The RFP Quandary

I’ve got a love / hate relationship with Requests for Proposal.

When an RFP lands in my inbox, it always results in jubilation and quickly followed by a feeling of hopelessness.

On one hand, it’s always great to be considered for new work. It’s a validation (or proof) that either your marketing is working or that someone thought highly enough of you to recommend you to a colleague or friend. Either way, high five! Right?

On the other, there’s our success rate, or lack thereof. In more than twenty years, Sherpa’s number of wins is low. It’s like we are the Toronto Maple Leafs of marketing companies when it comes to RFPs. Big wins are few and far between.

What I can tell you is that it takes a significant amount of time (and time = money) to do a great job responding. In 2016, we spent XXXX hours responding to unsolicited requests.

It’s worth noting that Sherpa marketing won’t even consider responding to a RFP unless we know that we have at least one person on the client’s side that we know is likely to advocate on our behalf. This filter was developed and applied because of some tough losses.

We also take a hard look at the fit. Do we think that we are “right” for the client? Do we have a distinct competitive advantage?

After many reps, it became clear that we (Sherpa) were/are, almost always, to quote Vince Vaughn from Unfinished Business, “the fluffer”. The fluffer in this context is a decoy. Someone who rounds out the client’s need to have at least three quotes. Someone who the client had no intent of working with.

It is a process that could be improved dramatically.

I offer the following guidelines for vendors and clients:

I (the vendor) will:

  • Do my best to create a response that follows your format
  • Work within your budget, or gracefully decline. I might even explain what might be doable for your budget. I might lower my fees to meet you halfway
  • Deliver you a response on the date you said it’s due
  • Provide you with a creative, custom tailored, original solution
  • Ask questions to clarify your needs
  • Won’t try to sell you what you don’t need
  • Define a scope and budget that I plan to adhere to

You (the client) should:

  • If you send out an RFP you expect the vendors to submit proposals by the date outlined in your document. You almost always outline when the short list will be announced and when the work will be awarded. If vendors must meet deadlines, so should you. Don’t leave us hanging or if it's going to take more time, be proactive and inform your vendors.
  • If a vendor doesn’t make the short list or win the work, extend them the courtesy of a phone call and provide them constructive feedback on why they didn’t win the work and what they could do better.
  • Be honest. If you know who you want to work with don’t ask for other proposals. We are not here just to price check your preferred vendor.
  • Be clear in what you want, manage expectations. You have an idea of what your budget is. Most vendors have integrity and will work to deliver you the best solutions within your budget.

Vendors – how do you feel about the RFP process? How could it be improved? What can vendors do to make the process more transparent and fair? 

At Sherpa, we are eager to grow our business and take on new challenges. We will never stop responding to RFPs. They are the potential lifeblood of new and interesting work. But, I will also find it hard to shake that feeling of “Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.


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