It is no surprise to any B-toB (business to business) professional that the business is becoming more competitive and that opportunities are harder to come by with each passing year. So, it is understandable that when the mail brings a solicitation to respond to an RFP (Request for Proposal), that many pounce at the chance to share their creativity, business sense, and vision. Unfortunately, if the receiver was not involved in establishing the request in the first place, the chances of a successful outcome that leads to the job are rather dismal.
The RFP process is designed to level the playing field for all respondents by providing the same information to all those being solicited. In so doing, none of the respondents is afforded an advantage or insider knowledge, unfair access to decision-makers, or insight into the process that is not available to any other supplier or vendor. By keeping all of those in receipt of the request; the belief is that the submitted responses can be evaluated and judged on a more objective standard.
Within the company seeking the responses, the process is supposed to be so above-board and fair, that it can withstand challenges of providing one vendor with different treatment than all others. The same standards are shared with all respondents and the same metrics for evaluating the responses are provided for all to see. There are no surprises as to what is expected by way of a response or how it will be judged.
The Peek Inside
If the truth be known, in many instances (not ALL), the entire process is partially or even completely rigged to slant in the direction of a particular vendor company. An objective review of the situation would uncover:
- This is a situation where the prospective client has identified their “issue” or “problem” that they wish to have resolved or addressed. While they may be quite correct in their assessment, because they rarely allow further questions or access to the person or persons who made that determination, this is quite similar to a patient self-diagnosing herself.
- Further, the client often then dictates what the appropriate solution to their self-diagnosed issue should be to resolve their predicament. So, not only has the “patient” self-diagnosed; but is now also prescribing what they need. How many competent physicians would cheerfully go along with that approach without benefit of conducting an examination of the patient?
- Then, while the RFP will often have some clause about pricing not being the most important consideration in evaluating responses (wording may refer to cost-effective being valued over cheapest); there is a pressure to sharpen pencils and deliver the lowest price possible because there are numerous others responding to the same competitive bid.
What is a more likely outcome here is that the prospective client has either pre-determined what they need to have done and which vendor is to provide that service (often with the help of that vendor in crafting the RFP so that the “what counts factors” are heavily favoring that particular vendor’s capabilities, ability to meet tight timeframes, or unique offerings), or the RFP is being sent out by members of the prospective client organization that are hoping to get some free education and insight for a project that doesn’t currently exist, is not budgeted for, and is not a priority for the company. However, at the expense of suppliers that are eager to pitch their thoughts and approaches to a prospect that appears to have a “live” project, the internal employees will gladly take meetings and arrange for “reviews” of proposals. All the while, taking copious notes to further refine their understanding, possibly steal ideas for use on other projects, or to gain a better sense of possibilities. Is it “dirty?” You bet. But, it happens.
So, What to Do?
If one of those happy envelopes should arrive in your mailbox congratulating you on being chosen as one of the select few vendors approved to submit a proposal to a company, consider doing the following:
- Ask the contract administrator listed on the document how they got your name and why you were selected. Have you worked with them before? Do you know any of the people at that client organization? Do you specialize in the work being requested? If you did not know of this opportunity before, it is likely that you are being asked to submit a response so that the client organization can claim under the veneer of impartiality to have chosen fairly (and not your company!).
- Request a meeting with the appropriate senior executives to discuss their needs and expectations (often, this will be prohibited within the rigor of the RFP protocol). If refused, consider the likelihood of success. If they will not allow you to confirm your understanding nor give you access to people within the firm to correctly diagnose and prescribe – what is the potential that you are going to have a successful bid?
- Call a senior executive at the company anyway and attempt to discuss the RFP. In a few instances, you may get them to talk with you. They may or may not have been a part of the construction of the original RFP (even if they are aware of it, it may have been delegated to a lower level employee). See if you can “re-diagnose” and “re-prescribe” based on a different set of criteria than the original RFP stated. This is a low percentage opportunity, but it is also one that is better than responding to a “blind” RFP that you were not a part of creating.
While RFPs may cause you to be giddy when they arrive because you are being solicited and did not have to chase the business, the reality of it is often that it is a path to a lot of work with very small chance of a return.