The RFP Casino: Is There A Better Way To Play?

casino-moneyWhen hiring legal counsel, an insurance agent or an investment advisor, nearly all businesspeople will ask someone they trust for a recommendation. That’s the lifeblood of professional services. Sometimes, there can be “shopping around” so a company can make a decision that’s best for them. But for some reason, when it comes to PR or communications services, some companies insist on running a formal RFP process.

For the uninitiated, RFP stands for “Request For Proposal” and it’s often like going to a casino. Someone will end up winning, but for all other players, it ends up costing them. Knowing that there will be a winner among all of the losers keeps us playing.

What can be wrong with RFPs? Let me count the ways:

-Too often, the RFP is a farce. The company or government entity already has chosen a firm in effect, but must go through the motions in order to satisfy requirements. Unsuspecting firms compete in the process, at their own expense and time, even though the deck is stacked against them.

-Even in legitimate searches, RFPs tend to put weight on superficial criteria – like size of staff or billings or claimed relationships and promises. Often, they ask for detailed workplans (for free!) that enable the company to pick and choose ideas from the losers to hand to the winners. Other times, they ask for ideas that firms must invent hypothetical answers to, based on just a few paragraphs of information.

-In an interview phase, firms often must make presentations based largely on fiction or, at best, educated guesses – on how they would serve a client that doesn’t yet exist, out of context, without any real knowledge of the company and its business objectives. In fact, I’ve been in presentations where the client refuses to describe the intended scope of work, leaving it to the firms to invent something on which to be judged.

-Relationships with clients that choose a firm via RFP start like an arranged marriage. Instead of hitting the ground running, there is a period of acclamation that’s longer than usual because the client and firm need to get to know each other, in earnest, once the show is over. The real work tends to begin later, after a ramp-up process that can be relatively lengthy, at the client’s expense.

I have yet to meet anyone in this business who likes RFPs, who consistently gets good clients this way or would recommend them for an agency search. So what’s the best way to hire a firm? Whether you’re buying or selling, we welcome your feedback.