Guerrilla RFP Responses

Some RFQ/RFP processes are pretty involved. First, there are the qualifications. Then there’s a pre-bid meeting and/or site tour for the short-listed firms. Then the proposal. And then they want you to complete a “test assignment” and make a presentation. For these, there aren’t many questions about what you need to do. After all, they’re already asking for just about everything that you could do.

But what about the other end of the spectrum? The RFP that provides some background information, outlines a scope of work, and asks you to provide experience, team CVs, a basic work plan, and a fee. “Alright,” you think, “It’s about time I got an easy one.” (“Aboot time” if you’re Canadian.) Not so fast there, tough guy/gal. Remember that the goal here isn’t to get through the RFP, it’s to get the project. If that isn’t your goal, then maybe you shouldn’t be wasting your time with a response at all.

And if the goal really is to get the project, then you need to go after it like you want to win it. Because unless it’s a truly craptastic opportunity (a crapportunity?), you can bet that at least one other respondent is going to be approaching it in that fashion. Try imagining what you would do if you had just started out on your own, and this would be your first real project, or if your firm had to get this project to stay in business. Because for one or more of the other firms going after it, that may actually be what this project represents.

What might this kind of effort entail? How about some or all of the following:

      • Ask questions. The RFP may be so clear that you think you don’t have any questions, but I’m sure that there is some piece of information that would enable you to make a more meaningful proposal if you had it. And the very act of asking also helps to establish you as a firm that is taking the RFP seriously. Just make sure that you aren’t asking dumb, irrelevant questions. The questions themselves should illustrate your understanding of the assignment.
      • Customize the description of your project approach or proposed scope. Even if it’s a fairly straightforward assignment, requiring a very standard scope of services, look for ways to tailor the description of your approach to the project, rather than just cutting and pasting your standard language. It seems minor, but it helps to reiterate your interest in the project, and you would be surprised how many people don’t bother to do it.
      • Talk to users, customers, or stakeholders. This is easier than it sounds, and it can make a big impact on the potential client. You don’t have to do the same kind of in-depth analysis that you would do if you actually got the project. Just a sampling will go a long way.
      • Do some spec work, especially something that illustrates what you learned in the item above. I know that people hate it and resist doing it (and the hate and resistance seem to get stronger the further you move from the world of advertising, where speculative work has always been commonplace), but doing something on spec is probably the most powerful weapon you have in this process. I’m convinced that if there are two firms of even remotely comparable qualifications competing for a project, and one firm does speculative work and the other doesn’t, the firm that did the work will get the project every time. RFPs where one firm was preordained as the winner are an exception, of course, but that’s the subject for another post.

What are some of the excuses people use to justify not taking this kind of aggressive approach to their responses? Here are a few:

      • The RFP specifically says that they aren’t looking for spec concepts or specific recommendations, just a description of our approach. Ignore that instruction. In fact, look at it like a trick, put there to test your level of desire for the project. Because somebody is going to take those extra steps, and they are going to come across as a firm that is more interested in the project, as well as doing a better job of demonstrating how they work.
      • What if I get in trouble for making a covert site visit or contacting stakeholders without permission? What do you have to lose? You don’t have the project now, and you’re probably not going to get it unless you take some extreme actions. Just be discreet, and use good judgment, and I doubt you’ll do anything that could get you in trouble.
      • What about violating the rules? Won’t we be seen as a firm that can’t follow directions? I’ll let you in on a secret. The people in the client’s organization who really care about the procedural aspects of the RFP process aren’t the ones making the final decision about who to hire. Sure, there are some rules that are in place for a good reason, and you will look careless and unprofessional if you don’t follow them. You need to provide the correct number of copies, on time and in the right place, for example, and don’t leave out important information or wantonly disregard page limits. As far as over-delivering goes, however, you shouldn’t worry about it. Even if it raises some eyebrows among the purchasing managers, the marketing or facilities or IT or project management people that have the biggest voice in who gets the job are going to appreciate the extra effort.

I’m not saying that you have to approach every opportunity like this. There may be some small projects that don’t warrant this kind of effort, but that you just can’t stand to pass on for one reason or another. But for major engagements, I think you have to ask yourself “If we don’t want to do whatever it takes to win this, then why are we pursuing it?” Incorporate this attitude into your RFP response process, and I suspect that you’ll find your success rate growing dramatically.

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