Free & The RFP

I get asked to work for free almost every week.  Or at least consider working on the basis of trade with the offer of things like promotion, exposure, audience.   There are moments when it can make a lot of sense to work for free and every business leader has to pick their spots.  My friend Laurie at Punk Rock HR said this week she doesn’t work for free.  I tend to side with her.  Although being asked to work for free is nothing new to me.

Having run Business Development for a large services organization I have been involved in hundreds upon hundreds of RFP bids which often resemble a vendor shootout at the OK Corral.  The online reverse auction driven by procurement. The 100 page response with spec strategy and work product followed by the 45 minute presentation with 15 minutes of Q&A….its professional selling of the highest competitive order…where the game is on and the stakes are high.

I had a small crew of elite sellers who specialized in enterprise business development and we had a great run of success going 19-6 over 25 head to head major competitive reviews.  We were forced to get pretty good at lining up and competing to win.  A few things I learned about the RFP Process along the way:

Relationships matter MORE:  The idea that the vetting process is going to level the playing field is a misnomer.  Try reading 7 100 page documents and sitting through pitch presentations from 7 different vendors in the same category… all starts to look the same.  Relationships count!  And many bids are decided before they are sent.

Proof of Concept is HUGE:  The RFP process often resembles decision by committee and that usually means safe selection.  The odds of the outlier with the alternative approach or BIG idea winning in the end are slim (though nothing is impossible).  Before investing in participation as a vendor ask yourself if the business you are bidding on is right fit and core competency?  Do you have proof of concept in your case study?  The committee doesn’t want to be the first one into the pool.

-Don’t Make Assumptions:  Ask questions.  Many vendors miss this opportunity since there is often so much structure and rigor built into the process.  Big mistake.  If you don’t know, ask.  And always, always focus on selling from a position of intelligence.

Customize:  Your response.  Your presentation.  The truth is, nobody really cares about your stuff all that much…and your stuff isn’t all that different that the other 6 vendors responding.  They care a lot about their stuff….make it ALL about that…..

FREE:  Make no mistake.  The RFP process is often a request to work for free on trade for a 1 in 7 chance to win business.  Is it worth the investment?  Your call.  How much should you give?  It depends.  But I’d consider long and hard before I volunteered customized work product or solutions and strategy as part of the evaluation criteria.  Those should be far too valuable to give away.  And at the end of the day that is rarely representative of a firm’s best work and/or outcome for the customer…..particularly when the work product is creative.  The best outcomes there are achieved in close collaboration and partnership.

Are you working for free?  The following is a fun parody on the vendor client relationship, negotiations and working for free.  Enjoy!

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