RFP's - Room for Improvement


The modern day experience of responding to RFP's has to be one of the toughest experiences for any sales team.  You work hard to build a relationship with a client.  The time comes when they are ready to buy what you have been discussing with them for the last 6 months.  And then you get an email titled, "Congratulations, you have been chosen to take part in an RFP."  What a punch in the gut.  The relationship went from being...well, relational, to completely transactional.  Its like finding out that your girlfriend in high school has 3 other boyfriends across town.  Ouch.  What you thought was a close relationship has now been relegated to strictly business.  I have experienced this many times.  RFP's have a somewhat troubled past in the business world.  I've heard them called the dreaded "RFP Process," or its "being opened up to RFP."  Like some company decided that they didn't have the best vendor in front of them and still need to play the field to see what else is out there.

A few years ago my team uncovered an opportunity to bring on a large chunk of business.  We were probably the most qualified participant in the RFP since the scope included our strongest offerings.  The details even contained a lot of our terminology and everyday verbiage we used around the product and our services.  You would think we were a shoe in right?  You can see where this is going.  We werent allowed a Q&A session about the details of what they wanted.  The request was very high level, the scope was very broad.  Regardless, we wanted the business.  We divided the request up into about 6 parts, handing off each section to one of my teammates to divide and conquer, each person working on their particular area of expertise.  After 8 weeks, our response was complete.  Even our highly crafted response seemed like it was missing the mark.  How could we respond to something when we didn't have all the details?  I know it sounds obvious now but we weren't in the best position to win this deal.

Its okay to say no to an RFP request.  Even if its one of your biggest customers.  True story: a very large client of ours came to us and asked us to take part in an RFP that they were about to release to the world.  The specific details of the request were right up our alley of expertise.  There would be no opportunity to ask questions.  All we were allowed to do was respond. Ahhh!!!  Right back on the crazy train.  In a bold move, our President said no.  Yes, NO!  The client was shocked.  No?  Is this a joke?  Actually it wasn't.  How can we respond to something that we don't have enough information to respond to?  Why should we burn a bunch of company resources on something that was half-baked.  The client asked us why we declined a response.  We responded with a request of our own.  Let us put one of our people on-site to do an assessment.  Find out what is really going on.  What the business really needs.  Then we will give you our response.  We won't charge you if you don't go with us.  If you do go with us, we will invoice you once the work begins.  Small risk on our part...some labor for a week.  Very little risk on their part.  With an NDA in place, we spent a week on-site.  Found out all kinds of information and issues that were not addressed in the RFP...formed a response of our own based on what we found out...do you think we won the business?  And they are a client to this day.  How come this is not the norm? 

I've been a part of a board for a company here in Denver.  I understand why RFP's are necessary.  Its the fiduciary responsibility of the leadership of any company to make sure they are spending company resources wisely and on the right things.   This is where things get sideways.  To me, RFP's are the direct result of a price driven conversation.  Price!  Which is important.  Of course, companies can't be spending money on an initiative without keeping this in mind.  But where is value in the conversation?  What is the impact on the business over the next year, 3 years, 10 years?  These questions need to be asked, and answered!!!  The RFP process only works when the vendor is allowed access to the real problems.  It can be work to let them on-site, give them access to the specific teams for interviewing and data mining.  But it is completely worth it.  The entire RFP process as it stands today is broken.  Talk to any salesperson and find out what they think about RFP's.  Its not positive to say the least.   If major things don't change in this area, your only chance is to make sure you are the one helping the customer write the RFP.  This is rare and requires a strong relationship, but it can be done.  

Next time you are offered an opportunity to take part in an RFP, ask these questions of yourself.  Did we in any way shape or take part in the writing of this RFP?  Does our offering align fully the request they are making?  Do we have a high probability of winning this?  Is there an opportunity to go on-site and assess the real issues addressed in this RFP?  Even though we might want or need the business, are we willing to say no if they don't give us an opportunity to learn more and ask questions about the RFP?  If you are not able to answer these quesitons confidently, you are better off moving onto other companies who are interested in the value conversation and looking for a partnership.