Should the RFP Die? Probably. Will it? Probably Not.

March 29, 2011
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RFPs davidking 300x224 Should the RFP Die? Probably. Will it?
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RFPs davidking 300x224 Should the RFP Die? Probably. Will it? Probably Not.Colleague Todd Defren posted yesterday his wish that the RFP would “Die, Die, Die!” He kindly linked to the Social Media RFP Template, noting that we’d likely helped to make the process a little easier, though not necessarily shorter.

Todd’s main argument was that RFPs take too much time and energy – they’re a huge time-suck, largely because the folks issuing them don’t know, or don’t bother, to make sure they’re asking the right questions. He asked if there was a better way. Could RFPs be reduced to ten simple questions? could they be done away with altogether?

Time-suck, poorly written RFPs were the primary reason we issued the first Social Media RFP Template in 2010. That first iteration was comprehensive – we wanted to ensure that anyone issuing an RFP didn’t have to be a social media expert in order to be able to get quality respondents and find the right partner. The problem? It was too comprehensive – too long, too detailed, and in many cases clients were just cutting and pasting the whole thing, without thinking about what they actually needed. We might possibly have made it worse.

So we started again. This time, we dramatically shortened the RFP, and broke the questions into two sections – RFP response questions and in-person presentation questions. We also added an “RFP Bill of Rights”, to set the stage, and released the new template in December of 2010:

RFP “Bill of Rights”
In every sense of the word, responding to an RFP should be a partnership. You (as the issuer) are offering an opportunity to win new business. They (as the respondent) are investing in that opportunity with no certainty that their investment will pay off. As a client, you do have obligations to vendors who respond to your RFP. The following “Bill of Rights” is intended to encourage fairness and acknowledge this investment and the mutual respect that should be observed in all business relationships.

I will not issue an RFP “Cattle Call”. Issuing an RFP to more than six or seven agencies is overkill. Instead, identify agencies you would like to work with and be selective in whom you invite to respond. Fifteen or 20 responses are too many to be able to truly judge relative merit, and it’s wrong to ask agencies who are not a good fit to waste valuable resources on an RFP they are unlikely to win.

I will be thoughtful. This and other RFP templates are intended to provide guidance, but don’t simply cut and paste the contents. Think about what you actually need and edit accordingly. Information overload will only winnow out quality agencies that are too busy to wade through all the unnecessary details.

I will do my own homework.
Asking agencies to identify their own competition is only going to get you two things: a list of second-tier competitors that is of dubious value and respondents annoyed that you essentially asked them to undermine their own competitive advantage.

I will be flexible. Yes, we know you have a timeline. We also know (even though you might not) that it is going to slip. Don’t ask vendors to meet your timelines or else. There are significant cost savings in being able to book flights in advance (and you want an agency that keeps an eye on the pennies, right?). Give respondents at least a week’s notice and be flexible in your dates.

I will keep you updated. Nothing is worse than the “black hole”. A response is prepared at great effort, submitted and… crickets. Let respondents know that their RFP has been received, and what the next steps are. When the dates slip, let them know that, too. They put a lot into their submission – show them the respect that this effort deserves.

I will give you feedback. You can’t win ‘em all – any agency team who responds to RFPs knows this well. What they don’t know (magic crystal balls being in short supply) is why they didn’t make it to the next round or win the brass ring. Acknowledging vendors’ efforts and letting them know why their response didn’t meet your needs helps them improve, and is more than a fair trade for the cost and effort invested on their part. It also ensures good feelings – you never know what your needs might be next; maintaining good vendor relationships is good business.

At the end of the day – are RFPs ideal? No. Do clients often ask for “free ideas” as part of the response (sadly, yes). Is there any liklihood that a typical RFP could be reduced to ten questions, as per Todd’s post? Perhaps in some cases, but I also think mutual respect for effort invested and some tools to help guide clients will also go a long way to reducing the time-suck that a poorly written RFP can so often be.

What do you think?