The Dirty Secret of What Your RFP Says About You

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The RFP process is a terrible way to start a business relationship. It signals from the outset that you’re looking for a vendor instead of a partner.

It’s one of those things that communicates without you even being aware you’re communicating. Mostly it communicates that you’re going to be a major pain in the ass to work with.

For the uninitiated, an RFP is a Request for Proposal. It’s often used by huge entities like the Defense Department and other federal agencies to standardize the process by which they pick suppliers. Everyone gets the same criteria, everyone responds to the same questions and everyone (purportedly), is judged by the same standards.

And while it may indeed be an excellent way to requisition, say, tank parts, it’s a terrible way to engage a creative partner.

I hate RFPs. Most of my new business comes from people who know my work or know people who know my work. Absent that, they check out my credentials, review samples of my past work and meet with me to make sure I’m not some kind of oddball and that I “get it.”

In an RFP process, you spend a ridiculous amount of time answering a litany of questions and providing all the requested documentation in the specified format. And you’re up against other people who may or may not be telling the truth in their own bids.

Interestingly, the more detailed the RFP document is, the more ways there are to be evasive or find loopholes. People often bid low then load up extra charges late in the engagement when it’s too late and too messy for the client to back out. The more complex a system is, the easier it is to game.

You get no compensation for all the hours spent responding to the RFP and meeting to discuss it. Allegedly. The client will specify that they will not pay for the RFP process, but they do end up paying in one way or another. Everyone simply ups their bid to include the time spent. It’s not a line item, but it’s there.

And smart companies will tack on an extra 10 or 15% anyway, because an RFP also signals that the client is going to be difficult to work with, makes decisions by committee, and will probably micromanage every step of the engagement.

Ultimately, an RFP is a CYA document. (You can look that up if you don’t know that term either.) When the project goes awry, as it inevitably will, the person in charge of the decision can point to the hefty RFP document and  say, “Hey, I adhered to the established process” or “We selected the lowest bidder!”

So if you’re ever asked to fill out an RFP, run away.

2 thoughts on “The Dirty Secret of What Your RFP Says About You

  1. There are people in marketing departments of law firms who spend their entire day every day putting together responses to RFPs. Then the law firms turns around and stick it to others!

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