Oct 13, 2008

Not all Requests for Proposals are worth a proposal

In an earlier article we wrote about how you could increase your RFP win percentage by being selective about the Requests for Proposals that you choose to respond to. Writing a good proposal can take an inordinate amount of time, and when time = money, proposals can be expensive propositions.

So how do you know when is the right time to sit down and start writing a proposal response to a RFP?

Motivation, Motivation, Motivation

Organizations can issue a Request for Proposal for a variety of reasons; understanding the motivation behind the issuance can provide valuable insight into the RFP process. Each of the reasons below offers its own challenges, but some situations are preferable to others:
  1. looking for a first-time solution
  2. to replace an existing solution
  3. lower an existing (and preferred) vendor's price
  4. background research and justification
Situation 1 is a blank slate, which is good for you because you'll be able to fully describe why your solution is the right solution; the drawback is that the client may not be all that saavy to the what is needed for the project and what would constitute the best solution. Educate them and help them see why your solution is the best for them, but also find out who, if anyone, assisted them in the creation of their RFP as a Situation #3 might be in hiding.

Situation 2 typically comes when they have a solution already in place, but either are not happy with the vendor, outgrew their existing solution, or have money in place to replace it. The prospect will be more knowledgeable regarding their specific needs, but make sure to learn about the solution that they're looking to replace as it might turn into a headache for you down the road. Again, be wary of the Situation #3 in hiding.

Situation 3 is every vendor's worst nightmare since organizations will never tell you this is what's happening, yet you're wasting your time to help them justify a decision that has already been made to go with someone else's services. An honest organization will answer you if you ask them innocently "Is your existing vendor being invited to submit a proposal?"... analyze the answer carefully. Existing vendors will always have a leg up on the competition, dramatically reducing your chances of winning the project since they'll most likely not want two separate vendors supplying them with similar services or want to learn how to work with a new team.

Situation 4, while it might not seem ideal, can sometimes be the best option. By pushing the "education of the client" and a bit of personal legwork connecting with the organization, you might be able to help shape the resulting second issuance of the RFP which would be to to look for a solution that makes you the ideal vendor or even get the organization to bypass the competitive RFP process in favor of your services.

Sometimes you can determine which of the four situations it is by the questions asked and information sought in the RFP, but we prefer the direct approach: contact them! Establishing a personal connection is the first step to winning a project in a competitive procurement situation which is why it is regulated, at which point you will be limited to emails. Don't let this stop you from asking as many questions by email as you need.

Unreasonable Demands

Organizations can ask unreasonable questions or make unreasonable demands for what information is required in your proposal. A common request in our field is is to ask for design comps; they want us to give them a mockup of the site that we are pitching them, called "spec work". Besides it being recognized within our industry as a bad idea, organizations continue to ask for them. We refuse to provide designs on spec; will that put us at an insurmountable competitive disadvantage, even if we educate the client on this issue?

Other proposal requirements that we've come across and balked at have included:
  • $10,000,000 in liability insurance
  • Multiple years of our company's financial data
  • Stakeholder social security numbers, presumably for a background check
  • Extensive project details and fixed pricing for a poorly defined project
  • In-person interviews of the entire project team before a finalist(s) is chosen halfway around the country
  • Guarantees and warranties lasting up to a year on all work performed
All of these requirements factor into whether or not you'll want to write a proposal, but we recommend that you get in contact with the organization, explain to them your reticence to one of the requirements, and find out whether the requirement is a deal breaker.

Critique the Criteria

Organizations go into a RFP process with an evaluation criteria or, worse, undocumented preferences for what they are seeking. Take a good long look at the criteria and be critical and objective about how you'd score in their criteria. If the criteria is not specified, ask. And if you don't receive an answer, go with the basics:
  • proximity to the client
  • affordability to what you perceive as their budget
  • portfolio project similar or identical to their project
  • ability to successfully complete the project
Of course there will be additional evaluation criteria but we tend to believe these are the most common as well as the being The Big 4 in terms of a potential client's priorities.

Investing in the Odds

At any given moment we typically have a number of RFPs that we're considering for a proposal. Evaluate them all and apportion your time effectively so that you're not spreading yourself too thin to respond to a proposal that you have a lesser chance of winning. Spend that time more profitably and redouble your efforts by writing a killer proposal for the project that you have a good chance of winning.

Don't let the potential dollar signs blind you by putting a longshot project in front of a sure thing.