I’ve been thinking a lot about the RFP process—and how broken it is. Don’t worry! This isn’t another article about why RFPs are the devil. Rather, why are we in an industry that requires people with expertise to run through this rigamarole?
In my personal life, I’m spending a lot of time interviewing professionals for certain things our family and home need. In every instance, I have a conversation with the professional, and they spend some time asking me questions and, in many cases, educating me on the things I don’t know.
At no point do I ask them to write a proposal or participate in an RFP process. Sometimes they’ll tell me they have to plan out what the project will look like, and they’ll get back with an estimate, but I know they are the experts. My job is to find the right one for us.
Likewise, when you are looking for a new doctor or attorney or therapist, you find the professional you believe will listen to you, educate you, spend time with you, and sometimes even accept your own opinion. Again, no proposals or RFPs.
Yet, every single one of us goes through the process of writing proposals and responding to RFPs. Heck, some of us even have to write mock communications plans during the interview process for a new role.
It’s completely backward. We are experts.
This is what I tell our new crop of interns every year—you are an expert. You officially know more about communications than most of our clients, so don’t ever let them take you off your game or make you doubt yourself.
Stop Sending Proposals
I had a conversation with my Agency Leadership co-host, Chip Griffin, about proposals. He, like me, never sends one because you just don’t know enough about a client and their business with just a couple of conversations to be able to write a proposal that is meaningful.
Instead, in the meetings or conversations he has with the prospect, he asks a bunch of questions to better understand why they are hiring someone like him, he talks through his process, and then he sends a contract. That’s it.
Just like the experts I’m interviewing in my personal life, he treats the entire situation like he is the expert, and there is a reason the prospect is talking to him. It’s not to have to read through a bunch of proposals and decide which one is more creative or more interesting. People just don’t have the time—or the expertise—to do that. They all just flip to the pricing page, anyway, so what’s the point?
Put yourself in the buyer’s shoes. When was the last time you had to hire an agency or a vendor or a professional to help you out with something? Let’s use the example of hiring a web firm to help you build a new website.
You know you need a new website. You aren’t sure what you want it to look like and you don’t know how much content still needs to be written. You also know you’re going to have to spend a lot of time with the agency to get it done. What do you do?
Having just gone through this process a year ago, I’ll tell you what we did. We talked to five agencies. There were two we really didn’t like. Just bad chemistry. So we had another conversation with the other three agencies and explained what we thought we were looking for—and got their input on what they thought we needed.
They all told us they’d put together a proposal and get back to us in a week. I said, “Don’t bother. We like you. We just need to know how much it’ll cost.” Every one of them came back to us within 48 hours with an estimated cost. They were all pretty similar so we were able to hire the agency we felt we’d built the best rapport with and the team we knew we could trust.
And, because we didn’t make them go through the whole proposal process, they were each eternally grateful. In fact, we’ve given client business to the other two agencies because they’ve been so gracious.
I know you’re probably thinking, “But Gini, you were the client in that situation so you got to call the shots.” Yes, that’s true, but I was also demonstrating that a proposal is not necessary, if only to give those agency owners the confidence to do it that way in the future.
Instead, Define Your Process
I mentioned earlier that when a new crop of interns starts with us, I always tell them that they are the experts. In very rare cases do our clients know more about communications than even someone who just graduated from college. That is why they’ve hired us. We have an expertise they do not.
Heck, in many cases, our clients have only one or no marketing professionals on their teams so they hire us to help them start marketing effectively and build their teams. I know that isn’t necessarily the case for everyone—some of you may work with clients who have large marketing and communications teams. And still, you have an expertise they do not—or they wouldn’t have hired you.
So now that we’ve established that you are an expert, how do you demand you be treated as such? You have to stop playing the game the way everyone expects it to be played. I know it’s scary, but it can be done.
A few weeks ago, I had breakfast with an industry friend and she was lamenting that she had to go back to the hotel and write three proposals. Time she didn’t have, nor did she wamt to make because, as it turns out, no one likes writing proposals.
I asked her why she’s writing them. She said, “How will they know what we’re going to do if we don’t write a proposal?”
I said, “Au contraire, my friend. Let’s talk about your process.”
She told me that when they first start working with a client, they do a deep dive into their business. They talk to customers—current and former. They do a content audit. They review the back end of their website. And they interview people inside the organization—from leadership on down.
I said, “Ah, ha! Did you talk the prospect through that process?” She said they did. Well, then. That is what you send to them. Here is our process. It costs this much money. Sign this contract.
Watch Your Win Rate Increase
Just like Chip does with his prospects. He talks them through it, he sends them a copy of it (and it’s only one page), and he sends a contract.
Do you know what his win rate is? Nearly 100%. Because he doesn’t send a contract unless they’re ready to buy. It’s really that simple.
And it’s scary. The first couple of times you do it that way, you’re going to hold your breath and pray I’m right.
But I am right and here’s why: during your new business calls, you demonstrated that you are an expert by the types of questions you asked. You demonstrated you’re an expert because you have a well-defined process. You demonstrated you’re an expert because you weaved in case studies during your conversations, “Ah, that sounds like a challenge a client had where we did X,Y, and Z. I can see that same solution working well for you.”
Now, if you don’t have a well-defined process, that’s another issue (and one of the things we teach in our Agency Jumpstart program), but once you get it done, you’ll never have to send another proposal again. You just have to have the nerve to change how the game is played. And I know that if you talk them through your process and send them a contract, nearly everyone will sign.
You are an expert. You have an expertise they do not have. Act like an expert and you’ll win every time.