February 20, 2024

The RFP Process (& Where It Falls Short)

The RFP Process (& Where It Falls Short)

In business, time is money, and both are precious. Yet, many organizations find themselves trapped in the laborious process of submitting Request for Proposals (RFPs). A 2023 trend report released by Loopio showed that teams spend an additional 66 hours responding to bids.

At Swank, we know the frustration of this cycle all too well. What starts out as a mission to be the perfect solution often ends in a sad pile of wasted hours, energy, and resources. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. But we also know that RFPs have their place. When we’re invited to one that follows a good process and just makes sense for our business, we’re the first to jump on the opportunity.  

Still, relying on RFPs as the first choice to find a vendor of choice isn't the best approach for every situation–for many reasons. 

Today, we’re pulling back the curtain on RFPs to expose the hidden costs, inefficiencies, and missed opportunities that plague the outdated process. We’ll also share some alternative options that are more effective and generally lead to better outcomes for both parties.

You know, so it’s not all doom and gloom and stuff. 

RFPs might be bad for business, but our 5C model isn’t. Find out why.

What is an RFP?

An RFP is a formal document issued by a business or organization that’s seeking services or solutions from external vendors. It outlines the project's scope, requirements, and criteria for selection and invites potential suppliers to submit proposals detailing how they would meet these needs and at what cost. 

The Cons of RFPs

There are a handful of negative factors that contribute to the messiness of the RFP process:

1. The Illusion of Choice

RFPs are often promoted as a fair and transparent avenue for organizations to evaluate multiple options before making a decision. But, because they are typically cast far and wide, they often land in the inboxes of companies whose capabilities and experiences are overlooked in favour of a one-size-fits-all approach. This scattershot strategy fails to acknowledge that not all service providers are created equal, nor are they equally suited to meet the specific needs of the project at hand. It disregards the nuanced understanding that comes from truly knowing a company's track record, its people, and its passion for the work.

2. Your Best Ideas ‘On the House’

In the RFP process, there's an unspoken expectation that agencies will lay their cards on the table and offer up their brightest ideas in hopes of landing the gig. You’re essentially giving away your most valuable asset—intellectual property—without any guarantee of return.

This practice not only devalues the work of creative and strategic professionals but also undermines the potential for forming genuine, mutually beneficial partnerships. When the focus shifts from building collaborative relationships to getting free work, everyone loses.

3. A Formality in Disguise

In theory, the RFP process is supposed to level the playing field to give all potential vendors an equal shot. The reality is that many times, the decision about which vendor to choose has been made well before the RFP is ever issued. Our experience has taught us to read between the lines to recognize the signs that a potential project is more about fulfilling a procedural requirement than about finding the best partner for the job. 

Moral of the story: If you already have your winner, don’t waste the time and money of other agencies by going to bid.

4. A Cost Exercise for Cheaper Work

The unfortunate truth is that a lot of RFPs are simply attempts to find the lowest possible price, effectively turning what should be a strategic selection process into a bargain hunt.

The pursuit of cheaper work through RFPs sends a clear message–price trumps partnership. It neglects the importance of building relationships based on trust, mutual understanding, and shared goals. For businesses like Swank that invest heavily in understanding and aligning with the client vision, this practice reduces creative efforts to mere line items on a budget and overlooks the long-term benefits of investing in quality solutions.

5. Lack of Standardization

One of the most obvious issues with the RFP process is the stark lack of standardization. Each RFP seems to come with its own set of formats, requirements, and expectations, which forces agencies to spend valuable resources starting from scratch every single time. 

6. Unclear Requests

The vagueness of many RFPs also adds to the problem. According to Loopio, 42% of RFP respondents indicated that finding accurate answers was a top challenge in the RFP process. 

Sometimes the asks within an RFP are so broad or poorly defined that they seem completely removed from the organization's actual needs. This disconnect can lead to proposals that, despite being meticulously put together, miss the mark completely–all because the target was never clearly outlined.

7. Doesn’t Encourage Real Partnership

The foundation of any successful project is the partnership formed between the client and the service provider, which RFPs inherently overlook. 

Speaking of partnership, check out our Cultivator Program!

The impersonal nature of the RFP process reduces what could be a dynamic collaboration into a fairly sterile exchange. It's a system that prioritizes price over people, and in doing so, it misses out on the potential that comes from truly understanding and investing in a partner's vision and values. Businesses like Swank place a premium on the time and effort spent nurturing partner relationships, and thus, the transactional nature of RFPs is naturally at odds with company values. 

If you have 18 minutes to spare, we highly recommend that you watch the below TEDx by Cal Harrison. He shares some real-life examples that do a great job illustrating the flawed logic of the RFP process when it comes to finding expert services in Canada.

Are There More Sustainable Alternatives to RFPs?

Thankfully, yes, and companies that choose to explore them no doubt benefit from more dynamic and effective collaborations with service providers.

  • Direct Negotiation: Engaging in direct discussions allows businesses and service providers to understand each other's needs and capabilities more deeply while building a foundation of trust and open dialogue from the start.
  • Strategic Partnerships: By developing long-term relationships with preferred vendors, companies can leverage ongoing mutual understanding and reduce the need for repetitive, project-specific RFPs.
  • External Referrals: Leveraging recommendations from trusted industry peers can bypass the formal RFP process altogether by directing businesses to proven providers.

Blair Enns, founder of Win Without Pitching, has an awesome article outlining seven productive steps for how to respond to RFPs. We recommend studying them in detail before responding to your next RFP, but here’s a quick summary:

  1. Why Us: When an RFP comes through, pick up the phone and explore whether you were invited because you were recommended or if the RFP was just sent to everyone and their dog.
  2. Say No: Once you find out whether or not your value is recognized, offer an objection to gauge the flexibility in their process.
  3. Substitute Next Steps: Ignore what’s being asked of you in the proposal and suggest and appropriate next step (like a meeting) to determine if there’s a fit.
  4. Use Case Studies: If you do get the meeting, walk them through case studies where you’ve helped other clients with similar deliverables. 
  5. Suggest Another Way: If the prospect feels you’re a fit, suggest an alternative way of working together, like a phased engagement, so they can get to know how you work without risk. 
  6. Seek Concessions: This is where you can ask to negotiate certain things if the prospect still needs to go through the RFP process as a formality.    
  7. Walk (For Now): If no concessions can be made, politely and professionally decline to be included in their RFP, but leave the door open in case they don’t find what they’re looking for.    

A Necessary Evil in Need of Change

RFPs likely aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, but it’s clear that the current system needs a bit of a shakeup. Between inefficiencies, missed opportunities, and an inherent disregard for the potential of real partnerships, the standard RFP process of today can sometimes do more harm than good.

Being open to alternative options can offer a path toward more efficient, equitable, and productive collaborations. For businesses, moving beyond the RFP means accessing tailored solutions that truly meet their needs without exhaustive, unproductive bidding wars. For service providers, it means they get to engage in projects where their expertise and creativity are valued more than the bottom line. It also gives them the opportunity to focus their efforts on delivering exceptional value rather than navigating a bureaucratic blackhole of RFP submissions. 

We want to work in a world where all parties benefit. Don’t you?

Searching for a marketing partner who gets your vision? Skip the formalities and contact Swank today. 

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