Commentary

How RFPs Reveal A Company's True Personality

I believe I speak for all agencies when I say I hate RFPs. The agency perception is that most RFPs are rigged in favor of one agency, and if you aren’t that agency, you’ll spend a lot of time crafting an RFP with little chance of winning.

For this reason, I’m sure in-house marketers also hate RFPs. They may already have an agency they love but are required to put out an RFP to comply with internal policies. Of course, they can’t tell “competing” agencies the process is a charade – they have to look impartial. That results in wasted time and pointless meetings.

In other words, everyone involved in the RFP dance would rather be doing something else. But even though I go into RFPs with low expectations, I expect some respect for my time. This brings me to my most recent RFP experience, which did not meet this minimum expectation.

The company in question is known for being a “trailblazer” of the Net Promoter Score process, which is the customer satisfaction process companies like Zappos use to measure whether they truly create incredible customer experiences. One of the concepts of Net Promoter Score (NPS) is that customer service isn’t limited to actual end customers, but that all interactions are opportunities to create amazing experiences and ultimately “net promoters” for your business.

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So when I received the RFP, I figured this company would treat RFPs differently. At a minimum, there would be transparency -- and even if we got rejected, we would leave with a positive perception. The first email I wrote to the potential client noted my optimism:

Thanks for reaching out. My head of sales and I will review this immediately and let you know if we are interested in proceeding. FYI, I know [Company] is a big proponent of Net Promoter Score -- we are as well!

Thanks again and we will be in touch soon.

David

As we started to review the RFP, we realized there were some questions we couldn’t answer without clarification. So my head of sales sent an email. After a few days without any response, he wrote again. And again. And then he called. No answer! Finally, after a week, I emailed:

My head of sales has tried to reach out to you multiple times to get clarification on the {RFP} and has not heard back. Knowing that [Company] is as big a supporter as NPS as I am, I'm assuming that his emails have somehow gotten into your junk folder or there has been some miscommunication!

If the {RFP} is still open to proposals, we would love to have a chance to present our expertise to you. If not, please let us know and we will go on our merry way.

Thanks!

David

Within five minutes, they emailed: “It must have gotten caught up in the junk emails folders.  But no worries, your email reached us.  Thank you so much for reaching out to us.  [Name] will follow-up with your team on coordinating a discussion to answer the questions your team has regarding the {RFP}.”

Unfortunately, we still couldn’t get straight answers. Eventually we just decided to submit the RFP with incomplete information.  A few days later, we followed up to see if they had received our RFP. No response. We followed up a few days later. No response. It was pretty clear that the opportunity was probably never real.

Statistics say an unhappy customer will tell anywhere from eight to 20 people about their experience.  And even though I’m not revealing the company name here, trust me, I’ve already told eight people (SEM colleagues).

A painful process like RFP procurement is the ultimate measure of your company’s commitment to customer satisfaction. It’s easy to provide great customer service when you’re doing what you love (in the case of an in-house marketing tea , that would be marketing), but much harder when you are involved in a task that is not your passion. And there’s the rub; good customer service is a 24/7 commitment.

Here are a few ideas for how to solve the RFP problem. For starters, be upfront with vendors during an RFP process. If you are going through the motions to meet internal rules and don’t intend to switch to a new vendor, keep the RFP ultra-short, keep instructions simple, and give vendors a hint on the nature of the RFP. For example, you might send this note: "Hi, we’d like you to participate in our RFP. This is a multi-round RFP, so we are not expecting extensive answers in this first round. Please just send us basic info; don’t waste too much time crafting detailed answers."

Second, suggest a phone call to answer questions. Don’t make vendors send countless emails to get a simple response. Just schedule a quick call upfront – simple!

Finally, treat vendors like customers. Assume that someday, the person receiving the RFP will have an opportunity to buy something from your company or provide a recommendation (good or bad). Business success today requires three types of retention: customer, employee, and vendor. Failure to do any of those well can be disastrous, especially if you are trying to differentiate yourself through the notion of customer service.

10 comments about "How RFPs Reveal A Company's True Personality".
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  1. Chris Zaharias from Campanja, October 29, 2013 at 5:28 p.m.

    1. R.F.P. = R.I.P.
    2. Real men don't do RFP's
    3. Here at Triggit, any salesperson who responds to an RFP is fired.

    RFPs are just a pain in the ass; they're a stamp on the buyer's forehead saying "We will forever forgo the benefits of disruptive technology and services."

  2. David Rodnitzky from 3Q Digital, October 29, 2013 at 7:29 p.m.

    That's awesome Chris, though I can't say I have the guts to outright reject every single one!

  3. Dan Ciccone from MEDIAFICIONADO, October 29, 2013 at 8:16 p.m.

    Good post. I understand the challenge for agencies. When I got into the business, there were a finite number of reps in TV, print, radio, outdoor. With the explosion (and confusion) with digital companies - direct publishers, retargetting, DSP, RTB, SEM, etc., they are overwhelmed with infinite reps who all swear they can do better than the competition and have the "next best thing."

    However, there is no excuse to not acknowledge and provide feedback to vendors that you asked to submit a proposal. You and your client spent countless hours and dollars on research and when you ask a vendor to provide a solution in 72 hours to a challenge that you've been working on for months, well, that's ridiculous in and of itself. However, to not provide feedback - well, that's just insulting. If I don't receive feedback to a a submission, I do not submit on subsequent RFPs until I get feedback on why my previous submission was rejected. Most vendors need your client to succeed. Most vendors want repeat business. Most vendors will bend over backwards to help you. It's sad that this industry that relies on being communicative is anything but at times.

  4. David Rodnitzky from 3Q Digital, October 29, 2013 at 8:23 p.m.

    Thanks Dan. I've heard of other agencies using a strategy that they call "thin to win" - put the least amount of information into the RFP possible on the assumption that the client probably already knows whether they plan to select you for the next round or not in the first place.

    A cynical approach to be sure, but my limited experience suggests that it is not an unreasonable one.

  5. Kevin Lee from Didit, October 29, 2013 at 11:23 p.m.

    Once again, proof that clients get the agency they deserve. ;-) We taken one RFP a year for a few years just to prove ourselves just how much they pollute the process and result in bad decisions. Next year we'll try to bring that to zero.

  6. David Rodnitzky from 3Q Digital, October 29, 2013 at 11:56 p.m.

    I love that adage Kevin! I guess I am really not alone on this one, huh!

  7. Chris Elwell from Third Door Media, October 30, 2013 at 5:54 a.m.

    Pot. Kettle. Black.

    I can't tell you the number of hours we (publishers) on agency RFPs for media buys. "Send us all your out-of-the-box ideas and fill out these 10 spreadsheets" is standard.

    After hours invested in preparing the materials, it's common to hear nothing from the agency for weeks...or ever. Or you get the lame "Sorry, the client cut the budget and we went with the media partners on the plan last quarter."

    Agencies are the *worst* offenders. Be careful when throwing stones.

  8. Chris Elwell from Third Door Media, October 30, 2013 at 5:58 a.m.

    First full sentence above should have read: "I can't tell you the number of hours we (publishers) invest on agency RFPs for media buys." My bad.

  9. David Rodnitzky from 3Q Digital, October 30, 2013 at 12:37 p.m.

    Great point Chris! As the adage goes: "don't judge someone until you've walked a mile in their shoes . . . because then you'll be a mile away and you'll have their shoes!"

    Seriously though, valid point.

  10. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, November 7, 2013 at 7:55 p.m.

    Just think if you had to collect your fees from them. Sometimes not getting the business is the best business decision.

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