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Should You Answer That RFP? 12 Signs It's Not Worth It

When you're considering answering an RFP, the first step is to determine whether or not you've even got a chance of winning it.

Step No. 2: Quit thinking of the RFP as sacred material coming from an all-knowing large company or government agency. There are flaws in every RFP, and many of them are written by people who are too busy for the task. They aren't sure what they want and don't know how to articulate and communicate it in writing.

The good news is that flawed RFPs are often full of warning signs that betray the fact that they're not worth answering. If an RFP contains three or more of the following indicators, skip it. It's not worth it.

1. No specific objective.
Try to locate a clear statement of goals. When the buyer's goals or the benefits they seek are unclear, they're likely just trolling for new ideas. If you can't find such a statement, this RFP isn't worth your time. Let it go.

2. No money.
Buyers who are given new initiatives from their CEOs or board will often learn about the market through an RFP process. If the RFP is supporting a new initiative, it is sent out without a budget. Part of the objective of the RFP is to determine the budget.

This is a losing proposition for you. This is a larger company's attempt to benefit from your free consulting and valuable pricing information. Don't do it.

3. Repetition.
You can tell that the process is haphazard and poorly conceived when the RFP is overly repetitive in its requests. If parts of the RFP don't make any sense at all, then trust me, it's not you; it's the RFP.

4. No access.
If the company denies you access to the people who will be using the services or products you sell, or any point of entry period, run, don't walk, away from this RFP.

Valid buyers want the best deals they can get for their company. They know that the "best deal," however they have defined it, will be the result of give-and-take with a group of people. Therefore, they provide the opportunity for that exchange to occur.

Only companies looking for the lowest price or for free consulting won't allow access. They just want to read what you're willing to share with them. Don't put yourself and your company in this situation.

5. Boilerplate text.
It's easy to tell a boilerplate RFP that has been created in response to procurement requirements from one that was created by those genuinely seeking a new supplier.

A boilerplate RFP is written in generalities, not specifics. It reads as if something is just a little off. It's obvious that the writer of the boilerplate RFP doesn't have a deep understanding of the project and, in some cases, lacks even a superficial understanding.

Remember, if it doesn't make sense to you, then it's not you; it's the RFP.

As an example, I once came across an RFP where the company attached a letter indicating that respondents should substitute their service offerings wherever they saw the word "products." This company couldn't even be bothered to use the "find" and "replace" commands to identify the services they offer.

6. Too many invitees to the open meeting.
"Y'all come" is a cattle call, not an invitation to a worthwhile open meeting. Unfortunately, too often that's what you'll get. We call that the "shotgun approach" -- shoot in every direction and see what you hit.

Look to partner with companies that outsource whatever it is that you want to bid on, as they may have succeeded in breaking the RFP. If outsourcers get invited to the meeting, it's a completely different ballgame, likely one in which you don't want to participate.

7. A large variety of attendees at the open meeting.
"Sesame Street" has a song, "One of these things is not like the others." If you can tell that the others don't resemble your company or what you offer in some identifiable way, then you're probably best served by leaving the room. It's obvious the buyers are casting a wide net and don't know exactly what they want.

8. Excessive creative requirements.
Don't give away your best and most creative ideas or deliverables. Requirements of free drawings, sample custom work, or the like are yet another guise for free consulting. Don't fall for it.

9. Cycle of request to delivery.
Immediately discount any RFP that requires a response within seven to 10 days of your receipt of the request. You can be certain that the incumbent knew about the RFP well before 10 days out, as did the company that the prospect favors to win the deal. All you can offer at this point is free consulting.

If you've ever had this happen to you, you know how frustrating and infuriating it is. Too often, people spend day and night working on a proposal and get it in within the deadline, only to find out that the incumbent provider got the deal. It happens time and time again.

Next time, just let it go, and spend the extra time in a hot tub.

10. Tight control of the responses.
When every question in the RFP has tight length restrictions ("200 words or fewer" or "not to exceed one page"), it means the RFP is designed to make the review easier on the reader, not to differentiate the respondent.

This restriction doesn't give you the opportunity to fully make a case. Instead, it shows that the buyers are not serious about making a change in providers. They are probably only going through the RFP process so they can prove they have done it. Don't play their game.

11. Rate card request.
The whole purpose of an RFP is to receive a specific proposal on a specific piece of the business. This includes all of the elements of people, planning, execution, and pricing around that piece of work. If you are asked for a standardized pricing schedule, this is indicative of a market survey, not a business proposal.

Specificity is the key. If it's not there, it's not worth your effort.

12. No reason to leave.
You should find language in the RFP that reflects the problem the prospect is trying to fix, including problems created by the current provider. If there is no identifiable problem in the RFP, then there is no motivation for change. In the end, the deal will go to the incumbent.

If you are seriously considering any RFP that contains three or more of these indicators, skip it. It's not worth your time or effort.

Flickr photo courtesy Picture Perfect Pose/cc 2.0

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