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Love em or leave em

The topic of RFPs came up in our local WordPress user group a few weeks ago. They eat up a ton of our time, and more often than not result in absolutely squat. Worse than that, often I get the feeling that we never really had a shot at it in the first place. The evils of the RFP process have been well documented, and I don’t need to beat a dead horse.

For context, I just finished a proposal in response to an RFP. Between the four of us, we spent 4 hours on the phone with the client, 15 hours working on a vision and estimate, 6 hours writing the actual proposal and that was swift. It can be a ton of time. In our eyes, if you are going to go for it, then really go to go for it. Not giving it everything you got pretty much guarantees what ever effort you do give it to be wasted time.  That’s a whole lot of time that I could have been napping (or doing something else productive). So how do you decide when it’s worth it?

When to say yes

Our default answer to the RFP question is, “nah, we’re cool.” That said we do respond to them on rare occasion, and have landed wonderful gigs via them. We have a very simple litmus test for whether or not we should participate. “Can I make a buddy?” If there’s an opportunity to create a personal relationship as part of the RFP process, we’ll often go for it. If the RFP process ends with your proposal in a big pile of other proposals, then forget it. If you can connect with the decision maker, and personalize your submission your odds of success sky rocket.

How do you do this?

Ask questions. Lots of em. No matter how well written an RFP is, it likely is leaving out large aspects of the work. That’s why they’re hiring. They need vision and execution. Talk to the stake holders. Find the decision makers. See what the root problem is. Ask personal questions. Think about the number of times you’ve built a tool for someone and its actual purpose was to make their own job suck just a little bit less. If people resist this process, bail – you’re not going to win. On occasion, they’ll welcome you with open arms. Suddenly, you’re not just a faceless pdf in the stack. You’re Peter, the friendly dude who took the time to get to know how the project actually effects them.

How do we win?

Ask this. Straight up. “How do we win?” Ask it 3 times. It can be an awkward question. The first time that I saw Peter ask it, the look of befuddlement on the client’s face was hilarious. But then a surprising thing happened. They told us exactly how we could win. “Actually, price and features are fungible, what we really need to focus on is our launch date because we’ve got internal pressure to ship something. The team that can propose a solution that guarantees a launch date is the team that we’re going with.” Isn’t that a handy little piece of information when writing a proposal? If you work it just right, your response to an RFP becomes your first draft at a contract.

How much you got?

Don’t guess budgets. Ask. “So, what do you guys have in terms of budget?” If at first you don’t get an answer, ask again. Ask for t-shirt sizes. Tell them the project could cost between $10k and $500k depending on the scope, scalability, etc. That gives a set of low and high expectations to start with. Tell them that you’ve done similar projects for $150,000. If they flinch, then assure them that this can be done for less. At this point, since you’ve obviously gone over their limit, they will be much more likely to let you know what they are looking for.

If they really won’t reply, you can always use Shane’s backup plan. “Oh, so $150k is too much, how about $140k? $130k? $120k?…” If you can’t get a budget range then you’re talking with someone that looks at this process as some kind of Las Vegas bidding game that they can “win”. Forget that.

What do you think?

They worthwhile? Should I just suck it up as part of the dance that we all play?