Gini Dietrich

The RFP Process: When to Respond and When to Bow Out

By: Gini Dietrich | April 16, 2019 | 
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RFP ProcessLove them or hate them, requests for proposals, or RFPs as they’re known in our circles, are part of our lives.

I hate them.

They take tons of time, there’s no guarantee of a return on that time and energy, and a huge number of them are really badly written.

And yet…they persist.

You can’t always avoid them, but there are methods to make them a smaller part of your business life, and ways to protect your time when you DO have to respond. 

RFPs are usually a waste of everyone’s time and money.

But, in the 14 years I’ve been running my own agency, we’ve developed a better way to do it, which I’ll get to shortly.

What an RFP Should Include

Let’s say a municipality distributes an RFP to create a three-year integrated marketing communications program for their new recycling initiative.

It’s right up your alley and your team is perfectly suited for it.

It sounds pretty good at this point, right?

Maybe…and maybe not.

In a perfect world, RFPs would be well organized, and explain the scope of work, the specific requirements, the timeline, how the decision is going to be made, and most importantly, the budget.

You know, all the things you’d think would be obvious, but often aren’t.

This means that agencies are forced to create proposals—sometimes at great time and expense—without really knowing the goals and requirements for the project.

Then there is the unwritten rule that a good percentage of RFPs are crafted with a specific firm in mind (oftentimes the incumbent), but they’re required to get three bids by procurement.

Yeah…that’s not broken at all.  

It’s awful! And there has to be a better way.

There is a Better Way!

At my own agency, we don’t do RFPs anymore—and we rarely send a proposal. Sure, there’s a time and a place, but it’s few and far between.

And, because we have a process, and have drawn a line in the sand about how we do and don’t work, we work only with our ideal clients, and spend almost no time at all chasing down people to give us a yes or no answer.

The real problem an organization hopes to solve by distributing an RFP is to get an idea of the different solutions available—along with some fresh and creative thinking.

Right?

So why not flip the script and give them the information they need without the whole rigamarole?

I fully understand there are some industries—government, for example—that can’t get out of the RFP process.

But for the rest of you? There is a better option!

Instead of waiting for people to come up with vague descriptions of what they’re looking for, you can take control by building an RfP approach plan right into your business development process.

The very beginning of our process is that we work with a new client on their strategy development.

We do it as a two-day session—and we’re paid for that time, the strategy, and the ideas.

In fact, clients spend significantly more money on an execution retainer than they would have had we just said, “It’ll be a quarter of a million dollars,” as part of a flowery proposal full of our best ideas.

We spend that time upfront asking questions, listening, digging into challenges they have, defining issues that are preventing their ability to move forward, and understanding the strengths of the members of their team.

Because we’ve helped them dig through their pain, they see us as partners—true partners in their organizations.

They’re happier. You do better work. And you stop wasting time responding to RFPs and writing proposals.

Choose Your RFP Responses Carefully

If this is something you’d like to implement, check out what we’re doing for agency owners.

Now, in a perfect world, you can adjust your business model to change the kind of conversation you have with prospects, but I know that not every company can avoid RFPs.

According to the PR Council, more than a third of all new business in the industry is generated as a result of them.

And that means, whether we like it or not, they’re still the way a lot of business is generated.

When you do need to work within the RFP system, there are still ways to make sure you’re responding to the highest quality requests, and increase your chances for a positive result.

Here are the signs of a good RFP, one that is likely to have the best outcome for you:

  • First and foremost, you need to see a scope of work. It needs to detail exactly what is going to be required, with what different elements, to achieve which goal and by what time. After reading an RFP, you shouldn’t be wondering, “what the heck do they want?”
  • Next, you absolutely need a target audience—who is this project for? You need to have a good understanding of the type of person you’re going to be dealing with, including variables such as age, location, profession. This information, as you well know, makes a huge difference in what kind of solution is going to be appropriate for them. If an RFP doesn’t include anything about the end users… run!
  • Finally, look for the selection criteria and timeline. You want to know before you start drafting a proposal exactly what that process will look like. It may be they require a firm with specific availability or expertise and, if they don’t mention it out of the gate, you’ll be out of luck if it turns out to be a requirement later on. This show’s planning and consideration on the part of the organization. They’re demonstrating they respect your time by letting you know what they really need and how they need it. If they don’t, that’s a great indication of what working with them would be like!

When you do respond to RFPs, choose them carefully.

Doing so will drastically increase your return-on-investment—both time and money.

Now I open the floor to you. Do you respond to RFPs? Why or why not?

Photo by Fabian Blank on Unsplash

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, the lead blogger at Spin Sucks, and the host of Spin Sucks the podcast. She also is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.