6 questions we ask before responding to an RFP

Written by Tom Greenwood - April 4, 2017

Any agency with a good reputation will receive a steady flow of requests for proposals (RFPs) and invitations to tender (ITTs). There are lots of exciting projects landing in our inboxes here at Wholegrain Digital and it would be tempting to pitch for all of them.

However, we prefer to be selective about which ones we follow-up. The reason is that when someone refers to their enquiry as an RFP or ITT, it implies a certain level of bureaucracy. The formality of the process could potentially make it very time consuming for the agency bidding and also could make it hard for the agency to build a relationship with the potential client. The risk therefore is that you could make a significant investment in a process where you cannot judge the chance of success, you may get little or no feedback, probably won’t have as much information as you would like, and don’t even get to form a real relationship with the organisation in question.

I’m generalising here of course, but the point is that the opportunity cost of an RFP or ITT can be huge.

We therefore like to ask ourselves the following simple questions before diving in.

1. Do we like the project?

Regardless of whether the project has a healthy budget or whether we’re capable of fulfilling the contract, it’s important that we’re actually excited about the project in order for us to invest our time in pursuing the opportunity. If it fits with our positive screening criteria, our ethical policy and if it matches a personal interest of some of our team then it might well be worth bidding for. If it doesn’t float anyone’s boat then we should probably let it pass.

2. Do we have the time to make a submission?

As mentioned, the opportunity cost of entering a tender process can be significant. If we’re already busy with other inquiries then something has to give. If we over commit ourselves then we’ll end up working extra hard while achieving less, so it’s important to prioritise opportunities and only pursue the ones that we can give the attention that they deserve.

3. Is there a preferred supplier?

The objective of a formal tender process is to level the playing field, give all applicants a fair chance to ensure that the client gets the best deal and to minimise the risk of any bias or corruption in the selection process. Sounds great in theory but often doesn’t work so well in practice.

In many cases the client already has a preferred supplier but is obligated to obtain a minimum number of quotes or to put it out to tender. We like to do some due diligence on this by looking at the following:

  • Do we already have a relationship with this client that could be favourable to us?
  • Why is the client putting it out to tender and not working with their existing supplier?
  • Is there anyone who appears to be the client’s preferred supplier?

These questions help us to get a sense of how fair the process is and whether we appear to be at any inherent advantage or disadvantage relative to other bidders.

4. Can we talk to them?

We believe that trust and good communication are the foundation of positive client relationships and successful projects. We therefore like to start the process with a healthy dialogue in which we get to know each other and we can explore the optimal solution for their requirements.

However, many tender processes are designed to minimise pre-contract dialogue. There are often no meetings allowed until the pitch or even the project kickoff, while phone calls and emails can be heavily restricted. Therefore, even if the client has written an excellent brief it can make it difficult to truly understand the finer details of the client’s requirements and to create a proposal that doesn’t just sound good but will genuinely work for them. If we feel that the committed level of interaction is insufficient to enable us to do a good job then we’ll try to get some leeway on this or turn the RFP down.

5. Are the budget and time scales realistic?

Most RFPs will dictate not just the requirements but also the maximum budget and timeline. Once we feel confident that we have sufficiently understood the requirements, it’s relatively straightforward to assess whether the budget and timescales are compatible. It’s always worth asking for some flexibility but if it’s set in stone and does not seem feasible then it’s better to back out than bid for a project that can’t be fulfilled.

6. Have they requested speculative work?

We’re big believers that speculative work is a lose-lose for both parties. From the agency perspective, it’s nothing short of being asked to do free work, but it’s also detrimental to the client because the agency’s bidding are forced to create design concepts based on limited information and before going through a discovery phase.

As a rule we therefore do not submit proposals that require speculative work.

Is it worth it?

After we ask these simple questions we have a pretty clear idea of whether it’s worth us making the investment of time to respond to the RFP and go through the formal process. Doing this means that we don’t waste our own time or the client’s time on projects that are not a good fit.  It also means that the applications that we do submit get the attention that they deserve and are therefore high quality, aligned with our teams values and interests, and that we have a sufficiently good chance of being awarded the contract.

If you have other tips for assessing RFPs, please do share your experiences in the comments below.