Answering the RFP

  |  July 20, 2010   |  Comments

Don't let a poorly written request for proposal stop you from solving a client's business problem.

The request for proposal (RFP) process has always been interesting to me. You're given questions ranging from 10 (yes, I have seen one this small) to over 100 and broken into multiple sub-categories. If you've spent even just a little time answering RFPs (define), you develop a fondness for certain recurring questions. My favorite question occurred when a non-global company asked about our global capabilities. Apparently they thought at some point in the next 100 years, they might go global, and wanted to make sure we'd be prepared. I showed them a map of the world with some dots on it and told them we had two people who spoke Spanish - that sufficed.

Regardless of how much "fun" answering RFPs are, they're a necessary evil. Clients need some mechanism to weed out the riff-raff. The best way to facilitate this is to have companies provide carefully worded documents detailing their business offerings. There may be flaws in the RFP model, but currently it's the best way clients evaluate potential business partners. Despite its importance, agencies still make simple mistakes answering RFPs that end up minimizing their chances to win business.

What's My Motivation

The first thing to think about is why the client is looking to move. Pricing, personalities, lack of innovation, and a host of other issues can motivate someone to leave their current relationship. Understanding client motivation gives you a clear indication of where you can succeed. These discovery questions may not be typical "What are your goals?" type of questions. They're not designed to learn about their business. Instead, we develop questions that talk about the personalities and working relationships that may have led to this decision. Develop some working relationship questions, such as:

  • What's motivating this RFP?
  • What do you feel your current strategy is missing?
  • What do you like about your current team?

Once you get your answers, you'll be able to craft the story of why you'll be a better partner to work with. It's key to understand that this is different than why you might be a better agency. People buy you for two reasons: you're the best at what you do, and they like working with you. Design questions that target the relationship side of the RFP.

Be Direct

The time to show off your personality is during the presentation. The RFP is where you provide answers to questions - sometimes this is hard for agencies to differentiate. Nothing frustrates a client more than adjective-heavy copy that doesn't really answer the question. When answering an RFP, give yourself a word count to ensure you won't go long. If asked, "How do you set KPIs?" simply explain how you do it. Don't lead with something abstract such as, "KPIs are critical for business success - something we have built a robust practice and proven methodology around." Don't complicate your message with fluff. Get to the point of how you can solve the problem.

Be Truthful

Clients don't want a bait and switch. If you say you can do something, then you better be able to deliver. If there's something you cannot do, don't hide it. Focus on what you can do versus what you think the client wants to hear. When we were asked about our global capabilities, the first version of our answer boasted our position as a global company and that we understood how important global is in this evolving landscape. This is more "fluff" to throw them off the trail that our global answer wasn't great. It wasn't a bad answer, but it didn't answer how we would manage their search efforts globally. We revised it to explain what we lacked and why, which led to what we could execute today and our plans to expand those capabilities. This way everyone knows the situation going in versus winning the business based on a false promise.

Be Opinionated

Clients want help. It's not that they're incompetent. It's that their expertise lies in the product or service they engage in. Your expertise is in digital marketing and it's the very reason they're coming to you for help. What they don't need is an obscure set of choices they must decipher, analyze, and choose from. They want a partner to solve their problem - not add to it. You have to tell them what you feel will be the greatest benefit for them. They're looking to you for the best professional advice. Don't present a series of choices with multiple sets of dependencies. This makes your team look confusing and seem as though working with you will result in a very long discovery process that will produce more headaches than answers.

Be Different

Sorry Apple, but you don't own being different. One area that I push people on is making sure that our answers are different than the status quo. On the surface, everybody does keyword research and copy optimization. The question is: "Why you do it better?"

Think about the ways that your team does things better and highlight those factors. Is there anything about your approach or execution that others can't replicate? This is why technology has become such a big deal for marketers. They want to believe that if everyone is doing keyword research there is some technology leverage that makes you better. If you don't have a technology differentiator, then you should spend time talking about approach, process, and lastly, previous client success. Potential clients love to hear about the success you've had with real clients. It gives them comfort that you've done this before and have been successful.

Be the Best

When Winston Lord worked as an aid to Henry Kissinger, he presented the Secretary of State with a draft of a foreign policy report. Kissinger called him into his office and asked, "Is this the best you can do?" Lord responded, "I thought so, but I'll try again." This routine went on eight times, with Lord submitting eight drafts and Kissinger asking each time, "Is this the best you can do?" On the ninth try, after Kissinger asked him the question, an exasperated Lord said, "I can't possibly improve one more word." Kissinger looked at Lord and said, "In that case, now I'll read it." Don't submit your answer to the team until you believe it's the best it can be.

Sell Me What I Asked for and What I Need

The biggest mistake I find people make is trying to sell what clients want, instead of what they asked. If you have a media pitch, go with your media story and keep the creative story out of it. Some agencies want to sell more services and see the initial opportunity as the chance to talk about everything they do. In the initial RFP, you should focus on answering what they're looking for. This rule has a fine line that you have to manage. Overselling people is not the same as selling them what they need. If a prospective client makes no mention of analytics, you still need to include that in your response because you know, ultimately, it will lead to success.

Don't let a poorly written RFP stop you from solving a client's business problem. As long as your additional services ladder up to the initial request, then you'll be seen as strategic. If you're just adding services, you'll be the car salesman trying to push the undercoating.


Joshua Palau

Joshua Palau is the vice president of Search for Razorfish. In this role he is responsible for the global strategy, product development and operations of their paid, organic, and feeds offerings.

He helps clients to understand how search fits into the overall marketing plan and constantly researches the rapidly changing industry to help clients anticipate, and respond to, changes in the landscape.

Joshua is an active writer who has authored several Razorfish POVs on topics such as managing paid and organic search, reputation management, and social search optimization. In addition to writing his SEW column, he serves as the editor of Razorfish's weekly newsletter, Search Marketing Trends.

Joshua began his digital career in 1996 and has a diverse background working on the publisher, client, and agency side. Prior to joining Razorfish, he has worked for Hearst Magazines,, and Johnson & Johnson.

His columns can be found in the Search Engine Watch archive.

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