When requests for proposals [RFPs] were invented, procurement departments were looking for a systematic way to find things they needed—primarily commodities—from reliable vendors at the lowest possible cost. The goal was to dispassionately compare one supplier to another against a set of criteria; to let cold, hard statistics determine which vendor would deliver the most profitable relationship; and to excise subjectivity and human emotion from the equation. Unfortunately, over time, the same methodology that proved useful in selecting vendors who supplied their products on pallets and freight trains gained favor in more nuanced services—like ours, marketing and event management.
To get right to the point, RFPs have been an unnecessary evil in business for too long. I say it’s time to take a stand against them.
Do Business With People You Like
Here’s the thing: RFPs take the human element out of a potential business relationship. One of our company’s distinguishing values is we’re fun people to be around. We happen to believe that, in the stressful, frenzied space where we transact our business, being likable, having manners and enjoying one another’s company leads to better outcomes and fewer blood pressure meds. If your request is for a sizable project—and most RFPs are—do you really want to face all of the long days, late phone calls and inevitable tight spots with twits and boors? RFPs don’t capture that kind of intel.
Recently a client and I were catching up. We’ve known each other for at least 10 years, and over the last few we have become friends. We’ve done some really good work for him. We trust each other, play golf together and generally enjoy each other’s company. I’ve also told him countless times that his company’s website could use a facelift. It’s not responsive, it’s disorganized and it is likely causing them to lose business. He agrees.
Last week I learned he’s considering an RFP. I don’t think it’s too late to talk him out of it.
RFPs Are Usually Written With a Solution In Mind
RFPs might make sense when you’re in the market for 20 million pounds of flour or 48 million feet of bubble wrap. But is it the best solution to identify a marketing or executive entertainment partner?
More often than not, I have found that RFPs are composed to fit a solution the writer already has in mind. One RFP we received for an e-commerce project stated the vendor had to use Shopify. After several meetings, we recommended an alternative solution, which was, admittedly, slightly more expensive. The winning vendor agreed to use what the client suggested. It was not us.
If you gain something from moral victories, there was some satisfaction later when we learned the company ended up using our recommended solution after failing the first time around, and our fee and original product recommendation would have been less than they ended up spending to correct the misstep. So there’s that. Of course you can’t make payroll with moral victories.
Even When You Win, You Don’t
We’ve been in this game long enough to know that new clients, and their budgets, are sometimes ethereal. But layer an RFP over this scene and things can go full Twilight Zone.
Here’s an RFP lifecycle we recently endured:
- The marketing department of an organization we had done work for has a need for marketing tools.
- The marketing department contacts procurement to issue an RFP.
- Procurement does what they’re told and writes up a document.
- The document is 42 pages to accommodate the organization’s legalese.
- Pages devoted to useful information about the project? Zero.
- Deliverables: 45 videos, an e-learning center microsite and an opportunity to change people’s lives by helping kids who have learning disabilities earn college scholarships.
- Procurement officer deploys the RFP through the vendor management system.
- Within minutes, every preferred vendor on their list (including us) receives an email about the project.
- We have significant experience in this category, respond to the request and, in fact, win the business.
Or do we?
- We are told we won the work within the predetermined budget.
- However, the marketing department forgot to request funding prior to issuing the RFP.
- Their marketing needs haven’t gone away, but the budget had not been cleared through the proper channels because procurement didn’t ask marketing the right questions before issuing the RFP.
- We politely thank them for the opportunity, back out of there and don’t look back.
Around here, RFPs are DOA.