Suggested guidelines for responding to RFPs

Andrew Neitlich

A former client sent me a request for proposals (RFP) the other day. I don’t know about you, but I cringe when I receive RFPs. I rarely win RFPs, for the following reasons:

– Generally firms send out RFPs even if they already have a preferred candidate in mind. They do so to appear fair and efficient to procurement or oversight bodies.

– Often the preferred candidate works with the firm to design the RFP, which makes my odds even lower (unless I am that preferred candidate).

– Sometimes firms issue an RFP when they have no intention of moving forward, but just want to collect some information.

– If I don’t have an established relationship with the decision-makers, my odds of winning are low — even lower than one divided by the number of vendors who respond.

– People generally hire me sole source, because they see my work or hear about me from trusted colleagues. So it is not worth the time to complete RFPs.

But now here is an RFP from a former client. Of course, that raises a red flag right there. My primary relationship with this client was with executives who have left the organization. So once again, I have some history, but with a “former regime.” So my odds are not exactly high.

I decided to respond, but I realize I’m a long, long, long way away from winning.

Generally here is when you should respond to an RFP:

1. If you are a trusted advisor to the firm and they need to create an RFP (maybe with your help) to show they are being fair.

2. If you have no relationship with the firm, but want to use the RFP to develop a relationship. You won’t win the job, but can use the RFP to nurture the relationship and develop a foundation for later work.

3. You have strong relationships with the decision-makers.

4. You have a massive advantage compared to other competitors that raises your odds of winning — even if you don’t have strong relationships. An example might be a proprietary technology, or an unbeatable track record of specific business results.

If any of those criteria are not met, it is not worth the effort.

In my current case, I’m responding because I know the history of the organization better than anyone else thanks to my work there (#4), and because I want to rekindle the relationship with the new team (#2). I also have some relationships with current members (#3), but perhaps not strong enough to win.

Finally, I’m basing the above criteria on history. I’ve lost too many RFPs — in fact all of them — where the above criteria were not in place. In those cases, I was basically a file folder that the firm issuing the RFP needed to have in order to feel like they were thorough.

What’s your experience? Similar or different?