Unsolicited RFPs: Just Say, No!

By Kyle Soucy

Published: April 13, 2009

“Why wasn’t I winning any of the bids from these RFPs? … I didn’t have a relationship with the prospective clients before submitting my proposal.”

Imagine that you’re sitting at your desk, and you receive an email message from someone you don’t know who is sending you a Request for Proposal (RFP). You don’t even have any contacts at their company. What do you do?

Like so many other independent UX consultants, when I first started consulting, I would jump at the opportunity to bid on work for new prospective clients. Excited about a new prospect, which just seemed to fall in my lap, I didn’t hesitate to spend a day crafting the perfect proposal. Over the years, I’ve responded to countless RFPs—without gaining the work or a client list to show for it. What was I doing wrong? Why wasn’t I winning any of the bids from these RFPs?

It took a lot of guidance from different mentors and a sales coach before I finally understood: The reason I wasn’t winning these bids was because I didn’t have a relationship with the prospective clients before submitting my proposal. I was responding to unsolicited RFPs, without ever having had a conversation with the project stakeholders. I didn’t realize that, under these circumstances, it’s better to not even respond to the RFP. The goal of this article is to help other UX consultants by preventing their making the same mistakes I’ve made with RFPs and, hopefully, to educate prospective clients on a better alternative for reaching out and hiring us.

Wikipedia defines an RFP as “an invitation for suppliers, often through a bidding process, to submit a proposal on a specific commodity or service….” There are different kinds of RFPs. This article focuses on what is known as an unsolicited, or blind, RFP. An unsolicited RFP is an RFP that a company sends out to vendors or suppliers without establishing any kind of communication or introduction to the company or its stakeholders beforehand. Companies typically send out an unsolicited RFP to at least three to five different vendors. From the perspective of the vendor or supplier, the scenario is similar to the one I’ve just described. When responding to an unsolicited RFP without knowing the stakeholders, you are doing so blind—hence the term blind RFP.

Don’t Respond to Unsolicited RFPs

“I know receiving an unsolicited RFP can seem like someone has given you a map to buried treasure, but if you’re a UX consultant, I’m urging you to just throw it away—and don’t even think about picking up that shovel to start digging!”

I know receiving an unsolicited RFP can seem like someone has given you a map to buried treasure, but if you’re a UX consultant, I’m urging you to just throw it away—and don’t even think about picking up that shovel to start digging! It can be hard to simply put that RFP in the trash, but you’ll be saving yourself a lot of time, disappointment, and frustration if you do. I know there are people who are reading this and shaking their heads in disagreement; I know because I used to be one of them. But don’t stop reading just yet, nonbelievers! Let me explain why responding to an unsolicited RFP is probably a waste of your precious time.

Why You Probably Won’t Win the Bid

Even if you’re a qualified candidate who meets all of the requirements the RFP specifies, you can still be rejected for one of the following reasons:

  • price—I’ve listed price first for a reason. Price is usually the number one reason for your not winning a bid. In most blind RFPs, companies aren’t looking for the most qualified candidate. They are looking for the lowest bidder. Keep in mind that the RFP process is, in fact, a bidding process. Companies use RFPs to attract multiple bidders and, as a result, they expect to have more leverage in negotiating with their chosen vendors. Sometimes, companies use RFPs to start bidding wars and psychologically pit companies against one another. This is especially true for RFPs that let you know who you are competing against. They want you to know so you’ll base your pricing according to how you think the other companies will set their pricing. Of course, the competing companies are doing exactly the same thing in turn. Everyone is focused on winning the business through pricing rather than designing the right solution to solve the problem. This is a disastrous approach for both the company and the vendor, because, ultimately, the quality of the work suffers.
  • a predetermined outcome—In most cases, the company already knows what vendor they intend to hire. Most companies require managers to go through an RFP process—even if they already know what vendor they want to hire. If you don’t know you’re getting the bid before responding with a proposal, you probably aren’t going to get it. As strange as it may seem, if you’re hearing about a project for the first time through an unsolicited RFP, you’re probably already too late.
  • trolling for free advice—In some cases, companies are not really looking to procure a consultant at all. They’re looking for free consulting. Not all RFPs are sent out with such poor intentions, but sometimes no one wins the bid. Some companies use RFPs as a tool to get pricing information and free consulting during an actual procurement process. They may even ultimately use this information against you to help rationalize why they should hire a different company—perhaps the one they’ve had in mind all along.
  • too many vendors—Some people who send out unsolicited RFPs are true believers in what’s been called the Spaghetti Method. They send their RFP to anyone and everyone. It’s sort of like throwing a plate of spaghetti at a wall to see what sticks. In reality, the odds of winning a blind bid decrease greatly with every additional consultant who submits a proposal.
  • fundamental disagreements—Perhaps you disagree with an RFP’s methodology and suggested course of action. Certain RFPs require you to respond to them in a specific format—and, if you don’t follow it, your proposal will most likely be thrown out. Likewise, if you have an idea that doesn’t fit the format, there’s generally no provision for—or interest in—such insights. Bidding on something other than what an RFP requests—even if it makes more sense and saves the client money—is often a sure way to lose the bid. In my opinion, if a company tosses a proposal because it doesn’t fit their formatting rules, it’s not a company you want to work with.

To be honest, I now become annoyed whenever I receive an unsolicited RFP, because the company who’s sent it hasn’t even put forth the effort to contact me directly and discuss the details of their project before asking me to devote my time writing a proposal for fixing their problems. Rather than contacting different vendors individually, they’ve instead decided to save their own time and slapped together a list of requirements, asking a bunch of vendors to respond to their RFP. It shows laziness and basically screams, I want to put forth as little effort as possible to fix my problems. My clients need to care more about solving their problems than that. If they are not willing to invest a minimal amount of effort in finding the right vendor, that’s a red flag, showing me we most likely won’t be a good fit.

Why an RFP Process Doesn’t Work for UX Consultants

“RFPs keep consultants from doing what they do best: providing real solutions, without being biased by preconceived notions.”

Some companies simply don’t know what they want—or worse, they think they know what they need, but focus on the wrong services. RFPs keep consultants from doing what they do best: providing real solutions, without being biased by preconceived notions. The value consultants offer is in their ability to analyze a problem and offer a solution rather than merely implementing a solution they weren’t involved in devising. An RFP demonstrates a company’s total lack of trust in a UX consultant’s ability to decide what procedures and methods best address their problems. Worse, RFPs are often written by individuals who don’t have a clear understanding of a project’s challenges. Given the chance, with the expertise qualified UX consultants bring to a project, they’ll hopefully propose a more appropriate solution and methodology for the client.

Good UX consultants offer a unique way of looking at a problem and solving it. This is why it’s almost impossible for companies to do an apples-to-apples comparison of proposals. Based on their varied knowledge and experience, consultants have their own approaches, which may differ greatly from one another’s. It’s up to the client to decide which approach is the best fit and trust the consultant they hire to solve the problem.

It’s critical for UX professionals to have a deep understanding of the problems companies ask them to solve. We can’t just read a vaguely stated problem in an RFP and, with no dialogue with the client, blindly prescribe a research or design approach. Doctors don’t write prescriptions over the phone for a reason. They need to examine you first to make sure they provide the right treatment plan. Well, the same is true for UX professionals. We can’t assume a client knows what’s wrong and how to fix it. Instead, we need to examine a product for ourselves, before trying to address its problems. A good UX consultant questions everything—and a good client will let us do just that.

Case in Point: Unsolicited RFPs for Usability Studies

“Many prospective clients look at usability testing as a validation process, and they don’t understand the need for conducting more than one round of testing and having iterative design cycles.”

Most of the unsolicited RFPs I receive are for usability studies. Typically, such RFPs specify the number of participants and the number of rounds, and they’ve already defined the logistics for conducting the study. This would be fine if the specifications actually matched a client’s needs. But sometimes prospective clients think it’s necessary to conduct tests with more participants than are actually needed. Many prospective clients look at usability testing as a validation process, and they don’t understand the need for conducting more than one round of testing and having iterative design cycles. Sometimes they request remote usability testing when in-person testing would be the better approach. In such a case, if a company had contacted me prior to defining their solution, they would have gained a much better perspective on the problem, possibly saved themselves both time and money, and in the end, received a solution that would appropriately solve their problems.

A Better Way for Prospective Clients to Get Proposals

“Often, people just follow a company’s RFP process without questioning it, but it may not be a requirement at all.”

Clients can get proposals from qualified consultants in a timely fashion without sending out RFPs. How, you may ask, is that possible? The answer is quite simple: They just need to ask for them!

If you’re hiring consultants and your company has a standard RFP process, ask whether you’re required to follow it for your planned project and whether you must get multiple bids from different vendors. You may very well be surprised by the answer. Often, people just follow a company’s RFP process without questioning it, but it may not be a requirement at all.

If you’re a UX consultant, try to persuade prospective clients who are seeking proposals to follow this advice instead of sending out an RFP:

  1. A prospective client should have an in-depth understanding of the project and its parameters or limitations:
  • What are the project objectives?
  • What deliverables do they want?
  • When do they need to start and finish the project?
  • What is the budget?

A client must be prepared to answer these questions, because consultants will definitely ask them. The answers to these questions can also help a client to identify what services they need to procure and determine what information they need to learn about the consultants potentially providing the services. During their calls with consultants, they should document these key points for later reference.

  1. A prospective client should actually open up a dialogue with prospective consultants and acquire a basic understanding of their services and how they may be able to help. Consultants expect and want to make sales calls. They will not turn down such opportunities. This initial dialogue gives both parties an opportunity to qualify one another.
  2. If a consultant has the basic qualifications for a project, a prospective client should discuss the details of their project further with that consultant, explaining their intention to hire a consultant who can help solve a particular problem, and ask what methodology or approach the consultant would suggest taking. Do they like the consultant’s ideas? Is there synergy? This kind of discussion is the best way to determine whether a client and a consultant are a good fit for one another. If the client decides to proceed, they should tell the consultant to expect an email message by the end of the week, requesting them to submit a proposal. Consultants should be able to deliver a proposal, describing their approach to solving the problem, within 1 to 2 weeks.

A client may want to go through this process with several consultants. However, if the client feels comfortable with the first consultant, it’s quite possible that won’t be necessary. Of course, a company may require a client to get multiple bids from different vendors.

As a client talks with various consultants, they may get ideas for different approaches. This is fine. Depending on what the client learns, they may want to change or modify the scope of their proposal requirements. In following this process, the client and the consultants define the proposal requirements collaboratively. This helps ensure the client has taken everything into account and has a solid understanding of what they want and need from the consultants before sending out their proposal requirements.

  1. A prospective client should send the project requirements to each consultant from whom they want to receive a proposal, detailing what their proposal should cover. If the requirements differ from what they discussed in their initial meeting, it’s best to explain why. The consultants need to understand this. A client should invite a maximum of three consultants to submit proposals, which is all that is necessary to ensure they are getting competitive pricing. If a client is asking more than one consultant for a proposal, it’s important that they be upfront with the consultants, describe their selection process, and tell the consultants how many others are submitting proposals. A client receives a better response when consultants know they are on a short list and have a fair chance at getting a job.
  2. Finally, a prospective client should review proposals and select a consultant! This should occur in a timely fashion. Most consultants put expiration dates on their proposals to prevent this process from dragging out. The client should take the time to contact each consultant who wasn’t chosen, thank them for their time, and explain, in detail, why they’ve decided to go with a different consultant. Courtesy dictates that a client owes consultants at least this much for their taking the time to talk to the client and putting forth the effort write their proposals.

What If a Prospective Client Must Follow an RFP Process to Find a UX Consultant?

“By spamming their RFP, a company is unintentionally sending the message that they’re only interested in securing the lowest bidder for the job, not the best UX consultant.”

If a prospective client must put consultants through an RFP process, they should still follow steps 1-3 before writing the scope of work for the RFP. They should select a maximum of three consultants, then ask only those consultants to submit a proposal and complete the rest of the RFP requirements. They should never send an RFP to a consultant with whom they haven’t initiated a conversation. Not only is doing so unprofessional, it also shows a lack of effort on their part to find the right vendor for the job. By spamming their RFP, a company is unintentionally sending the message that they’re only interested in securing the lowest bidder for the job, not the best UX consultant.

How to Make a Decision Whether to Respond to an Unsolicited RFP

Personally, what deciding to respond to an unsolicited RFP comes down is my precious time. Because I am an independent consultant, my clients have the luxury of dealing directly with me from start to finish, thereby assuring the achievement of their goals through the highest level of commitment. But as an independent consultant, my biggest limitation is time. This means it is not possible for me to provide a proposal for every request I receive—so I must be highly selective in doing so.

“We need to educate prospective clients on better ways of securing our services to stop the RFP trend before it becomes standard practice.”

If you truly think you have all of the qualifications for a project, and you have the time to spare, you may have nothing to lose in responding to an RFP. Sometimes going through an RFP process can be a good exercise for your company. It can force you to take a step back and look at your business and services and evaluate them strategically.

It’s important to note that, when it comes to responding to RFPs, the needs of small UX consultancies differ greatly from those of large design agencies. For design agencies, going through an RFP process is typically an essential part of winning work from new clients. In fact, this may be the reason independent consultants receive RFPs in the first place. Clients are simply used to having to create RFPs to secure the services of UX professionals. We need to educate prospective clients on better ways of securing our services to stop the RFP trend before it becomes standard practice.

How to Respond to Unsolicited RFPs (If You Feel You Must)

“If you are going to respond to unsolicited RFPs, you need to get to know the decision-makers.”

Who you know matters most in the RFP game. If you are going to respond to unsolicited RFPs, you need to get to know the decision-makers. Submitting a proposal blind is just ensuring you have the smallest odds of winning the bid. You should request a meeting with the project stakeholders to discuss the details of the business problem the RFP addresses. Take this opportunity to learn as much as possible about why they have chosen the approach they’ve outlined in the RFP. Some examples of questions you should ask include the following:

  • What do they hope to gain from the project?
  • What is the cost of their not fixing the problem?
  • What is their biggest fear in regard to selecting a vendor for the project?
  • How will they measure the success of the project?
  • Who is sponsoring the initiative?

Use every minute of your meeting with a client to gather as much information as possible. The most important question to ask is this: Let’s suppose you received the perfect RFP back…. What would it say? You need to understand how they will judge you and what their criteria are for choosing a vendor for the project. What matters most to them—price, experience, number of employees, location, or skills?

If a company refuses to meet with you to discuss their RFP, this is a huge red flag. If they are not willing to invest even a minimal amount of time in finding the right vendor, you most likely don’t want to work with them.

If, after you’ve submitted your proposal, a company decides to choose another vendor, it’s important to find out why. This can be hard to do. I have heard of some consultants’ requiring a meeting with a company to discuss a decision that does not go in their favor, as a condition of their submitting a proposal, but I’ve honestly never had much luck getting companies to agree to this.

Usually, companies send a very diplomatic email message to the vendors who didn’t win the bid, explaining to them that another vendor fit their needs better and thanking them for their proposals. I suggest responding to such an email with a request for more information, so you can better understand their decision. Don’t worry about your seeming needy. At this point, you’ve already lost the bid, and you have nothing to lose. Any knowledge you can gain that will help you improve your services can turn the experience of losing a bid into a win!

Write RFPs Instead of Responding to Them

UX professionals should not pass up opportunities to help companies write their RFPs. Doing so can give them a distinct advantage over anyone who receives the RFP blind. It’s also an excellent way to build rapport with a company. While it may be rare for companies to proactively seek advice before writing their RFP requirements, it does happen. For all of you RFP authors, think of this as free, expert assistance! UX professionals want to help educate you—and demonstrate their knowledge and expertise—and have the opportunity to define the solution they may be asked to implement.

Some consultants will even take themselves out of the running for the work so a company can hire them to help select a vendor. This is an excellent way of backing out of an RFP when you don’t want to submit a proposal.

In Summary

“As UX consultants, I think it’s our job to increase client awareness of the dangers of employing unsolicited RFPs and help them understand why they’re not the best way for them to solicit our services.”

Though I truly believe not all unsolicited RFPs are sent with poor intentions, sending out an RFP is often not the best way of obtaining proposals. As UX consultants, I think it’s our job to increase client awareness of the dangers of employing unsolicited RFPs and help them understand why they’re not the best way for them to solicit our services.

When fighting the RFP battle keep the following in mind:

  • Submitting blind bids is for suckers.
  • If a relationship doesn’t exist between a prospective client and a consultant before an RFP, there won’t be one afterward.
  • A UX consultant should never pass up an opportunity to help write an RFP.
  • Sending unsolicited RFPs to consultants does more harm than good.

References

Day, Geoffrey. “What to Do with ‘RFPs’: How Consultants Should Best Handle Them.” IMC ResourceLink.

LinkedIn Answers. “Does the RFP Process Have a Bad Reputation? LinkedIn, June, 2008. Retrieved March 3, 2009.

Madison, Paul G., and Tamara E. Connor. “Is It Time To Use An RFP-Based Procurement Process? The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel, December 2005. Retrieved March 3, 2009.

Marketing Profs. “Know-How Exchange: Why Did We Lose Out on an RFP? Marketing Profs, February 15, 2009. Retrieved March 3, 2009.

Sales Evolution LLC. “Sales Training & Coaching.” Sales Evolution.

Weinberg, Gerald M. Secrets of Consulting: A Guide to Giving and Getting Advice Successfully. New York: Dorset House Publishing, 1985.

6 Comments

Kyle, I completely agree with you. I simply don’t have the time to write lengthy proposals to go up against other consultants for a gig. Any time I’ve done it in the past, I haven’t won the client, and I quickly learned my lesson. My approach is different from your approach, or any other UX designer for that matter. If someone wants to work with me, they’ll contact me directly. Otherwise, I can’t possibly convince someone of my unique value, educate them on my process, and explain my pricing structure in a written document. For me, writing a project plan is the result of back-and-forth conversations with a prospective client, and the document is merely an account of what has been previously agreed upon. It is a short outline of steps in the process, with a schedule and cost at the end. Everything else they need to know, I’ve already told them, or they know from my previous work and relationship with them.

The way I see it, as a consultant, every hour of your time is another hour you could be getting paid. I try to reduce the time I’m not getting paid to an absolute minimum. By not responding to RFPs, I might be missing out on some cool work, but instead I can use the time I’m not writing a proposal to take someone out for coffee, go to a great event, or respond to a lovely article like this. And I’m significantly more likely to get a gig using my time that way.<>/p

Thanks for this great piece. It really needed to be said.

This is a great article! I’m so glad you wrote it! In the couple of years I’ve been consulting privately, I’ve missed out on only a few projects, and they’ve each been the mystery golden egg you talk about. I don’t go for that any more—unless there’s something particularly special about a team/collective response and I really want a chance to work together.

The thing is, why would someone approach you if they don’t know your work? In my experience, when people know you by reputation, they mention it. And in those cases, you already have some sort of introduction.

But what I really wanted to respond to is your point on writing RFPs instead of responding to them. I’ve been doing that recently, and I love it. It’s a great feeling to educate and work with someone to fine tune their brief and work toward specifying something they really want and need.

However, I have to question your point on providing this as “free, expert assistance.”

Working with a client to help craft their RFP or project brief is just as valuable as any other work we do. Certainly, to provide this as a free service is going to either undervalue our work or undercut other consultants.

I feel strongly that this should be treated as another UX service and valued as such.

Excellent article. In my humble opinion, RFPs are better suited for commodity goods and services. UX consulting that falls under the category of strategic consulting is definitely not a commodity to be evaluated on price alone, but instead as a future benefit or ROI, which the RFP process is simply not suitable to evaluate.

Getting a foot in the door by helping a company write an RFP for a commoditized service like lab usability testing is an excellent idea. As Ray Bradbury said, “To ask the right question you need to know part of the answer.” A trained UX professional can help the project manager quickly define appropriate deliverables, budget, timelines, and criteria for evaluation of the various testing services. She can also recommend some good UX firms to send your proposal to.

Cheers! Greg Nudelman

Not entirely in agreement. While your justification for saying no may be correct, not replying or doing it half-heartedly is definitely wrong.

Chances are you receive these solicited RFPs now, because long ago you did reply to one or two unsolicited ones.

My opinion is that assuming a drop-it policy by default is at least shortsighted. As an advisor or decision-maker for the next project, I’ll go to companies that did bother to reply, and I do forward contacts when I’m asked by colleagues. This is why I think your “If You Feel You Must” plus a canned strategy would be better. This is part of networking and advertisement. You may not get this particular bid, but the next bid might be yours.

Great reading and some thoughts:

  1. Sometimes it’s worth putting the effort into a few RFPs, because it allows you to take a step back from your own company and assess its position. (This is important as a startup UX company and also for a company that’s been in the UX business for 10 or more years.)
  2. You can reuse the RFP effort in other non-RFP bids. (We have reused materials like about us, the team, clients, and so on.)
  3. Looking at the language and approaches being used in the RFP gives you an idea of the state of the UX or usability industry in your market.
  4. Responding to an RFP may position you for a future project with that business.
  5. It’s a nice opportunity to draw outside the lines and educate the prospective client on alternative approaches and again help with your positioning.

Look forward to reading more articles from you. :)

Thank you all for your comments so far on this article. Here are some specific responses to your posts.

Whitney, I think your approach of writing project plans rather than proposals is interesting. It sounds like when a prospective client contacts you, they are already sold on your services. That’s a great position to be in! I would love to abandon the proposal process, but I’m not sure if I could. I am willing to try it though!

Lisa, I can see your point on why we should charge clients to help them write their proposals. I do know of some consultants who do this, and it works out well for both parties. I’ve never charged to help a client craft an RFP, but it’s not because I don’t value the service. I think I may consider charging for this in the future.

Valentin, I agree that replying to an RFP half-heartedly is not right. In my opinion, if you are going to respond to an RFP, you should do so appropriately. I think both you and Dan also make a very good point about replying to RFPs in order to win future work.

Best, Kyle

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