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.