RFPs Will Always Be Painful. Sorry.

Track HurdlesResponding to RFPs is a 12-step process, and the first step is to admit you have no control. Whether the panel intended it or not, that’s what I came away with after listening to the conversation “OMG: Your RFP Is Killing Me” at South by Southwest.

On the surface, answering RFPs doesn’t have a lot to do with tech. Unless, of course, you’re a contractor, or you work for a vendor, or you’re the client who’s looking to get a project done. And, since most of the two ballrooms’ worth of audience said they write responses to RFPs, it seems like a topic people want to learn about. I mean, some other sessions were a lot less dry.

Not that the panelists–Joe Rinaldi, business development director at design/user experience firm Happy Cog; John Stephens, a marketing director at Dell; and Todd Nienkirk, partner at design and developer Four Kitchens–aren’t experienced and personable speakers. The thing is that after an hour of war stories and discussion about how the RFP process SHOULD work, the panel summed it up like this: Nothing’s going to change until clients want the process to change, and most probably don’t care enough to change it.

What’s a small shop to do? Set yourself some ground rules to minimize the chance you’re wasting your time.

  • When you review the RFP’s requirements–format, required information, etc.–try to guess the value of the job and consider if it makes sense to expend the effort responding. For example, if you can bill $30,000 but you’ll spend $5,000 in travel and billable time to get it–or not–is the return worth it?
  • Don’t be afraid to ask how many other vendors are participating. If it’s a lot, try to find out how seriously your RFP’s going to be taken. Find out if an existing vendor is being considered. In either of these cases, consider whether your time might be better spent asking the client if you can withdraw from this RFP but make a sales call to introduce your company.
  • Insist on a face to face meeting, or at least a phone call.
  • Ask for a rough idea of the budget. If they say no, do a quick evaluation of the project, tell the client your estimated price range, and ask if it’s in the ballpark. Make clear this isn’t to drive the estimate, but to get a sense of their expectations.
  • Whatever they say, don’t low ball. First, you don’t want a client who’s looking only for the cheapest price. Second, you could end up losing money on the deal. (From my experience, that happens a lot.)

You may not have control over the process, but you do have control over how you value each prospective project, and how you respond.

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