or, “‘RFPs’ Should Stand For ‘ReFlection Please, Suckers!’

The room was humid and chaotic. Yelping children ran about, pursued by parents and strollers. But there was one little girl, in a pink dress and a blue windbreaker, who sat, unmoving, for a very long time. Her shoulders hunched forward to make her back more parallel to the floor, she remained motionless except for the slight vibration brought on by a concentration too intense for so slight a body.

Rewind ten minutes. My daughter, then all of 4 years old, had marched into the massive butterfly room of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum and planted herself firmly on a bench shaped like a boulder. No children, no sounds, no sights distracted her. She found her rock and owned it. Then, with focus that rivaled Bobby Fischer she channeled all the physical properties of the universe that a 4-year-old can muster on willing a butterfly – preferably a big pretty one – to land on her shoulder.

When at last we dragged her out – the blue windbreaker darkened by the tears of unmitigated sobbing from having not been graced with a visit from a Papilionidae – my wife and I wondered if she would ever recover from having not achieved an outcome that was mainly (if not utterly) out of her control.

Which brings us to the RFP process.

For many companies, the Request For Proposal (RFP) is the primary way business from new clients is won. While the concept of an RFP is not strictly defined, RFPs are issued by all manner of organizations for all types of projects. RFPs signal someone’s intent to get something done, and for someone else to get paid to do it. As such, RFPs are oxygen for companies and organizations of nearly every stripe. Gaining more work from existing clients is good, but winning new business is truly what makes a company feel better about itself.

As a result, the RFP process is a highly emotional one for many companies. No matter how big or small the organization, receiving a Request For Proposal brings out excitement, dread, hope, and, often, long nights before the response is finally developed. Especially in the funky economy that we all are currently enduring, for many firms there is a heightened sense of urgency to respond immediately and positively to every RFP.

“Now is not the time to say ‘No!'” I can hear an old boss say.

Getting To “Yes” By Saying “No”
When a service firm feels that it is subject to a buyer’s market, that firm tends to loosen its criteria and become willing to consider “opportunities” that might not otherwise be suitable. This loosening results in the firm pursuing RFPs that are either too grand in scale, or too modest in compensation, for its own business model.

RFPs are, by and large, issued as subjective invitations to bid on a project. These revenue opportunities are very often communicated to the bidding firm’s management using objective measures: A $1 million project that has a 25% chance of being won equals a $250,000 revenue projection for the period in question. Sometimes this method of projection is an accurate reflection of real possibility, but often it is not. Failures to connect with these opportunities – to win – follow. The risk of a downward spiral grows.

One can understand how firms will pursue opportunities that are out of their reasonable reach when the normal flow of new business activity becomes constricted. Like trying to will a butterfly to land on your shoulder, project opportunities that seem so desirable and appear to be so close and so possible are, in fact, completely out of one’s control. A company’s success with RFPs owes as much to the RFPs they decide to pursue as their brilliance in the pursuit.

Put more simply, not every RFP is right for every firm. Sometimes an opportunity that “should be a cake-walk” is really nothing more than a fishing expedition taken by a would-be client that would otherwise be considered too small of a prospect. In other cases, the firm is invited to participate in an RFP that requires skills and experience the firm does not truly have. Either way there is a mismatch that has been conveniently ignored under the auspices of “the bad market”.

Success in the RFP game means being willing to say “no” as often as one is compelled to say “yes”. Winning RFPs means going in with the best the firm has, being strategic about the approach, and understanding that much of the actual evaluation process is truly out of the bidder’s control. Having success with RFPs requires a degree of self-reflection in the response process that will help your firm have success with the submittal even if you do not win. To this end, here are four rules that will help make the RFP process a success for your firm:

1. Nothing says “chocolate chip cookie” quite like a chocolate chip cookie: Clients can smell when what you’re offering is not the same as what they’re asking for. Even if you have flour, eggs, water, sugar and chocolate chips scattered throughout your kitchen, it’s not the same as actually having a cookie. Be careful telling a prospective client that you have cookies when all you have are ingredients.

2. The RFP process is almost always a casting call, not a final casting: In other words, the early stages are a numbers game as much as they are an indictment of your firm’s value. If you get past the first stage great, but if you don’t it may have nothing to do with you. Move on.

3. “It’s not the money” can often times be translated to mean “It’s the money”: This doesn’t mean you should be the lowest cost, but value should always come through no matter how big the project / how much the client “can afford it”.

4. Sometimes you can punch above your weight, but this may not be one of those times: Always take your best swing when it makes sense to do so. But don’t sweat it when you’re not successful; if you have sent in a quality submittal and backed up your ideas with solid outcomes you’ll at least make a good impression. Continued promotion of your work in relevant business forums will reinforce this good impression. Then, next time, maybe you aren’t punching above your weight.

Risks that are not taken become lost opportunities. It’s easy to see the risks in RFPs, but there are also opportunities beyond making it through the first round or even winning. Going after the ones that make sense is just as obvious as taking a pass on those that don’t make sense, and it helps focus your company on doing the things that it does best, with clients that need what your firm (and maybe your firm only) can do.