Request for Problems: How NOT to Submit an RFP Bid

Jeff Marshall


May 2, 2012

The only thing worse than writing a response to a request for proposal (RFP) is reading the responses you get back. I used to believe that the poor responses were due to inartfully drafted RFPs that forced vendors to shotgun their response, hoping that one of the information pellets would hit the target. I've come to realize I was wrong. Some RFPs are just awful. So after two decades of enduring the RFP process, I offer this article in the hope that the next RFP that I must review is presented by someone who has followed these recommendations.

1. Giving voice to the proposer's plight. Often, the party issuing the RFP (the buyer) either has not thought out the details of what he or she wants, does not know what the market can or cannot provide, or lacks the skills to draft a clearly articulated request. If you are the bidder, it is a lousy hand, but, if it is any consolation, all of the other players at the table were dealt the same hand. If the only people sitting at the table are your marketing folks, there is a good chance you are going to play this hand poorly. I say this because if the service team does not control the drafting of the written response, they may find themselves in the position of having to defend a presentation that is either inappropriate or inadequate.

2. When they told you that there are no dumb questions, they lied. As soon as you get the RFP, read through it and make sure you understand what is being asked. Most RFP processes provide a chance for you to submit written questions and attend a pre-bid conference to obtain clarification and address bid specifications.

Every RFP produces at least one bidder who asks inane questions in the hope of getting noticed early in the process. For instance, in response to a governmental RFP for insurance services, a bidder asked, "Have you considered using a captive insurance program?" Governmental agencies do not use captives for two reasons: 1) they do not need the tax benefits afforded by captives, and 2) they cannot afford to post the reserves required by a captive. Both the question and the answer were disclosed to all other bidders. The question immediately told the buyer that this bidder lacked the most basic understanding of the buyer's organization. The other vendors held up this bidder as the example of what could go wrong if the buyer picked the wrong vendor.

Another insurance broker RFP with a 35-day turnaround produced a request for the addresses of the buyer's 4,300 insurable properties. Many of the other bidders, having seen the request, worked into their written presentation that, in the words of one submission, "realizing how important your time is, we promise that we will never squander your time with meaningless requests or activities." If you are asking a question to try to get noticed, be sure that when you get noticed the buyer will like what she sees.

3. "I would love to but I've got to ... um ... wash my hair." The proposer can choose to respond to an RFP or not. On the other hand, once the buyer issues an RFP, he must deal with every response. One RFP that I managed resulted in 22 different bids. Each bidder wrote a single proposal and each member on the buyer's team was expected to read all 22 responses.

Human nature is such that most people will diligently read one of the thinner responses first. This allows the reader to wrap his mind around a "typical response." After reading a couple of the thinner responses, the buyer looks over at the boxes of supersized responses patiently waiting their turn. At that moment, diligence becomes the first casualty of the war. The evaluator's strategy quickly changes to finding reasons to eliminate responses from consideration. You increase your chances of getting a favorable review by realizing that less is more. You would be amazed at the number of times evaluators state, "I stopped reading it after a while." The secret to brevity is seeing the world through the buyer's eyes.

The cover letter and introductory remarks in response to an RFP for brokerage services for a small municipality (population 25,000) in New Jersey boasted about the company's many offices throughout Asia. Another respondent bragged about having thousands of ATM machines worldwide. The winning bidder succinctly highlighted a number of specific municipal clients near the one issuing the RFP.

4. Those employees look so good they should be models. Give serious consideration as to whether you want to use the stock photos; you know, the staged images that show one Asian, one African-American, one Latino and one Caucasian male with perfectly coiffed silver hair. While pictures and graphics break up the density of the written presentation, stock pictures are overused.

It was entertaining when two potential vendors submitted bids containing the same stock diversity photo. One of the teams was invited to the next round. During the oral presentation, the head of the buyer's team decided to playfully ask where the people in the picture were. "We thought that they were going to be our service team," he said. Once the vendor confessed that it was the work of the marketing department, the buyer pulled out the other bid and finished the joke by stating, "you may want to advise your marketing department that the whole team appears to have gone to work for your competitor." What was meant as a moment of good-natured humor left the presenters unable to regain their momentum.

5. Know your friends - you probably do not have as many as you think. There is an assumption that if a vendor listed a reference, the reference will sing the vendor's praises, so what's the point. You would be surprised. One recent service RFP came down to three vendors. Since I had nearly three decades of litigation experience, I was asked to contact a few of the references to see if I could scratch below the predictable endorsements. One of the references for Company A asked who was being considered. When they heard that Company C was in the running, the reference endorsed Company C. Company B's reference advised me that they were going out to bid early because Company B's service team was "worthless." Company C's references were solid. The rule regarding references is straight forward: ask your references before you list them.

6. If the RFP process is a beauty pageant, the oral presentation is undoubtedly the swimsuit competition. Most presenters see the oral presentation as their chance to recite their written presentation. Those who understand that the oral presentation serves a different purpose have a distinct advantage. The written presentation was the "personal ad" that got you your date. Your oral presentation is the first date. Just as you wouldn't read your personal ad to your date, don't read your written submission to the buyers. Like a first date, the goal is to make the buyer fall in love with you. If oral presentations change anything-and they do-it is the ability to develop the confidence that you are the right match.

As a member of a review committee, I was extremely impressed by the oral presentation of one particular person. To my disappointment, his firm did not win the contract. A decade later I had the opportunity to judge his team's response to another RFP. This time, my advocacy for him made the difference for his firm.

The opposite is true as well. One time, a team leader lost his temper during an oral presentation. Three years later, that person headed the team that was applying for the subsequent RFP. Those of us who witnessed the original meltdown recounted the story to the other members of the review committee. His organization was eliminated before the "swimsuit competition." In both situations, the oral presentation was about the personal connection. One guy made it, the other did not.

For most people, making a public presentation is among the most stressful activities in their lives. Stress causes you to fall out of your comfort zone which, in turn, causes you to lose your effectiveness. One way to reduce the anxiety is to practice. When I was a litigator, I would practice my appellate presentations in front of other lawyers who would pepper me with questions and tell me how to improve my presentation. This jury of my peers was far tougher than any judicial panel I ever faced. If the contract is worth getting, putting yourself in front of the harsh light of your peers may make your appearance before the buyer's committee a lot easier.

7. Friends don't let friends present. One of the most interesting opening statements I have ever witnessed was a team leader who started off by stating that he loves what he does and believes that after all of the years in the industry, he was as good as anyone the buyer would meet. He then confessed that the thing that he has never been able to conquer was his fear of public speaking. With that, he turned the presentation over to the others on his team. His confession that he was not a public speaker changed the game. It took away the "gotcha" factor.

8. Beware of vendors bearing gifts. Unless the evaluation committee has requested that you bring additional documentation, give serious consideration as to whether you want to hand out documents at the presentation. More often than not, handouts do not get the attention you hoped for; they merely put the evaluators in the position of having to decide whether to read the documents or to pay attention to your oral presentation. A common comment that is made after the vendor leaves the room is, "if this material was so important, why wasn't it in the original submission?"

9. All the information and only half the calories. The worst presentations are the ones that recycle whole pages of their presentations as their glossy handout and as the PowerPoint slides, which they then read to the committee. As a presenter, you want the undivided attention of your audience. Come out from behind your PowerPoint slides of beautiful people and exploded pie charts and let the committee get to know you. Some of the most common examples of "empty calorie" presentations include presenting the company's family tree, bragging about your 15,000 ATM when I am shopping for insurance services or talking about your new office in some remote corner of the earth when your client is solely a local entity.

10. Sure it's "state of the art" and "best in its class," but does it come with Angry Birds? Every vendor feels the need to brag about their proprietary software and how it will revolutionize the buyer's program. The problem is that the buyers are more tech savvy than you realize. They just aren't "wowed" like they were 20 years ago.

One vendor told how they had a program that tracked every property they insured in every location in the country to ensure that the buyer would get the best rates. After they told how low the rates were for one of their highly protected modern pharmaceutical companies, the committee asked about how information like that would ensure that their 200-year-old, historic, publicly accessible, governmental building located on the banks of the Delaware River would benefit from this data. The discussion ended with the buyers believing that the vendor's team lacked sufficient understanding of the buyer's risk portfolio and that the cutting-edge technology was just high-tech smoke and mirrors. The perception may have been inaccurate, but in the world of corporate speed dating, perception is reality.

If you are asked to do a real-time demonstration, it is your chance to demonstrate why you are better than your competition. Make sure that everyone on your team is literate with the software. More and more, buyers want to see someone other than the IT person run the system. Extra points are often given if you hand over the keys to someone on the buyer's team and take them through the system. Make sure that your program will work at the presentation. If you, the one who built the system, cannot access it, the buyers will fear that they will have even worse luck.

11. Thank you for reading. When I was a kid, my mother made me write thank you notes for every little thing. Both writing them and receiving them was one of those annoyances of learning manners. Now that I have more things to do in a day than I have time, I am stunned at just how ingratiating it is to get a sincere thank you from a vendor. Not the generic thank you, or the "let me take this opportunity to remind you that my company is the best," type of thank you, but something that makes me look forward to working with you type of thank you. To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, I can't define it, "but I know it when I see it."

The phrase, "service contract" is short for "personal service contract." The fact that the word "personal" was removed from the title does not mean you should remove it from your written or oral presentation. Regardless of the buyer's level of sophistication, it is all about making the personal connection that happens through not just saying that you understand the buyer, but actually understanding the buyer and his or her needs.
Jeff Marshall is a consultant and writer on a variety of risk management topics at