04 22 2015

RFP Madness

The cut-and-paste conundrum: why responding to RFPs on autopilot is a mug’s game

Pitching on RFPs is a way of life for companies. In an effort to become leaner and meaner, executives often decide to streamline the RFP process by creating stand-alone departments whose sole purpose is to cobble together proposals in response to RFPs. Their employees cut and paste pre-fab content from other proposals into rigid templates and send them back up the line. To make matters worse, an entire proposal software industry has emerged built on the idea that you can develop a response to an RFP by plugging and playing key messages.

To the cutters and pasters, the clients who will ultimately give a thumbs up or down to their work are merely faceless entities — as opposed to individuals with incredibly specific needs. Predictably, the proposals they stitch together are utterly lacking in distinguishing features that would render them meaningful to their intended audience.

Not only are the RFP first responders (or RFP FRs, as I like to call them) so far removed from the client’s needs, they also lack a nuts and bolts understanding of the industry issues the clients face. Meanwhile, while the FRs are off in their cubicles fabricating proposals, the pitch team members who flipped them the RFPs when they came in the door are off somewhere else prettying up their PowerPoint presentation. By the time pitch teams bother to look up from what they’re doing (or, more likely, hit a wall because they’re going about the process haphazardly), it’s too late to fix the problem.

The double irony here is that aside from resulting in completely homogenized proposals, the cut-and-paste method actually drains company resources, since it takes far more time to sift through reams of material looking for the right response than it does to pick up the phone and talk to the client. Worse, it fosters bad pitching habits. Teams become so reliant on their RFP departments to provide them with content, they sit hunched over their computers all day instead of making a human connection with the client. As a result, they either fail to build the relationships they need to win the business, or let the relationships they’ve worked so hard to develop go to seed. I’ve seen so many one-size-fits-all widgets masquerading as proposals in my travels that I wonder why their teams even bother to submit them under their company logos. They should just rubberstamp them “Generic Is Us”.

As tempting as it might be to go with a cut-and-paste approach, you can’t respond to RFPs on autopilot. Well, you can, but not if you want to win. You have to start from the premise that clients and the problems they need solved come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, and the only way you can possibly understand how to solve them is the old-fashioned way: by getting to know them.

I realize that may sound ridiculously self-evident, but I can’t tell you how often I encounter sales teams that consider engaging with clients as an afterthought, or don’t do it at all. Either they fear imposing on the client’s time, technology has turned them into phone phobics, or they think they have all the answers. But if you don’t call the client up and ask pointed questions to find out what they need, how can you possibly understand their needs?

The RFP is hardly the place to find out. Sure, they go on and on for pages listing requirements and you can read them until your eyeballs bleed, but unless the RFPs you’re reading are different than the ones I am, you can’t find out much there. (If you’re bothering to read them at all, I should add, since some people don’t even do that.) RFPs aren’t very illuminating because the procurement people who write them aren’t exactly brilliant communicators. Nor are they experts in the field for which they’re seeking services.

So, to review, you have an RFP company culture where the left hand doesn’t have a clue what the right hand is doing (or worse, lacks any pitching process at all), and pitch teams that aren’t connecting with the clients. Is it any wonder the results are underwhelming?

In the weeks to come, I’ll be returning to this theme and outlining strategies I’ve developed to cut your ties with the cut-and-paste brigade, follow a logical, integrated pitching process, and put the point of view and personality back into your pitches.

Stay tuned.