Put That RFP In The Shredder And Consider This Instead


Originally published in Forbes

By Randy Illig

It’s remarkable how many buyers set up proposal processes that work against their interests.

Witness two recent scenarios my sales team just experienced. The first procurement group was very forward-thinking and understood that for their company to get what they wanted, they needed to make sure the sellers could submit their best solutions. When we asked the procurement lead if we could speak to a few key people, they said, “Have at it. We want your best proposal.” Which makes sense—wouldn’t you want the sellers to have the information they need?

Contrast that mindset with the second procurement group we worked with. We told them we had questions about their RFP and we would like to talk with the owners of the business needs. They asked us to send them in writing. We sent them in writing. They responded with “We can’t let you do that because no one else has and that would be against our policies.” What exactly was against their policy—getting a good proposal?

It’s shocking that so many companies fall into this second category, locking down their procurement process in a way that works against them and impedes the results they want.

And it seems the question is, whose interests are served by RFPs? Possibly no one’s. So can we remake the RFP process into something that benefits everybody?

Changing the Status Quo

Request for proposals are standard fare for sellers and buyers. Traditionally, organizations set up RFPs to exercise control. They believe an RFP will help them capture everything that everyone needs to know in a single document, which somehow levels the playing field and helps them determine the best solution from a variety of options.

But what gives a vendor value is their differences, not their similarities. And the process forces the vendor to do a lot of guesswork. It’s not uncommon for the RFP process to conclude with a winner who then fails to deliver the expected result.

Obviously with some high-stakes opportunities, a strict RFP process might be necessary, but these transactions are outliers, usually involving multinational companies making multi-billion-dollar agreements. Overly complicated RFP processes aren’t necessary for most standard sales opportunities.

It’s clear that the traditional way doesn’t help anybody. What would be helpful is more open thinking. Vendors must be able to talk with stakeholders, so they can respond to the business case with their unique solutions, points of view, and value.

That would take more energy on the side of the buyer to understand those unique differences and not look at things through the lens of a scorecard. But it would also give them a much richer set of choices to consider and ultimately a much better solution.

Here’s how salespeople can shift buyers toward this process:

Challenge the rules. As sellers, we have a responsibility to our clients. And when we get an RFP, we should challenge those rules—not just because it’s in our best interest, but theirs, as well. Proposals should be worth more than the paper they’re written on. They should bring our best thinking to the customer’s situation.

How exactly could sellers challenge an RFP? Call the client and say, “We read your RFP, and it has provided a lot of good information. It’s also spawned a set of new questions, and we’d like to talk with the business-unit leader/end user/ buyer to answer them. How can we arrange that?” An experienced seller might be thinking, They’re just going to make us submit our questions in writing. That may have been true in the past, but the new, more sophisticated buyers are increasingly responding with: “No problem. We’d be happy to set that up for you.”

Don’t give up yet. When the buyers insist you submit your questions in writing or that you can’t talk to anyone, you have a business decision to make: do you proceed under those rules or do you push back?

The easy choice is to proceed. But consider responding with “We don’t feel we can give you a complete proposal that addresses your needs without that information. And if you would truly value having a proposal from us, we need to speak with those people.”

Have the courage to walk away. Here’s the hard truth: if they still refuse to budge, you should walk. That can feel excruciating if the RFP is the only potential business you have to work on or it seems like the only way to access a new client. But odds are, responding to an RFP under these conditions isn’t worth your time.

Remember, this isn’t a game. If you’re a party to a transaction, whether you’re a seller or a buyer, it’s in your mutual best interest to have the very best solution you could get. And the very best solution is unlikely to come from someone responding to a piece of paper. It is likely to come from people having a dialogue and truly understanding one another.


Randy Illig is global leader of FranklinCovey’s Sales Performance Practice.