Why RFPs Don’t Work

Why RFPs Don’t Work

I have an issue with RFPs. It has nothing to do with the winning or losing. It is with the poor writing of RFPs and the process that drive me nuts! I know I am not the only one. I have conferred with folks inside and outside the industry on this!

Typically, public entities like municipalities, government bodies, those organizations that receive government money like universities and colleges—yes, they must go through the RFP system. It is required in most cases, based on the dollar value threshold. And yes, the “local” bidding company does not always win. There are lots of reasons for that (sometimes international and regional trade agreements, or even provincial trade agreements).

My issue lies with the failure of these organizations (not all organizations, but a great many of them) to understand what they are asking for. Recently, I saw a full-blown RFP request that was seeking sponsorship policy and strategy to be built from the ground up as well as a full inventory asset valuation, which would have included all marketing, social, and digital assets, several full-fledged events, multiple facilities, and other assets. They had a budget for all this work of $15,000 to $18,000. What they were asking for (if done right) would be an investment of over $100,000. We asked up front what the budget was, and when we learned, we did not submit. Many organizations might not have shared the budget. Then it is a catch-22. Do you submit or not? This is a reputable organization, they have a great marketing brand, seem well organized, and seem to understand the scope of what they are looking for. Based on that, one would assume (and a wise person pointed out once to me that, when you assume, you make an “ass” out of “u” and “me”) that this was an investment of a good 40 to 50 hours dedicated to completing an RFP that was over 75 pages with instructions and guidelines.

In another instance, we won an RFP. We had said we could do what they wanted, but we clearly noted it was the wrong approach based on what they were trying to achieve, and that if they scrapped the RFP and rewrote it, they might have better outcomes. They said they knew what they were doing, and procurement understood the needs and the intricate details of the sponsorship world. As I said, we won the business and delivered what they asked for. They then claimed it would not work and asked us to make changes, redo work, and do things differently—actually exactly the way we had proposed in our original submission. We did so, and they paid us for it, but what a waste of (in this case taxpayer) money.  Again, people were writing RFPs who know nothing about sponsorship (and I know the same happens in several other sectors).

Recently, we chose not to submit on an RFP because the timelines to submit and deliver were unrealistic. The company had reached out to us six months earlier to determine our interest level. When we chatted, we noted the work they were looking to undertake would take five to six months. They said that was cool—they had about eight months until they needed it. They issued the RFP seven months later. The RFP was issued on a Tuesday and due that Friday. (OK, so as a business, they were asking me to shift all my resources presently serving paying clients to allocate 35 to 45 hours to write an RFP and have it to them in less than four days—talk about out of touch!) To top it all off, the final report and all the one-on-one mentoring time and interviews and such were to be conducted in 31 calendar days—four work weeks! We told them they were being unrealistic and that we would not be submitting.

Then there are the cases where the organization does not get the best possible outcome for its investment. I know of three or four scenarios where an unqualified organization won the business based on “best price.” One of those situations was ours and I can tell you the response from the organization. Price was weighted in the evaluation process at 40%. We came first in every category (six weighed categories) with the highest marks—except price. The company that won had come in with the lowest price. I said to the procurement person (whom I knew), “Basically, instead of choosing the most qualified company based on weighted scoring, that had the best references, best overall approach, and most experience based on weighed scoring, you hired a company with way less of all those attributes, but came in at the best price.” He kind of chuckled and said, “Brent, you know I cannot answer that, but you nailed it. That is how the system works.” And people question why I have issues with RFPs.  This organization, as with a few others over the years, came back to us a year or so later and had us re-do the work that was not done right in the first place! Again, talk about a waste of money.

The problem is that most organizations only undertake an RFP for sponsorship services once in a decade. It is not like a street paving RFP or a car fleet RFP that are done on a fairly regular basis where the procurement people are well versed in the scenarios around the RFP needs and industry idiosyncrasies. When you ask for a sponsorship focused IAV, it is probably once in the lifetime of any procurement officer. By the time they do another, there is turnover in the department. So, no one really has any expertise. That is where the problem lies—no expertise and a failure to ask for help. I can honestly say there are a few that have asked us and/or competitors for help in RFP preparation. We always ensure the organization in writing (usually an email, sometimes a formal document) that we will not be granted any special privileges in the RFP process and our knowledge and assistance does not ensure we will win. I can say that, on many occasions, we do not, even though we provided support. I have no issues with that. If we (or our competitors) can help an organization to write a better RFP that will deliver a better product and have the submitters able to deliver a qualified submission, then so much the better. It is what is best for the industry. To those who write RFPs, if you are not sure, ask for help! It will save everyone time and money in the long run and deliver a better product and outcome.

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    • Laura,
      Thanks so much for this. I agree… AMEN!! Love your #4 why you donèt respond to RFPs! (Some RFPs want us to tell them exactly how we would go about such and such a project. We like helping out with clients or prospective clients but we won’t tell you how to solve your specific problem for free.)

      Thanks for reading and for the additional insights, very much appreciated.


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