RFP = Really Flawed Plan

Pintail An RFP or “request for proposal” has long been one of the standard ways that clients look for business partners.

I can only conclude that businesses and government departments continue to use them because they can’t figure out a better way.  It’s a lot like playing pin the tail on the donkey.

The RFP process is flawed from the get go.  Its very structure forces the bidding companies to either blow smoke up your skirt or actually be brave enough to be honest about how little they can tailor their answers to you — because they don’t know anything about you yet.

Of course, I’m coming at this from the marketing/advertising agency’s point of view, but I suspect the same could be said about any service provider RFP. 

No one wants cookie cutter solutions, but the RFP process begs for them.  I don’t care how much factual information your committee tries to pack into the RFP, it is no substitute for sitting in a room with you, picking your brain, talking to your customers, interviewing your employees and observing your processes.  We learn more in the interactions, discussions and exploring process than you could ever capture in the “current situation” section of an RFP.   

There are nuances and uncovered truths about your marketing challenges that need to be discovered before any good agency can truly impact your business or your bottom line.

Would you send a prospective physician a written document, describing a pain in your neck and expect him to accurately diagnose your ailment and prescribe a treatment?

Why is choosing a business partner any different?

Flickr photo courtesy of  eszter

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14 comments on “RFP = Really Flawed Plan

  1. Designer Mike says:

    As a designer, I HATE RFPs. I usually am given a very tight deadline and little or no background information to base a design solution from. It’s a very political process and I feel that the majority of the time the client knows what agency they will use already. It’s a legal thing, just like getting quotes for government contracting work.

  2. Mike,

    I’ve yet to meet anyone in our business who looks forward to another RFP.

    I dislike them because they don’t really allow the client to make an informed or wise choice.

    So it seems like a whole lot of work for a bad result.

    Drew

  3. I don’t use them and don’t like responding to them. I’d rather have a productive chat and really get to 1/what they want, 2/what they need, and 3/the real budget they’ve got allocated.

  4. Roberta,

    It’s an age old debate, I believe, among our profession. I have friends who own agencies who refuse to even open the envelope. And others who live and die by the RFP.

    If the business would be a good fit for us, we do answer them. But we answer them in a very MMG way. Which no doubt scares some and excites others.

    Maybe that’s how we filter out who would be a good client. If we can’t scare them away…they’re a good fit!

    Drew

  5. Jeff says:

    “Would you send a prospective physician a written document, describing a pain in your neck and expect him to accurately diagnose your ailment and prescribe a treatment?”

    And so it was written, the best response to why you should not send an RFP I have ever seen. The only thing that comes close, and it is not a response to that question but rather a comment is: “RFPs (request for proposals) are the public access cable channel of the business world. Some come in the form of a well thought-out, concise plan while others are birthed from a horrible Microsoft Word template. And then there are my personal favorites which tell you absolutely nothing of the scope of work but request a cost estimate anyway.” From http://www.airbagindustries.com/archives/airbag/scope.php

    I think the time is right for re-educating the whole of the business world on the use and misuse of RFPs.

  6. Jeff,

    Thanks for the kudos.

    I understand most businesses issue an RFP because they don’t know what else to do. And that chosing an agency is difficult and a little scary. But these are people you are going to trust a great deal of money to. Shouldn’t it be difficult and a little scary.

    How do you propose we re-educate? I’m all for it!

    Drew

  7. Jeff says:

    Drew,

    I think a series of open letters in the various trade publications will get the ball rolling. It will take some time but eventually people will get the point!

  8. Jeff,

    I think that would impact the medium and small companies. But do you think the really big boys would take notice?

    I suppose they know that when they wave a few million dollars, everyone is going to jump through those hoops!

    Drew

  9. I believe the RFP is as retarded to hire outside help as the resume is to hire employees. They both are good for hiring commpetitive(ly cheap and mediocre) contractors or employees who look good on paper, but often don’t have significant value to contribute to the company.

    However, neither Procurement nor HR is interested in getting high return on consultants or employees. They are only interested in hiring them as cheap as possible. As long as they are cheap to hire, the return is irrelevant.

    That’s the reasons why every company should market its stuff well, so it can avoid bidding.

  10. Tom,

    I think you speak the heart of many agencies and consultants. You cannot help but feel like a commodity when you are forced to sell your company’s services via an RFP.

    That’s sort of my point over at the Daily Fix. What the heck did we do to deserve this??

    Drew

  11. Tokes says:

    As a software development company we are often required to respond to RFP’s – primarily to engage with government departments who form a large part of our local client base. I totally share your pain and agree, that from a respondents point of view it’s a (really) flawed process (nice acronym by the way).

    However, it’s perfectly clear to me why they are used. And as a client I suspect I would do the same. In a competitive market, the RFP process forces vendors to compete against one another and, in most cases, commit to an estimate that is based on limited information and little or no direct contact with the client. You can be brave and inflate your estimates to balance the risk however many vendors will want their bid to remain attractive. The client, can then choose between the vendors based on price and on what the already know about the vendors. For the client it’s great!

  12. Tokes,

    I’m with you completely. If I were on the client side, I would use some variation of the RFP as well. But I wouldn’t use it to make my decision.

    I would use it to eliminate the options down to a small handful. From there, I would use a “test” project or some real world shared experience to see what they’re really like to work with.

    All too often, people put on their first date behavior during the RFP process but show their real selves once the work has been awarded.

    Sounds like we have a shared pain!

    Drew

  13. Funny, we wrote a post today about RFP’s on our blog and have been reading into the topic. It doesn’t take long to find people really questioning the whole RFP process. After a recent experience, our agency certainly has. Though our angle was a little different, it seems that agencies should take a very close look at the RFP before they blindly jump into the lion’s feed.

    http://www.stormpilot.us/

  14. I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s a hideous process that is often just a ruse to make the incumbent sweat a little.

    We avoid them like the plague.

    Drew

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