RFPs Suck – Don't take my word for it…

Ian Lurie

Update: RFPs Suck now out in paperback 11.30.09: RFPs Suck is now out in paperback, folks. Recent events have only proven to me that Tom’s formula really works. If nothing else, you can read his book to screen for RFPs you should – or shouldn’t – respond to.

RFPs are like a colonoscopy: Someone you don’t even know gets to inspect you from the inside out.

Sorry, I prefer to have dinner first.

Thankfully, I’m no longer raving alone. Tom Searcy has written an excellent book titled, guess what, RFPs Suck! How to Master the RFP System Once and for All to Win Big Business.

Unlike me, he provides excellent help to navigate the RFP process. In fact, I used some of his advice in an RFP, and are now in the running for the contract. So his stuff works.

Tom was kind enough to do an interview with me about the book and RFPs in general. Here it is:

1. What inspired you to write the book? I know why I’d write it – because RFPs really do suck. But clearly you’ve seen great success responding to RFP’s.

Over the past five years, governance requirements, aggressive cost-cutting measures and more powerful purchasing departments have been driving deals into the RFP process–even the smaller deals that may not have required one before. As such, the number of deals that require an RFP process has increased exponentially.

I wrote RFPs Suck! to address this new “norm.” I wanted to give people a better answer than “If you didn’t write the RFP, then don’t answer it,” so that they could best harness their strengths and weaknesses when answering an RFP. In the current environment of compliance and documentation paranoia, you have to be able to answer RFPs and answer them well, especially if you want to play in six-figure and up deal arena. Just as important, RFPs Suck! is a lesson in knowing which RFPs to skip so that you can save your money, time and talent for the RFPs you actually have a shot at winning.

2. Everyone – even the companies that write them – seems to understand that RFP’s suck. Why do they keep using them?

I truly believe that everyone has become a victim in the RFP process: the people making the buying decision don’t want to be forced into an RFP process; the Procurement/Purchasing departments don’t want to process the responses; and nobody on the responding side wants the hassle, uncertainty and unnecessary work. So why is everyone using them? Three major reasons:
Corporate governance requires it. Between Sarbanes-Oxley, boards of directors’ paranoia and the legal advice of compliance specialists, companies are using the RFP process to stay safe.

Ruthless cost-cutting. RFPs allow buyers to force vendors and suppliers into lowering prices in order to win an RFP. As each company aims lower and lower, the buyers come to believe that they’ve made a good decision to ask for the RFP process and that they are cutting costs. But while buyers may have lowered prices, it doesn’t mean they have lowered their true costs.

Free consulting. RFPs allow a company to get a full market scan of the current technology, best practices, new materials and other types of information that used to only be available at trade shows and conferences. RFPs can free buyers from doing their own market research.
The bottom line: RFPs are becoming the favored way to evaluate enterprise purchases and significant new vendor relationships, so we’ve got to get used to them.

3. In the book, you talk a lot about large organizations and their resistance to change. You say a big part of success in the RFP process revolves around reassuring the potential client that they won’t have to change too much. But in Internet marketing, we have to push for change: In the IT department; in their copywriting approach; to their web workflow; even to how they handle messaging and social media. How can true Internet marketing agencies balance time, money and risk?

Your RFP answer, at its core, should do one thing: help your prospect overcome their fears of buying from you. The RFP process is not designed to help companies make a good decision. It is designed to help them avoid making a bad decision. For this reason, your answer should focus on the things which make them most afraid. Typical driving fears include change, more work and the possibility of making mistakes. The prospect will buy from the seller that provides the safest choice.

When companies are involved in the RFP process, we encourage them to clearly show a prospect the operational, customer relationship and technology components that won’t change when they buy. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be any change or that the changes won’t be significant. It just means that prospects can take comfort in the stability of many of the other areas of their business. When you are going through an internet marketing change you still must demonstrate a respect for the customers, an ability to integrate with the supply chain management processes that are in place and of course, the intrinsic perception of the brand. These should all be emphasized as a part of the RFP response to balance out the big changes you will advocate.

4. What’s strongest sign that an RFP is a dead end?

In RFPs Suck!, I cover a dozen red flags that indicate a problematic RFP. Here are a few of the really big ones:

No access. If you receive an RFP from a company that you do not know very well and they will not give you any access to the end buyers, head for the hills. This is the kiss of death.
Answer specifications are too tight/restrictive. I see RFP questions that say; “Please explain your approach to managing the full supply chain. Limit your answer to 100 words.” This is a market price scan, not a real RFP, and it shouldn’t be answered.

Too deep a dive. If you are being asked as a part of an early RFP for prototypes, design documents and material samples, it’s highly likely that you are involved in a “free-consulting” exercise and not an actual RFP.

Too many participants. Why would you participate in an RFP process when the company sending it out can’t limit its list to less than 5-7 companies? This is a market survey from an unsophisticated buyer.

There are plenty more red flags, but the driver in many of these is that you can tell up front whether you have an “odds-in-your-favor” opportunity. If you don’t, don’t play.

5. Without harming innocents: What’s the worst RFP you’ve ever seen?

You might think that the worst RFPs come from the government or military, but those are actually not too bad. They are usually long and tedious, but not awful. I have found that the most poorly written RFPs have been in the systems integration space. They are usually written by people who do not know what they want and who put the onus of figuring out what the RFP is asking for on the respondents.

6. Didn’t you write an e-book a while back? (this is your chance to plug another product)

I wrote the e-book “Landing Big Sales with an RFP” late last year. The response was so overwhelming and positive that I decided to expand upon the topic, hence RFPs Suck! I also published Whale Hunting: How to Land Big Sales and Transform Your Company with Barbara Weaver Smith in 2008 through Wiley.

7. If you had to give 3 tips to someone before they responded to the most important RFP of their lives, what would they be? No pressure…

First, pick the two to three overwhelmingly favorable advantages about your solution and work them into all of the questions that you can. RFP reader-teams rarely have each member read all of the segments and typically break up the RFP into sections. If you have a phenomenal advantage but only write it into one segment, you may miss persuading the most important person on that reading team.

Second, write at a high school sophomore level. Many people on the RFP reading team only have a secondary knowledge about your business and the RFP they are reviewing, so if you included too much jargon and TLAs (three letter acronyms), you will lose your readers in translation. This will make them feel very fearful and less likely to choose your team.

Third, don’t assume anything. Your readers are fearful people who are trying to make a safe decision. They don’t know anything about you (or at least that is the safest assumption). Whenever you can, demonstrate your stability, your safety and your consistency in the marketplace to make the convincing argument that your company is the safe and supportable decision.

One smart guy

Tom Searcy is one smart guy, folks. If you want to get access to big contracts and clients, you must read this book. You can also read his web site and blog, HuntingBigSales.com.

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  1. Excellent interview and valuable information. In my past life I was forced on occasion to respond to RFP’s, and in my experience they do suck.
    I was always tempted to throw them in the trash; however, some of my biggest deals came from RFP’s and I often times grabbed business years later by responding to an RFP.
    I love the tips at the end…

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