Enter the RFP Process at Your Own Risk

January 5, 2018

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[ralf kleeman]

The request-for-proposal process has earned a notorious reputation throughout the independent-practitioner community — for both its promise and its risk. The promise is that a successful RFP outcome can make an independent’s year, financially and professionally.

On the other hand, a negative outcome can leave an independent working to regroup after redirecting significant amounts of time and resources to an RFP, all for naught. Not to mention the sour taste that results from realizing the process may not have been fair.

Learning from experience

Wary of wasting their time, many independents follow a “no-RFP” business-development policy. I’m very selective myself, but even a cautious approach doesn’t always prevent problems.

I once received an RFP from an organization via someone I respected and trusted. Confident in the referral, I strove extra-hard to meet the potential client’s expectations in my RFP response. My proposal was intensely researched, extremely thorough, and went well beyond what any competitor was willing to do. I wasn’t just out to win it. I was out to kill it.

Deep into the RFP process, however — after the field had been narrowed to a few finalists — the other hopefuls and I were brought together for one of those joint meetings with the prospective client. That’s when I sensed that no matter how good my proposal was, the deck was stacked against it. The person I had trusted and respected appeared to have a horse in the race. A colleague of his was a member of another finalist’s team.

At first, I was willing to give the other finalist’s team the benefit of the doubt. But when it became clear that they hadn’t even taken the time to learn the decision-makers’ names before the meeting, I knew they weren’t prepared. And based on the questions they asked, it was also obvious that they had barely a rudimentary understanding of the issues involved.

Guess who won? Hint: It wasn’t my proposal.

Knowing the risks

When we don’t win RFP decisions, we tend to monitor the winning agency’s work for a while to see if any of our recommendations were used. We want to know if the better program won, and to learn what we can do better the next time. In this case, it was clear that the best program did not win.

When I talk to other independent practitioners, many have eerily similar stories about their experiences with requests for proposals. The RFP process can be a minefield for firms of any size, but it’s even more treacherous for independents because we have less capacity to invest excessive amounts of time, energy and resources with no assurances of a return.

Understanding the upsides

When you do win business from an RFP, however, it can elevate your firm to new areas of work with steady and higher revenue streams. While many independents refuse to respond to RFPs, I know some very successful ones who have built their businesses on clients they acquired through the RFP process.

For independents, it’s important to know the risks before going in. The best rule of thumb is similar to one that applies to financial investments: “If you can’t afford to lose it, don’t take the risk.” If you can’t afford to invest the time, energy and resources with the real possibility that you won’t see a return, maybe the RFP isn’t a good fit for you. But if you can, go for it.

Stay tuned. In next month’s column, we’ll explore what to do if you still want to make RFP responses an integral part of your business-development mix. 

Tim O'Brien, APR

Tim O’Brien, APR, owns O’Brien Communications, an independent corporate communications practice in Pittsburgh, and hosts the “Shaping Opinion” podcast. Email: timobrien@timobrienpr.com. Twitter: @OBrienPR.


Megan Kennedy says:

This hits close to home. Our small media firm has found some success with RFPs, however on alert of new opportunities, we always read them with an eye for indicative language... that perhaps there is a vendor in mind already, that the agency is simply going through the motions with no intention of a fair review process. It is a messy, time consuming business. And there are instances when the systems meant to give everyone (even the small or independent creatives) a shot actually hurt our businesses due to the expense of lost time and false promise. Thanks for the post!

Jan. 29, 2018

Robert H. Udowitz says:

Tim - We have lots of RFP advice on our blog for agencies and clients - https://www.rfpassociates.net/our-blog/. As a firm that specializes in the RFPs and connecting clients with agencies, we advocate for transparency and well-thought statements of work, along with a structured process.

Feb. 5, 2018

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