What if An RFP was a First Date?

When I say “RFP” I am using the acronym for Request for Proposal to also encompass RFQs (Request for Quotes), RFIs (Request for Information), and any of these other solicited proposal synonyms. There are plenty of arguments from the provider’s side on why you shouldn’t waste your company’s valuable resources responding to RFPs. First and foremost being that if you are doing good business, your brand & reputation should beget more work than you can responsibly scale to handle. The bang for your buck compiling RFP responses versus other contemporary channels of new business generation has long been understood to be minimal – yet agencies, dev shops, and software providers continue to feed the machine, why? I believe it’s a customer-side perpetuated illusion that you can somehow get a project proposal submitted via RFP process where you’ll be luck enough to be one of <some low number> under the radar submissions a be the shining star winning a fat, long-term, big-figure client land in your lap. This angle has been long argued under the “Why I Never Reply to RFPs” headline – however many customers fail to consider what type of awful providers this type of approach renders. If you consider the analogies between “RFPing” and dating to spark a long-term relationship there are several flaws made painfully apparent.

You Can’t Spec Character

No matter how much time you spend attempting to make your RFP process or build requirements “air-tight” you can’t require a provider to care about your project. In my experience, what finishes projects and takes them from functional to fucking yeah! is one or more people actually giving a shit enough at the end to push that extra 5-10%. Project success lives there, they are are made and broken within that 10%, so if your provider doesn’t care about your project that 10% won’t happen. The tendancy to attempt inclusion of project work into the RFP to gain confidence is obsturd. All it does is factor out good agencies that aren’t going to do work for free and flood your responses with boiler-plate jargen. There is no way to ascertain character from an RFP. All a good RFP submission tells you is how good that company is at responding to RFPs – which actually has several potential conflicts with being a reputable service provider. It’s like going home with whoever has the best pick-up line of the night, does that tell you ANYTHING (good) about their relationship abilities?

They Don’t Save Time

One misnomer about RFPs from the customer side is that they somehow save time. Instead of having to go out and individually vet these providers we can get them to all come to us. The problem is that these neat bundles of 20 page textual fodder now cause paralysis through analysis. Committees are formed, review boards are initialized, and before you know it the 6 month website project has turned into a 9 month RFP triage. You can’t protect yourself from getting hurt by pre-qualifying or screening candidates, no matter how stringent. You protect yourself from being burned via your behavior, actions, & re-actions during the process – whether developing a professional or personal relationship.

Slippery & Slimy

One of my hypothesis is that there is an RFP use case where some organization out there supposes to themselves,

“We need a new website & SEO strategy – let’s send out an RFP, it’ll get picked up on the wire, we’ll get a million responses, gather up the ideas we think are best from each, and make the lowest bidder build all of it for us…we might not even have to PAY FOR the SEO strategy!”

and for a short while think they are the smartest people on the planet for having come up with this original concept. Saving a summary of why you can’t spec character, no one is going to give you anything but sour milk for free – or at least milk you could find yourself on Twitter. At the end of the day, what have you ended up with? A bargain basement provider that probably can’t execute (at least well) on the majority of what you’re asking them to do.

What if the RFP WAS the Personal Ad?

The sales process is very analogous to a romantic relationship, a ton of jargon like “courting a prospect” bleeds into sales speak when talking new business. Considering the RFP process – a type of way to solicit, vet, & engage a service provider – as instead a way to identify & obtain a romantic partner, and the worst parts of it become truly exposed.

So imagine if your first interaction with an individual named Pat was a 25 page personal ad that outlined to the pixel what they did (and did not) want in a partner. Full of ultimatum and explicit consequence, beyond replying with your social security number, photo copy of your driver’s license and last 3 years of bank statements – you’re required to submit plans for your potential wedding, blueprints for your first house, and sketches of your children’s bedroom designs on a pogo stick in Central Park wearing a poke-a-dot tutu precisely at 10:23:44pm next Wednesday. Might sound ridiculous but trust me I’ve seen some strange requirements in RFPs.

The advertisement also explains each applicant will have a mock-up 15 minute relationship including a brief sexual encounter before they make their final decision in a series of 3 rounds.

Hilarious, but let’s dissect…

Think about Pat and their traits:

  • Controlling of their counterparts
  • High expectations with unrealistic criteria
  • Want to define the problem & solution at the same time.
  • They’re extremely insecure, potentially from being burned before

NOW think about the people Pat attracts:

  • They’re all hoop-jumpers! They blindly execute any task submissively douting on their instructor – is that really what you want in a provider you’re hoping to come in with honest integrity to let you know where the best improvements can be made or offer solutions in excess of what your internal team can (has time to) produce?
  • All of that data & info before you’ve even danced? This really hangs the suitor out there exposed for the taking – what’s to say Pat doesn’t just want a bunch of house blue-prints for free? Either the suitor’s plan/drawing/blue-print submissions are canned, un-original, or they’ve incurred some of the relationship expense just to have the hope of it beginning.
  • The process doesn’t actually vet the suitor for anything but how well they can pogo stick.
  • Constantly seeking approval, it establishes a subordinate hierarchical relationship opposed to peer entities collaborating.

Now Pat takes all of the character traits, date suggestions, blueprint components, etc they like best from each respondent – and asked the most physically attractive one,

“So, I want to date you – can you do all this for me?”

and the respondent in their chasing glory says, “Absolutely, let’s get started tomorrow” – and their relationship begins doomed from the gate!

Alternatives

So if RFPs suck for everyone – what’s the alternative to vet potential providers? Well, here are a few that address specific concerns you may have as a customer:

  1. Random Client Sampling (“No, pick A DIFFERENT card”): Instead of asking for 2 or 3 references of clients – for which every agency typically has a few they butter-up to be glowing – ask for a list of their clients & YOU pick 2-3 at random and request contact information. If the provider is full disclosure & the references come back savvy – great sign they have nothing to hide & they do right by their clients.
  2. Random Team Sampling (“” “”): Instead of interacting with the polished salesman, randomly pick a few team members from LinkedIn or their corporate team page. Request to have a quick chat with them about the projects &amp; company. Just the initial reaction of guarded sensitivity versus an open minded approach will tell you leagues about the inner culture of the organization and given the opportunity you’ll be able to glean a clearer picture from the team’s unpolished answers.
  3. Completed Project(s) By The Numbers: Ask to see a few of their most recent projects, once the provider has volunteered the examples – ask to see those specific project’s project plan breakdown, at a high level showing budget, timeline, & milestones: reality vs. planned. If they have no idea what you’re talking about this may be a red flag – but ideally any provider would be able to show you a proposed vs. actual project timeline and discuss how and why they differ.
  4. Portfolio Legacy Team: When presented with a case study or portfolio project example that you like ask to speak to the team responsible for delivering the project, if they’re not available ask to interview the lead – the goal here is to gain insight into whom from the agency worked on the project that went well (so you can request them for yours) and assess turn-over (If the award-winning designer from the example project has moved on, they may not be able to deliver again). You can also get from the horses mouth not just the results but how potentially bumpy the ride was along the way.
  5. Capacity: Capacity is a function of resources and current demand, many times RFPs ask for the size of the company, project team, dedicated resources, etc but ignore asking what is the provider’s current workload. Asking about meeting the team & people you’ll be working with & what their typical demands are currently – being able to interact & trust them in the long run is way more important than your sales executive.

Let’s Evolve

RFPs are very much the 80′s businessman of the new era – they’re a tool to support an antiquated & awkward sentiment that requiring an unnecessary amount of work by the potential provider in order to have them “prove” themselves somehow qualifies them and provides some assurance the plan provided can be delivered. Modern provider relationships are forged on a two-way street, where both parties are best served to look both ways twice by testing human interactions before crossing into a professional business relationship.

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