The Request for Proposal (RFP) has been a time honored step in the process of selecting an agency partner. Over the course of my career I've completed hundreds of RFPs. They've run the gamut of short, long, specific, vague and every combination therein. While the general intent of the RFP is understood by the participants in the process, the actual execution can be extremely frustrating with the outcome not necessarily delivering the desired result -- partnering with the best team.
I've compiled a list for companies that are conducting an agency review which includes areas they should emphasize and things to avoid, in order to make the RFP process as productive as possible.
- Leverage your networks. Talk with people who've done them recently. Find out what worked and what didn't work for them.
- Know that you can follow through. Asking agencies to complete an RFP by a certain date, and then putting the entire process on hold for an indefinite amount of time, sends a negative about your company. It could be perceived that there was no consensus to support the process, or worse, the company is experiencing significant problems.
- Be clear about your needs and expectations. An unclear and ill-defined RFP will frustrate the candidates and ultimately lead to extra work for you.
- Avoid the casting call. When you get bids from a contractor on a home project, do you ask for more than five? By doing your own research and talking to your contacts you should be able to come up with a short list of three and certainly no more than five serious candidates.
- Don't extend a courtesy invitation to the incumbent agency. If you are doing an agency review it means you are not getting what you need or you think that your current agency isn't the right one for the next step in your program. As much as they may be disappointed, it’s better to end it with them. But you should tell them about your plans before officially starting the process. Give them specifics on why you are making the change. If you've been a good communicator and partner, this shouldn't come as a surprise. You should strive to end the engagement professionally and on good terms.
- Don't be cagey. Nothing can be more frustrating for an agency than developing a comprehensive response to only learn after the fact that the budget recommendations were too high. Tell them what you can spend and be clear on the requirements, steps and timing of the process with all the candidates. This will also help you avoid the situation in which an agency tells you they can do everything and more for your budget, but then come back to you after the contract has been signed to ask for more money or to scale back the program.
- Be transparent about relationships. It's a small industry. If you or another decision maker has a prior relationship with someone at one of the competing agencies, such as you used to work there, make that known. Contenders want to know what they are up against. Finding out after the fact that someone had an inside track makes the others feel like it was in the bag all along.
- Take the time to tell each candidate why they didn't win. Don't hide behind an email thanking them for their submission but that another candidate was deemed a better fit. When you ask the candidates to put that much work into the RFP process, the least you can do is be available to explain your decision and answer their questions. Any good agency will want to know why they lost and what they could have done better. You should also tell them who won the business. This type of sales intelligence is important for them to learn from, and work on for future RFPs.
- Remember, it’s a relationship business. In this process agencies are trying to impress you. You should operate the same way. The more open, forthright and fair you are throughout the process will help your reputation and that of your company. As I said before, it’s a small industry and your reputation is the one thing you take with you wherever you go.