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RFP’s: Really Forgotten Proposals – Avoid The Trap

RFP’s:  Really Forgotten Proposals – Avoid The Trap

A few months ago, I was working with a corporate¬†client whose sales team’s conversion rate was not as high as management desired.¬† We isolated the problem to¬†a late stage¬†in the sales process, usually the proposal stage.

It just so happened that an old¬†friend of mine lives in that city, so we caught up for dinner.¬† He’s a¬†consultant¬†with one bread-and-butter client, but was struggling in securing new clients.

He had just lost a¬†big pitch.¬†¬†It would’ve made his year.¬† So I dug down with him, and started at the top, and asked how he and the prospective buyer¬†had gotten in touch.

I thought this would lead to a relatively¬†long story, a sales¬†cycle of at least several months — of¬†several meetings, phone conversations, email attachments, and all that jazz.

The story turned out much shorter than that.¬† The buyer — a project head — had gotten the consultant’s name from an industry colleague.¬† The buyer was the one who established first¬†contact with the consultant.

The buyer had a critical need that the consultant could fill perfectly.  He enthusiastically stated that the consultant had been highly recommended.  And they needed to move fast.

My consultant friend was ecstatic and…¬†

…at the buyer’s suggestion, agreed to a phone conference the next morning, at which time the buyer would give him the brief.¬† About 20 minutes in to the conversation,¬†the buyer had to run in to an important¬†meeting.¬† He promised to send the consultant an RFP document about two hours later, which he did.

The consultant got right to work.  He spent much of the following week working on the RFP, and even postponed a meeting with his existing client, so that he could answer the brief with flying colors.

As he was concluding the RFP, he called the project head/buyer to review a few points.¬† The buyer was travelling and only returned his call once, from an airport, and¬†quickly answered most of the consultant’s questions.¬† He commended the consultant for his perceptive questions and¬†reiterated that things were moving fast, the budget was there,¬†and¬†he needed the proposal ASAP.

The consultant put the pedal to the metal.¬† He had a designer format the proposal, then took it to a printer, and sent off¬†expensively bound copies¬†by express courier…

… and never heard from the buyer again.

Well, he did hear from the buyer again, but it might as well have been never.  It was after the business had been awarded to another vendor.

What’s wrong with this movie?¬† A proposal that missed the mark?¬†¬† Nope.¬† The consultant was being¬†naive.¬† And the buyer was being disingenuous.

Hey!¬† Don’t get me wrong.¬† I’m all for buyer-focus.¬† I’m all for customer-centricity.¬† But buyers are human, too, and some humans are not as nice as the rest.

It sounds to me like the buyer had another vendor in the wings, but needed to get “a few more proposals.”¬† And fast!¬† Perhaps the buyer’s boss was not comfortable taking the favored vendors proposal to the board until the project head had a few proposals to¬†make it seem like¬†they had “done their homework.”

A not-so-straight buyer, especially if he doesn’t don’t know you well, will sap your time and resources, just so he can show the boss he’s “scoured” the industry for the right vendors and then “diligently worked”¬†with them in developing proposed¬†solutions.¬† The problem is, he may have only diligently worked with one vendor, a favorite.¬† And that’s not¬†you.

Early in the sales process,¬†if you hear the words, “Send me a proposal,”¬†you should see red flags and hear alarm bells.¬† It’s time to dig down with the buyer, and really dig.

Here’s the big message: if the buyer isn’t willing to spend a lot of time with you in a way to sufficiently solve his own problems or exploit his opportunities, if the RFP process¬†is little more than a PDF document and a short phone call followed by, “How quickly can we have it?”… if that’s the RFP…¬†run.¬† Run!

And I don’t mean¬†run to your computer to finish the proposal.¬† I mean, run away from that buyer.¬† Run away from, what I call, Really Forgotten Proposal Syndrome.¬† Your probability of getting the business is much lower than the value of your time on productive stuff.¬† Spend time with qualified buyers.¬† Spend time finding qualified buyers.¬† And, oh yeah,¬†spend time with your existing clients.

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  • Great article, but I disagree; the problem isn’t RFPs, the problem is troublesome potential clients misusing the RFP process.
    If you’re feeling rushed about getting a proposal done, not getting answers to the questions you need answered, and getting rushed in and out the door, you should wake up and read the writing on the wall: you’re not being treated seriously. You’re being used in a pricing game.
    This is not a reflection on the RFP process, but more a reflection on the client.
    Some related articles that you might enjoy:
    “Developing your Go/No-Go decision tree”
    “We seek RFPs for Innovation, not Inspiration”
    “Not all Requests for Proposals are worth a proposal”

  • Jack:
    Great post.
    What do you believe were the major warning signals that this was a no-win situation? At what point should your friend have backed out? What questions might he have asked, and when in the process, that might have prevented him from doing so much work that was bound to go nowhere?
    I raise these points because most of the time the non-sincere buyer will stretch the truth just enough to make you think that the process is real, until it’s too late and you get that final call.

  • Thanks for the comment, David.
    It’s seems to me like we agree. You’ve reiterated my main point — that buyers sometimes use sellers. Don’t get caught in the trap.
    Thanks again, and thanks for the three links to your blog. All good stuff.

  • Hey kj,
    Great questions. The warning signals were many. The earliest one was probably that the buyer contacted the consultant and wanted a rushed proposal, right off the bat.
    Then, the buyer really wasn’t interested in spending a lot of time with the consultant. If a buyer genuinely needs a good solution, he’ll/she’ll WANT to spend time with you. Don’t you, when you need something done right?
    As to questions the consultant might have asked, he could have the the challenges the buyer was up against, as well as asked more questions about the organization itself, who was the technical buyer, the economic buyer, the sponsor buyer, etc., and then drilled down as to how a solution would impact each of them.
    I agree that the insincere buyer will stretch the truth enough to make you pitch anyway. The “cut and run” sign, for me anyway, is if the buyer is not spending enough time with you to solve their OWN problem or exploit their OWN opportunities.
    Thanks again for great questions. I can sense you’re on the front lines. And we’re all learning every day! That’s one of the things I love about working f2f with clients is that we all learn, including me. Earlier this week I was coaching a small team, and one woman shared her best practices for cold-calling and I told her I was going to use some!
    Good luck!