RFPs from the Inside

After having worked in professional services organizations for about 5 years it feels a bit surreal, maybe a whole lot surreal to be evaluating RFP responses. I’ve been sucked into the evaluation process now for a couple of RFPs and I’ve come away just amazed of some of the assumptions that go into the process.

First, when you send out a blind RFP to 6 or 7 vendors you tend to get about a 50% return rate. When a vendor sends in a response last minute, or a little late this means the vendor probably isn’t really interested in bidding and this shows they’ll probably be late and sloppy in their work. This is the assumption. The reality is a little more complicated.

Having worked in smaller and boutique consulting shops you simply don’t have the manpower to respond to every blind RFP you get. In fact if it’s a blind RFP even if it’s right up your alley a lot of times you skip it, because a blind RFP usually means you don’t have a shot in hell, they just need to satisfy the requirement for at least three ‘competitive’ bids. So if you don’t have an in with the company and know someone on the inside you usually pass on it.

Assume though business is slow and you need to fill up the pipeline with opportunities so you decide it’s worth responding. You have to work this in around your billable work with the current paying clients. That means on the day before the RFP is due you meet up with a couple comrades and order some Chili’s takeout and spend 4-5 hours trying to guess at what the clients want from their vague RFP. You also try to figure how you can actually deliver given that it always seems to be a fixed bid and sometimes often they have you “guess the budget”. Finally at 12:30am you finalize the response and double check the pricing and then send it off for the sales guy to review in the morning. You send it off and bang your head on the table a few hours after they send it off client because you referred to working together with “BigName Client”, but you sent it off to “Company X” and forgot to search and replace everything. Hopefully the client will overlook that.

Second, a lot of consulting RFPs are for consulting services. So it’s important to rate them primarily on the quality of their RFP response. The resumes they attach on the end are really secondary. Of course people aren’t important, proposals are.

I’ve sat in meetings dumbfounded how we’ve eliminated often the strongest responders who have staff who are thought leaders in their field, regularly present at conference, and write well respected books. Usually this is because they didn’t spend enough time responding to the exact format of the RFP, or they suggested a different approach such as a formal mentoring plan or have more experience with Scrum versus RUP.

Third, when you bring in the companies to give a presentation don’t worry about interviewing any of their staff in depth, because again it’s about the process not the people.

Instead you should spend most of the time letting the 4 sales people they brought with them explain how they add value and how they have a brilliant patented methodology. Of course only one of these people has sales in their title, the others are the Account Executive, the Delivery Manager, and the VP of Professional Services.