Sunday, April 15, 2012

How About Some RFP Etiquette?

So, did we win?

The Request for Proposal (RFP) is popular these days.  With shrinking budgets and increased pressure to demonstrate due diligence, more organizations are issuing RFPs to ensure they choose the right external partner, or at least create the perception of doing so.  When consultants choose to participate in an RFP process, they do so knowing that they may not win and even if they do, they will probably never recoup the hours of unpaid time they spent responding to the proposal.  When the search ends, there will be one winner and multiple losers but all candidates should be treated with respect, honesty and professionalism.  If organizations insist on using RFPs, I'd like to see them adopt these etiquette guidelines for issuing, managing and closing the process:

1. Be honest - I recently reviewed an RFP that painted a rosy picture of a company but a quick Google search revealed the organization was in a shambles. Why hide this?  No one can prepare a thorough, appropriate response if they don't have the necessary background and context.
2. Share your process - RFPs are a ton of work so help people decide if it's worth participating. Share your plans for decision-making - the deadline for proposal submission, what should be included, when the shortlist will be announced, what is involved in phase 2, when you will make your final decision and how you will inform participants.  If an incumbent has been invited to participate, be honest about that.  It's important.

3. Don't kick tires - Most of the research, writing and collation of RFPs is done after hours and on top of an existing work load.  Don't issue an RFP unless you have the budget and the intention of hiring an external partner. Nothing is more frustrating than putting hours of unpaid time into a proposal only to find out that you've decided to manage your campaign "in house".

4. Answer questions thoroughly - If candidates have questions for clarification, take the time to provide proper answers.  The best approach is to collect all of the questions and combine both questions and answers in one document.  One-word answers or responses like "whatever you think is best", "anything goes" or "wow us" are unacceptable.

5. Don't ask for ideas - It's unrealistic to expect anyone to provide creative, feasible ideas based on a couple of paragraphs in your RFP.  Phase 1 is about qualifying candidates, and looking for expertise, experience, case studies, references, etc.  If you narrow the pool to a shortlist, meet with them to provide the information they need to develop workable ideas. Better yet, wait until you've actually hired someone.

6. Remove the guessing game - If you have a budget (and you should if you're serious), share it, or at least include a range. If consultants have no idea what they're working with, it's impossible to provide the best case studies and references and brainstorm appropriate ideas.  

7. Avoid the revolving door - It's efficient to book several presentations on one day but try to hold them in a room with two doors or leave time between visits.  It's awkward for everyone when candidates meet each other in the hallway.

8. Practice proper follow-up - No one should ever find out they didn't win an RFP in AdNews.  Acknowledge receipt of all proposals and honour the dates in your initial process. If you are delayed for some reason, let people know when they can expect to hear from you again.  When you choose a winner, inform the unsuccessful parties before making any announcements.

9. Use only what you pay for - I recently participated in an RFP which stated that all submitted ideas, even from consultants who didn't win the business, would automatically become the property of the issuing company.  Why should they?  If you choose a partner and start to pay them, you can use their ideas but it's unethical to use creative ideas from an agency you didn't select.

10. Give feedback - If someone has spent hours of unpaid time responding to your RFP, they deserve more than a cursory dismissal.  Let unsuccessful candidates know where they fell short and provide candid feedback to help them with future proposals. If you have been honest and professional about your RFP process, you should have no problem articulating how you made your final decision and what they could have done better.


  1. Hi Louise, these RFP guidelines are great but I'd like to see our industry adopt a better way of finding a communications agency. Clients also spend a lot of time on RFPs. It makes more sense to meet with a couple of agencies, decide on the best fit based on a capability presentation (or even just a conversation) and then decide. Of course, I may be looking at the world through rose-coloured glasses but I'm trying to make it a policy not to participate in the "cattle calls."

  2. Hi Shelley, I couldn't agree more and I'm sure your wish is shared across the business. I'm often surprised that clients will put themselves through an RFP process when they could uncover the same information (and get a better idea of fit) by having coffee with the prospects. That said, more and more organizations seem to be issuing them, even for pro bono work. I've declared the end of my RFP days a few times but coming off a couple of bad ones, I think it'll stick this time.

  3. Great check list here Louise for those looking to nab a plum contract. I think that sometimes we run across organizations that are ill prepared for the process and seem to be simply "winging" it. I think this raises a good point for discussion in the realm of best practices for creating and of course responding to RFP's. I whole heartedly concur with your point on incumbents applying for the same job they've been doing for the company issuing the RFP - let everyone be on the same playing field in terms of disclosure or simply get your existing supplier to lower their rates if that's the ultimate goal here.

  4. As I an finalizing the presentation for a client that hasn't given us a budget yet wants a plan.... and eagerly awaiting the response from another that locks us into a five-year contract, this post is extremely timely. Is worth keeping and sharing with prospects.

  5. Hi Abbie,

    Glad you found it helpful. I actually don't think RFPs are necessary for anything but the largest of campaigns and I don't mind participating if I feel that it's a truly competitive, transparent process. But lately I've been asked to prepare entire communications plans for very small programs only to find out the "client" isn't actually ready to hire someone.

  6. Several great points here. I wrote a blog post about this very issue a few years ago.

    There are better ways to select an agency or consultant.

    The RFP process does not serve the client or the agency. Recently an RFP came by my desk that was so labour intensive, I passed it over after doing a quick cost/benefit analysis. I'm betting the consultants that did bite were those that were desperate for the work. So, is the client getting the best consultant in that case? Doubtful.

  7. That was a great blog post. Very thorough. It seems many of us are in the same frame of mind, at least those of us on the consulting side. I'd be really interested to hear from clients on why they use the RFP process and if they believe it's effective. I'm sure if you're trying to find a global agency for a huge brand and the account is worth millions, it is a good process but it's a waste of everyone's time if you just need someone to handle the logistics for your AGM.

  8. Hi Louise, I recently had an experience with our Purchasing Department regarding getting proposals for a market research project. The Purchasing Department took the first proposal I received from a vendor, took out the vendor name and bid price, and sent it out to other vendors as a RFP for competitive bid. The research apporach and methodology in the first proposal was a result of multiple rounds of conversation between the vendor and myself, and I considered that as their intellectual property. What our Purchasing Department did does not seem right to me. What's your opinion? Thanks!

  9. What do I think of it? Well, not surprisingly, I think it's disrespectful and inappropriate but I'm sure this kind of thing happens all the time. Firms know that when they submit proposals, they've in effect made the information public, but there's an expectation that it will only be used as part of a proper competitive review, not as research for company documents. I used to put intellectual property disclaimers on all of my RFP responses but it didn't seem to make any difference.