond to them on a weekly basis.

    The problem I typically see is not to blame on the RFP itself. I mean, the blame first lies with the people writing the RFP, rather than the tool or the process.

    1. People from purchasing are writing the RFP instead of the people who actually need the service. This creates a problem in which all sorts of conflicting, poor objectives/scope, etc. are inserted into an RFP.
    2. People are trying to set the RFP up in such a way as to favor a particular firm. Its usually very subtle, but there are a lot of small tricks that agencies will play to make sure that only their “favored son” makes it in the final round.
    3. People mixing up RFQ, RFP, and IFB. All seperate terms that mean different things, yet some agencies still can’t use the right one for the right service. This can mean the difference between an agency getting the best deal or the best to perform the service.
    4. People varying from the RFP. Typically this involves some firm buying their way into the process, halfway through changing the scope because of #1, etc. Doesn’t happen very often, but its enough that most people in the industry have some story or another about it.

    This doesn’t mean that it doesn’t make it worth it to fill out RFPs. Many agencies seem to be getting more conscious of the time and effort put into these things and are streamlining them. Plus, I’ve talked with many procurement officers who say they can’t stand those “book responses” and so will say right in the RFP that it is limited to 50 pages or less. They’re also much more conscious of how much time they are spending to read those books as well – so its good for us.

    I thought your post was very insightful and talked about using the modern RFP – qualifications and abilities being more heavily weighted than price but still very objective in your choices.

    Now if only I could talk a few government agencies into writing their RFPs like that… 🙂

  5. David Gammel says, “My approach is to have a discussion with the client.” Well, how does the client select you for that discussion?

    Whether you call the process an RFP or something else, you still need a method of attracting potential vendors and a system for screening them. You should not just call someone because you have a relationship with them. They may not be the best choice.

    The problem is asking for a whole lot of information before talking with anyone. That’s a big turn-off, especially to folks who don’t need the business.

    I’ve asked peers for referrals and often used that as my starting point. It gave me a pool of trusted professionals to consider. I never used written RFPs. That’s not “winging it.” It’s using your management skills to make the right selection.

  6. I linked to some good pro and con debates about this issue here – http://www.diaryofareluctantblogger.com/2008/09/kill-rfp.html.

    Personally, as a strategy consultant I rarely respond to rfp’s , but that’s partly because my job is to help people figure out what it is they actually want to do. I’m lucky in that I have carved out a nice specialized niche for myself and find that being referred by professional colleagues to someone who needs social media strategy work is far more compelling than filling out an RFP and being compared to others’ filled out RFP’s – especially because I am building a very specific brand personality which might be seen by some as non-traditional. So in other words I have no idea how to fill in all the miscellaneous, extraneous stuff that often is included in an RFP. For example – want a positioning statement? Look at my website and read my blog. It might require a little more work on your part, but you will see a vast amount more information, and references, about what I do and what I write and who has referenced my work, than any summary I could write up.

    So I guess what I am saying is that the RFP format doesn’t allow me to showcase that I am right for the job, if I am right for the job. I’d rather wait for other people to say “you gotta call SocialFish, this is what they do really well”, then have a half hour conversation.

  7. I agree with Frankie – the problem is with how the RFP is written, not with the RFP itself. Some RFPs require so much hoop jumping. I have to ask–is that really the key information that will help make the decision? Then I wonder if they’re doing the same thing to their members…hmmmm.

    Frank – I think you’re absolutely right to want some structure. You’re clearly going about this in a very thoughtful way. That’s what’s important. A good RFP is valuable for both the requester and the respondent.

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