I’ve looked at RFPs from both sides now…part 2

, Friday, September 5th, 2008

Clients aren’t the only ones who could use some advice to make the Request for Proposal (RFP) process go more smoothly. Over the years, I’ve seen plenty of good, bad, and ugly in vendor responses, too. To that end…

RFP Dos & Don’ts – For the (Potential) Vendor

  • DO proofread! I’m not going to discount your proposal because of one or two typos. But one or two typos per page or serious grammatical problems lead me to question your attention to detail, your competence, and frankly, your intelligence. Even small shops usually have at least one person who’s a good editor. Have her give all your proposals a once over before they go out the door. If you’re the one in a hundred shop that doesn’t have anyone on staff who can copy edit, hire somebody.
  • DO call me. The RFP process is kind of like dating. Signing the contract is kind of like getting married. I’d like to get to know you better before I make that commitment.
  • DO be accessible. Let me know whether you like email, land line, or cell contact, and then when I do contact you, take my call. Answer my email. Call me back. I know you’re busy – I’m busy too. But don’t make me call out the FBI to find you if I have a question. However…
  • DON’T hound me. If I tell you I’ll be letting all the vendors know one way or the other on Friday, don’t call me Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday “just to check in and see if you have any questions.” Just don’t.
  • DO respect my process. Assuming I’ve read part one of this two part series, I probably wrote a pretty good RFP that includes information about the timeline and decision criteria. Subverting the process by going around me to my boss or my staff is a BIG no-no. If I say the proposal deadline is Friday at 5 pm EDT, have it to me by Friday at 5 pm EDT. And if that’s going to be a problem, don’t wait until Friday at 4:53 pm EDT to ask for an extension.
  • DON’T talk about what your competitors do or don’t do. Nine times out of ten, you’re wrong. Even that one time that you’re right, it’s petty and doesn’t reflect well on you or your firm. When I’m reading your proposal or talking to you, I care about what you can and can’t do. I’ll worry about your competitors if and when I talk to them.
  • DON’T send me the LONGEST possible proposal. DO send the SHORTEST possible proposal that answers my questions and addresses my needs. I’m probably reading 4-6 (or more) of these things. If they’re each 50 pages, that’s 200-300 pages. I’m not even going to remember who’s who by the end! Edit, edit, edit!
  • DO skip the boilerplate marketing fluff. I’ve seen it. Everybody says they’ve got the greatest widget since sliced widgets were invented. It just pads up your presentation and wastes trees and my time.
  • DO have good references in the market. Sure, I’m going to call your reference list (aka, Your Carefully Chosen Group of Only Your Most Blissfully Happy Clients), but if I know what I’m doing, I’m also going to ask around. Three glowing references don’t help you if the 10 other clients I find through my network all hate you. Remember: as long as your price is in the ballpark and I’m confident you can do the work, I’m buying based on relationship, personality, and reputation. Make sure yours is sterling.
  • DO make sure I can open your files. Lots of us have switched to Word 2007. But not everyone. And, as usual, Microsoft changed the file structure so that Word 2003 chokes on Word 2007. You know what doesn’t cause problems? PDF. And if you send over your proposal and don’t receive an acknowledgment that I got it, drop me an email without attachments or give me a quick call to make sure I got it. I asked for your proposal. I want to get it. If it’s stuck in my spam filter, I want to know. It’s OK to check.

What’s the common theme? Relationship. We’re about to enter into a relationship. You don’t start a dating relationship by refusing to talk to the other party, withholding information, and putting them through a lot of silly, unnecessary tests (and if you do, odds are you’re single), and you don’t want to start a vendor relationship that way, either.

But don’t just take my word for it:

Edited September 5, 2008 at 12:10 pm to add:  There’s a debate on this same topic going on right now at ASAE & the Center for Association Leadership’s Acronym blog.  Check it out!

6 Responses to “I’ve looked at RFPs from both sides now…part 2”

  1. Sally Says:

    Elizabeth – both this post and your first post about RFPs contain invaluable information that I will be sure to refer any clients who ask me about RFPs to. Thanks so much for taking the time to write this – it’s the most accessible, understandable, and useful blog post about the RFP process that I have ever seen.

  2. Elizabeth Says:

    Thanks Sally!

    (I swear I didn’t pay her to say that.)

  3. Sally Says:

    I can attest that Elizabeth did not pay me to say that, and that we have in fact never met! :) But these posts caught my eye because I once had a client ask me about the RFP process in general and I was like “Uhhhhh…” Never again!

  4. David M. Patt, CAE Says:

    Hey, Elizabeth, I don’t hear you saying “kill the RFP.” What I hear you saying is, “do it correctly.”

    The instrument used to procure outsourced help has come to be known as the “RFP.” Unfortunately, it is often treated like a specific product that must be used in a specific way.

    It’s really a process for identifying a vendor that can meet a need. The process, not this particular instrument, is what’s important. Perhaps it needs to be called something else.

  5. Elizabeth Says:

    Well, actually, in the first article, I pretty much do advocate killing the RFP. If you can’t, though, there are steps to take to make the process less painful for everyone, which was the point of the series.

    I think RFPs have their place – generally for projects with a lot of very specific, highly technical specs – but in most cases, there are better ways to create the vendor/client match.

  6. Katya Says:

    But if not through an RFP how do you approach vendors?