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The Romney – Holyfield Lesson On Responding To A Blind Request for Proposal

One of the most common questions I get asked has to do with how to respond to a Request For Proposal (RFP) when the client will not take a meeting to discuss their requirements. Imagine this scenario, you receive an RFP from a vendor that is known to have an internal policy requiring that they obtain three bids. If you don’t know who is their preferred vendor, then it’s probably not you. What should you do when your organization is not the preferred vendor, but instead just one of the other two bidders in the RFP process? Let’s face it, in such cases you have as much chance of winning that deal after submitting a blind RFP as Mitt Romney had in beating Evander Holyfield in the charity bout on May 15.

As a savvy businessman and politician, I am sure that Mr. Romney knew a few things: 1) He’d likely help raise a bunch of money for charity; 2) It could be a fun experience and might even boost his public perception; and 3) There was no way on earth he would win a bout over Holyfield. Sometimes, however, business executives and salespeople actually think they have a shot.

Why Bidding On Blind RFPs Makes For Bad Business

If you are in the above scenario where you are clearly the preferred vendor and the client has to get multiple bids, then by all means, respond. But, if you are not engaged with the client early in the process, recognize that responding is not only optimism without justification, but your actions border on being dishonest. Have you ever seen a project where the eventual need of the client is covered one-hundred percent in the RFP? Unless you are simply responding to a detailed specification for a commodity product, then answer is certainly “No.”

You Are Not In the Best Position To Deliver Results

If you know you are not in the best position to deliver success, you might think “Hey. They decided to do this silly RFP. If they don’t want to allow us to ask questions, that’s their problem.” Don’t fall into that adversarial trap. When the project fails or you end up submitting “surprise change orders,” they won’t blame themselves, they’ll blame you and your company.

If you take on a project knowing that you are not positioned for success, then you are simply making excuses.

Top Lies Businesspeople Make About Responding to RFPs

I’ve heard all sorts of explanations about why a business bids on RFPs. Here are some of my favorites along with why these arguments don’t hold water:

  1. We Have To Respond To Be In The Game:
    There are many ways to establish your expertise and value beyond submitting a response to an RFP. You might share relevant content, case studies, or even suggest a meeting in advance for a future project. I’ll show you a better way to respond, below.
  1. Once They See Our Proposal, They’ll Fall In Love With Us
    This is the same argument that convinces salespeople to deliver a long presentation instead of having a discussion with their client about the challenge they are facing, and the potential outcome or solution. Rarely has a client gone from apathy to jubilation over the contents of a document.
  1. We’ll Win As The Low Bidder And Then They’ll Appreciate Our Value
    If you win a deal on price today, then you’ll lose the same account in the future because of price. If you win based on value, then it makes it harder for others to compete with you solely based on price.

How Can You Respond To Stand Out

You know that without a discussion, you are probably missing something that might impact your ability to deliver successfully for the client. What if you shared that fact openly and honestly? It might sound like this: “We had another project where we did not speak with the client in advance. Though we won the RFP, the project ended up taking longer and cost the client more than they had planned since some elements we later uncovered were not in the original RFP. This made everyone involved look bad. We don’t want to put our clients in that situation again. Is there no way we can have a brief conversation with those impacted? If not, we are concerned we could be selling you a bill of goods.”

Taking this approach puts you and your client on the same side of the table. It demonstrates that you are more concerned with their results than with making the sale. This approach will not work with every opportunity. The customers who focus simply on price and maintain an adversarial position with their vendors will not be swayed. My advice: Let your competitors work with those goofballs. Instead focus on organizations where you have the greatest chance for mutual success.

If Mitt Romney had tried to win against Holyfield, he likely would have expended considerable energy just before getting knocked unconscious… which is a similar outcome you might experience when responding to a blind RFP.

It’s Your Turn

Share what approach works best for you in the RFP process. Take the discussion to Twitter and LinkedIn and share your thoughts.