RFP – you get what you ask for

I’ve pretty well given up responding to RFP’s. In most cases they are are so poorly worded that you don’t really know what the client wants. Unless you have inside knowledge, responding to an RFP is a crap shoot. I am referring here to RFP’s for consulting services, especially performance improvement, and not those requesting commoditized goods or services that can be clearly specified

As the successful bidder you have to meet the requirements as stated in the RFP, even if they they make little sense. It may be cheaper to sub-contract a task that is required, but the RFP requires it, so you calculate it at double what someone else could do it for. Clients do this so that they only have to manage one contract.

I recently came across this article on The Elephant in the Room, from Hamer Associates [I wish there was an RSS feed on this site]:

And this is where the RFP process breaks down –in the case of human performance management or change consulting– the RFP seeks the cheapest (or most experienced) provider of a solution to a problem; a solution that the organization has already chosen. However, as I reflected on past RFP responses, in too many cases the problem either was not defined, not communicated, or so poorly defined that it begged discussion. And even in cases where the problem was defined, the chosen solution often would not have solved the problem.

I had a similar case a few years back where the client’s RFP required e-learning, but I was quite certain that e-learning would not address their issues. Luckily, I was able to negotiate some time for a “confirmation of the analysis”. My report enabled a significant reduction in e-learning (courses online) and a new focus on performance support and procedural changes.

Too often, consultants do just what the RFP has called for, even if it is not in the best interests of the client. RFP’s may be the safest contracting method from an accounting or a bureaucratic perspective, but for real organisational performance improvement they are definitely not the best tool.

8 Responses to “RFP – you get what you ask for”

  1. Dave F.


    I tend to agree about the RFPs. Large organizations that haven’t decentralized almost inevitably prefer to simplify their contractual relationships. In the Washington DC area, for example, it’s nearly impossible as an independent operator or even a group of a few people to get on a federal agency’s list of approved vendors.

    This means the Department of Widget Implementation ends up contracted with AmalgaCorp. Amalga, a very large outfit with lots of government experience, has more project managers than you have third cousins. Amalga then subcontracts to Pantagruel LLC to handle the instructional part of the contract. Pantagruel has one developer and one coder to spare; for the rest, it hires contractors from its own stable of resources.

    The end result is that Dave (or Harold) bills Pantagruel; Pantagruel marks that up and charges AmalgaCorp; AmalgaCorp marks that up and bills DWI.

    Sadly, this doesn’t even address your key point — the difficulty of defining a complex program down to the “if this, then that” reasoning of an RFP.

  2. Brikwall

    I’ve written/edited some RFP responses for a client of mine. While I didn’t have to worry about the nuts-and-bolts of the response, just the actual wording, I was frustrated at how needlessly difficult these processes can be. The RFP documents were usually quite poorly worded, often contradictory from one section to the next, and sometimes quite confusing when it came to determining exactly what services or products one was expected to provide. Composing a clear, concise, and well-written response seemed next to impossible. And, to make matters worse, requests for clarification were often met with a “piss me off and we’ll eliminate you from the process” cold stare.

    But what bothered me most – when one considers we dealt almost exclusively with government departments or Crown corporations – was the fact that the government accounting or procurement staff appeared to put more time and effort into their morning cup of coffee than a 25-page document that would cost the taxpayer hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars a year.

  3. Becky

    This begs the question, “how do we convince our client’s that what they think they want isn’t really want they want”. Too often, someone thinks they want/need a formal “training” intervention, be that e-learning or instructor-led training, when what they really want/need is some tools/job-aids to help them get through the day.

    Wouldn’t it be great if the RFP just said, I have this problem and I want to you to tell me your recommend approach to solving the problem.

  4. Harold

    What I try to do with my first-time clients, Becky, is to suggest an initial project that is as small as possible, in order to confirm what really needs to be done. This could be a quick performance analysis or the development of a list of several options, with pros & cons and costs explained. Then the client has something tangible and they can engage your services or someone else’s. It’s low risk for both parties.

  5. Chris

    My personal peeves are the RFPs that read — between the lines — as “any supplier but X” or, conversely, “suppliers other than X need not apply”.

    Even when the RFPs don’t actually read that way, the fact of the matter is that clients often do have a single supplier in mind, and everyone else is wasting their time.

    We rarely respond to them.

    We also see a lot of organizations preparing RFPs where they’ve gone too far; I suspect they think they can save money by spelling out what they need in overwhelming detail, but what they end up doing is cheating themselves out of the very expertise they’re looking to hire.

    The most bizarre RFP we’ve seen lately was from a _very_ large, very profitable organization that needed a web site design; they’d already built the back-end, and established the structure.

    Never mind that this meant they viewed web site design as a mere “make it pretty” exercise, completely ignoring the role of user interaction, information architecture or design-as-problem-solving. This was a sign of a potentially-problematic client all by itself, but not necessarily an insurmountable issue, given time.

    The show-stopper, though, was that they insisted on designs being submitted with the response to the RFP — including Photoshop files, HTML and CSS, although they claimed they didn’t need to be final. Yeah, right, you’re going to bid on a really large job with some rough concepts you’ve mocked-up on a napkin; that’ll get you the job.

    Oh yeah, these designs were to be done at no cost or risk to them, and submitting them meant they owned them.

    So they own your work, you do it on spec, and they can hand it over to the lowest bidder for production (meaning you’ve worked for nothing). Unbelievable.

    Try that with a plumber some time and let me know how it works out…

  6. Jon Husband

    IMO, RFP’s are Best Practices Gone Evil … the application of “proper” management techniques to the procurement of goods and services that have mopre often than not already been decided upon, in the supposed interests of accountability.

    What do you get when you cross a Purchasing Manager with an OD or Learning consultant ?

    All answers gleefully reviewed for any useful wisdom !!

  7. Fred

    I was searching for a Private sector. I was wondering if you could help me out with this.


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