Over the past 15 years, I’ve served on both the client and provider side of evaluations and Request For Proposals (RFPs) for emerging marketing technologies and services. These days, I spend
a lot of my time on the RFP receiving end for enterprise social marketing technologies.
Like any tool, the RFP can be constructive and valuable if used properly. It can help surface things like technical strengths and weaknesses, domain expertise, strategic thinking and desire for business.
The RFP can magnify competition, which may prompt higher quality and lower pricing. Of course, that’s why competitive RFPs are the hallmark of many purchasing and procurement departments -- which are often deeply involved in negotiating investments in marketing and advertising technologies.
At their worst, the RFP becomes a time-waster and cost burden. RFPs often come with little warning, raise hopes and adrenaline – and are thus distracting to the normal course of business. An RFP can also elicit perfect responses and solutions to the wrong questions, and reinforce confidence and commitment to poor and damaging business strategy.
RFPs are easier to implement in highly mature and commoditized industries and situations. In emerging or highly dynamic marketplaces, the more difficult it is to execute an RFP process that creates a lot of value. Emerging marketing technologies tend to be characterized by lots of moving pieces, high strategic importance, clients and potential partners with a wide range of competence, noisy marketplaces and career-betting passion. RFP outcomes are more fruitful when both the client-side executives and partners leading them command high subject domain expertise and internal cultural sway.
Executed well or poorly, RFPs consume a lot of resources for a lot of parties. An enterprise RFP response can easily command tens of thousands of dollars worth of internal resources -- from a single technology partner. If you multiply that by two or three competing technology partners, and add the cost of time and resource within the client organization, the total cost is significant. With stakes so high, it pays for both clients and potential technology partners to guide their mating dance through three core values: commitment, strategy and clarity.
1. Have you already committed to a technology solutions partner? In many formal RFP cases, if not most, the winning partner has already been identified. Despite the merits of a rigorous RFP process, that early, chosen partner may be the best one. It was most likely a strong relationship, strategic alignment and strong capabilities that brought you together in the first place. Indeed, those are perhaps the most critical factors that will determine success in any endeavor. If your partner already has been decided, a more lightweight diligence process could be a better use of time for all involved. Even better, engaging competing providers on smaller, paid pilot projects is a great way to understand who and what you’re working with, and where those services and technology can be best deployed. This tactic builds good will, deeper commitment and keeps the door open with a wider stable of potential partners long into the future.
2. Does your evaluation connect to strategic business challenges? RFPs are often tacticallyoriented, seeking answers to feature requests and procedures, not solutions to strategic problems. This presumes a client knows her challenge, and can solve them with off-the-shelf products. In very mature industries and use cases, this may be so -- but not in new and emerging ones. If your first discussion with a partner is an official RFP with a list of capabilities, you probably need to go back to the drawing board. That means investing the time to develop strong relationships with a number of leading partner solutions, and develop a trusted list of advanced client peers with good referral advice. Because most RFPs focus on tactical feature lists, they tend to prevent discovery and deep examination of strategic problems. Be sure to increase your likelihood of success by enabling discovery and critique of your core business challenges-- and how technologies can address those.
3. Is your evaluation guided by clear priorities? RFPs create great confusion for client organizations because they introduce a plethora of tactical options and conflicting views, often with many client stakeholders and departments involved. This creates complexity and can either delay or entirely derail the process of solving the original, or right, challenge. Similar to surfacing and answering strategic business problems, the process of identifying complex priorities in which to develop long-term solutions often is best decided in a client-partner relationship, not a competitive bake-off with loosely tied tactical vendors.
Incorporate These Three Principles Into Your Evaluation of Strategic Marketing Technology Partners
RFPs are not necessarily good or bad, though it’s important to use them correctly. If you scrutinize your evaluations process and RFPs to these values above, you’ll position yourself and your company for a much stronger outcome with your investments in emerging marketing technologies. Many large companies often have stringent RFP policies, with little room for interpretation. Still, with enough forethought and planning, these values can be incorporated into your evaluation process.