Having done two mandatory tours of duty in the big agency world, I understand the RFP process. It’s a necessary evil to win most large accounts. However as a small business, I find them to be downright painful. An RFP ought to be called a Request for Pain.
As a small business owner, RFPs are extremely taxing. Consider that in a large or mid-size agency you have business development and senior staff dedicated to winning this kind of business. In a small agency like mine, you are basically pulling time from a very limited resource pool. Instead of focusing on local networking events, phone calls, building relationships online, and developing useful content, you spend 20, 40, 60 or more hours building a proposal and pitch.
The odds of winning RFPs are not good when you are small. I would say the same thing for a large agency, but is easier to dedicate the resources and mitigate the risk.
You almost always have to have a prior relationship, and get the RFP written to you, or intelligence to help you shape your pitch. There is almost always a favorite or two in the dance.
If you do not have a prior relationship, question whether it is worth your time. Many times the third through fifth firms have been referred as good agencies that might be able to do the job, but the odds are long. In the cases were the RFP is hard-wired, some or all of players three through five are asked because they can’t win. They have a glaring flaw.
In the case of a small agency, size is almost always in issue. In a wired RFP, a small agency is an easy kill. Scaling questions must be addressed to the client’s satisfaction. Sometimes this is overcome with a focus on niches, such as community management or social media content. With larger contracts, though, even the ability to scale quality niche work becomes an issue. Most large companies don’t want to deal with a network of consultants and small boutiques to achieve scale. Can you blame them?
People do business with people they like. So if there is no relationship, you have to become the darling of the potential client very quickly and get the same type of intelligence that the favorites receive. That can be hard to do. If the client is cold and distant during the initial RFP process consider it a clear warning that you are wasting your time.
I almost always decline to participate in RFPs because of these many issues. The pain is not worth it. At least for a small firm like mine. My time is better served networking and building relationships for projects and winning business with people that know and trust me (and my firm).
What do you think of RFPs?