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Don't squander a great opportunity in the form of a bad RFP

by on April 18, 2009
Last updated on
It seems that every month another expert writes an article on how RFPs are bad for business, RFPs are a bad idea, top 10 lists of why you hate them, RFPs should be done away with because they increase risk and cost, and that RFPs will soon be extinct. I have theories about why these "experts" are all against RFPs, but in my opinion, let them go elsewhere and leave these business opportunities to the rest of us.

While I have a vested interest in Requests for Proposals in that I run the RFP Database, the consulting side of my company does respond to a few RFPs every month. I find them to be one of the most democratic, meritorious, and pragmatic approaches to procurement and purchasing. They're not a foolproof solution, and often times they are run poorly, but that's exactly why we recommend that you be selective in the RFPs you respond to.

We've all received a poorly written RFP at one point in time, often from an organization that we would love to have as a client. By poorly written what I mean is that:
  • the project is very poorly defined
  • has no stated budget or timeline
  • is looking for the vendor to define the project (strategic spec work)
There are many other factors that can lead you to consider the RFP as junk, but those are my top 3. Since most sales people typically have multiple RFPs infront of them at any moment these "junk RFPs" are the first to get disregarded as we move onto other opportunities that enable us to write a straightforward proposal. Our GO / NO-GO decision tree justifies the decision.

This can be an opportunity squandered.

I've read quite a few articles in recent days about huge projects that were awarded to companies after the organization received no more than 3 proposals. In almost all cases that I've read there was a common refrain: why didn't more companies bid on the project? Why didn't OUR company bid on the project? In the Austin project the RFP was sent to over 200 companies with only 3 proposals received, a response rate of less than 2%... if you had simply responded to the RFP you would have been "a finalist" so long as you were able to fulfill the requirements of the project!

Think about it: conventional wisdom would tell you to walk away from the RFP, to spend your time on better defined projects that you can write proposals tailored to the needs written in the RFP. RFPs that you can easily cut and paste from past proposals to create a response without spending too many hours of unbillable work. This "wisdom" is something that all good sales teams learn because it's seen as the most efficient use of your time and doing the extra work necessary to respond to a bad RFP hardly seems worthwhile. So they pass.

When everyone zigs, maybe you should zag.

My advice to you is this:
  • Try to get more information about the project
  • Explain how you'd first work with them to define the project better
  • Formulate what you envision the project to be and fill in the blanks
  • Propose alternative solutions that fulfill the requirements if some stated assumptions can be done better
  • Educate the prospect, illustrate how you're a subject expert
  • Press your best case
Use this opportunity, however poorly defined, as a way to both get your company in front of this prospective client, but also to get ahead of your competition since your competition has decided to opt out of responding. In some cases the simple act of responding with a qualified bid can make you a finalist; a thoughtful and well-written proposal can easily make you the winner. And at worst it can get your company's information to other decision makers within the organization that might want you for a different project.

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