Francis Wade | Avoiding costly responses to RFPs
A juicy request for proposal (RFP) could be a dream or a nightmare.
As a business owner, how can you tip the scales in your favour so that you end up winning a higher percentage of better opportunities?
It comes as a pleasant surprise. A casual scan of The Gleaner reveals an RFP that fits your company's work. From all appearances, it's an easy shortcut - a lead which has fallen into your lap without any marketing effort.
Unfortunately, 'easy' is a misnomer. By definition, each RFP wastes the time, money and resources of losing respondents, who are in the majority. In the worst cases, they fail to be awarded so no-one benefits. How can you protect your firm from costly distractions? Here are three suggestions.
1. Adapt your approach to your offering
There's a big difference between responses to the following kinds of RFPs:
(a) a delivery of five computers;
(b) the installation of a new plumbing system;
(c) teaching a farm how to use different kinds of soil to grow better crops;
(d) helping a business overcome the sudden loss of its founder.
RFPs are ideal for commodities like example (a), which involve a tangible object delivered via a single transaction. Usually, price is the main criterion. In the case of its extreme opposite (d), that factor is modified by the length of the engagement. In this case, a mutual relationship of trust with the client organisation is critical.
Understanding these differences is the first step.
2. Read an RFP critically
If your product or service offering has a high relationship component (c) and (d) you must be wary about RFP's which are poorly written. They are the ones which treat all products or services as if they were just like a commodity (a).
Also, keep an eye out for the RFP which makes no attempt to stimulate your interest. The most basic ones are little more than cut-and-paste jobs from prior projects, intended for desperate vendors with a lot of time on their hands. They are the ones happy to gamble on an RFP, even though they know the odds of winning are low. They ask nothing of the prospect, even when obvious facts are missing.
Take note of these discrepancies. The client's lack of foresight is your opportunity to shine. For example, the company may not appreciate the trust and partnership required the make the project a success.
3. Act in an extraordinary way
Most vendors squander opportunities to forge a relationship with the company issuing the RFP. Don't be like them. Take the initiative to create a relationship as early as possible, much as you would a 'normal' prospect.
There are many approaches to take, even when the RFP limits them.
One ethical alternative is to ask the kinds of questions that make it obvious that your firm has specific insights that are critical to the success of the project. This not only builds credibility, it also allows you to subtly shift the decision criteria. Better yet, conduct such a Q&A session in person. Try to include decision-makers with who you need to with closely if your project is to succeed.
Regardless of what's written on paper, or espoused, you should understand that noone wants to work with people they don't like and trust. Your use of smart, caring questions can enhance both.
Of course, this strategy works if you actually do possess adequate expertise. That's why I recommend that you avoid RFPs where you can't demonstrate a significant difference in capability.
The fact is, your knowledge and experience usually far surpass that of your prospective clients. Their self-diagnosis is often piecemeal, while the decision-making process they intend to follow is likely to be crammed with more legalese than anything useful.
Given your experience, once you have made your best attempts to follow the above steps, don't rush to write the proposal. Sit back and ask yourself whether or not the project is adequately defined and if you have significantly improved the odds of winning. If you can create a checklist to help you think through the pros and cons, that would help.
As you may imagine, the greatest risks arise from unwritten, word-of-mouth RFPs. When responding, be prepared for random, unpredictable behaviour - the client may be protecting a preselected vendor. To prevent this problem, ask if there are additional bidders who have already been invited. For this and other reasons, it might be wise to cut your losses and walk away from unresponsive, inept, un-clientable companies.
If you proceed to respond, fill your proposal with unique insight and details that make you professionally proud. By eliminating the faults, you have made your best effort to make your involvement in the project a success.
- Francis Wade is a management consultant and author. To receive a Summary of Links to past columns, or give feedback, email: firstname.lastname@example.org