• Advice

Why requests for proposals are bad for your business

This is a post from a member of the Freelancers Union community. If you’re interested in sharing your expertise, your story, or some advice you think will help a fellow freelancer out, feel free to send your blog post to us here.

Okay, I confess I have responded to about four RFPs in my design career. The last and most recent was the one that finally nailed it home that responding to a RFP is just not worth it.

The RFP siren song

But I get it. RFPs are SO seductive. You read over the request and who it’s coming from and your heart is wildly beating with excitement. “This is my niche, my sweet spot, this is my ideal client and could be my new next best client. What they’re asking for is right up my alley. I have a perfect set of work samples and case studies to win them over—hands down!”

So you study the RFP with care. You follow and answer everything to the letter that the RFP is asking for. You write compelling reasons why you are the one for them and how you can address their problems. You select the best relevant project examples that illustrate your talents and solutions to client issues. Your edit, you proof. You proof again. You send your proposal to a trusted colleague to proof and give you feedback.

Sixteen pages and 22 hours of work later, you christen your completed proposal and send it off in an email full of professional enthusiasm just hours before the specified deadline.

The waiting game

Then you wait. And wait. You don’t want to come off as pesky or too eager, but after a week and a half you inquire about your proposal. Silence. More time goes by. You email again. Nothing. Finally you call and can only leave a voice mail message to the contact person attached to the RFP. Crickets. A few days later, you email to ask would they be open to a short proposal debrief for two reasons: to find out who won the business and why, but also find out why yours did not make the cut so you can do better next time. No response back.

Right. This is pretty much the typical life cycle of a RFP a lot of creatives experience.

Why this is terrible for your business

  • A written RFP is sterile and has degrees of separation. Other than calling and asking questions regarding the RFP, there’s no way to create a rapport or a relationship, let alone trust. It makes it super easy for people receiving your proposal to disqualify you based on something very subjective and you’re not there to offer clarification. They haven’t met you in person and so there’s no feeling lost when tossing your hard work into the trash.
  • The work you spent preparing your proposal will not be compensated. (As a rule, I build the time spent on a client proposal into project costs. I know the client, I have much more information up front, and therefore it takes a fraction of the time to produce.) However, if you don’t win the business, you won’t recoup your costs. Twenty-two hours adds up to a lot of lost revenue.
  • You end up feeling defeated. When you’ve put a lot of sweat into crafting the best professional proposal humanly possible, you wonder what’s wrong with you. There isn’t anything wrong with you. RFPs are sent out by humans, received by humans who happen to make subjective judgment calls. Other things could have happened, too. The project budget was pulled so it died before starting. The team wasn’t on board with the project to begin with. There were changes in personal, or the project got shelved for any number of reasons.
  • The time could have been better spent. The time you spent on your proposal you could have spent doing more constructive business development activities, like networking and content marketing, something you have more control over.

Something to keep in mind: Large agencies devote staff to responding to RFPs on a regular basis. Because they have the personnel to manage RFPs, they can churn them out easier and more readily than smaller design firms. There it becomes a numbers game and one the larger agencies can afford to play.

Why this is terrible for the organization sending out RFPs

  • For the same reason it’s bad for a freelancer or design studio, a written RFP sent out is sterile and has degrees of separation. It’s not the way to create a rapport, a relationship, let alone trust with creative professionals you hope to work with.
  • You could be inundated with proposals, all with various interpretations of what you requested but not quite close enough to what you were hoping for. In other words, you never know what you’re going to get in reply. Are these the best qualified candidates for your project?
  • You won’t attract the best talent. Many creative professional steer clear of RFPs all together and for all the reasons I stated above. They would rather spend time building a relationship with you and your organization first before spending time crafting a response to your RFP.
  • You might not get the best attention to your project. You might decide to go with a large agency’s proposal. After all, they’re big and had lots of client successes. But even if you decide to go with the large agency, keep in mind there’s no guarantee you’ll get an A Team on your project.
  • Often organizations state what they THINK they need in a RFP. Meeting and discussing your issues and ideas for your project with a creative professional could shed a lot of light on your situation. What you think you need may not be the best solution, and a creative professional can offer more effective alternatives that could ultimately save you time and money.

A much better strategy

Instead of sending out a RFPs, consult with colleagues. Ask friends who would they recommend for your project. Do some research for creatives who work with clients similar to your organization. Open yourself up to having meetings and conversations.

Don’t let price dictate your choice, rather focus on the value a creative professional can bring to the table. Find out the “why” designers do what they do. You’ll discover that most creative professionals have a wealth of insight, industry smarts, passion, and helpful resources up the wazoo. The time involved with this better strategy is well worth it. You’ll be able to make the best choice for your project and you’ll likely win a true and loyal advocate for your organization.

Try getting that with an RFP.

Kristin is a seasoned art director, a well-rounded resourceful graphic designer, and emerging visual artist. She’s been running a design studio called Grand Ciel Design since 1996 and works primarily with Educational and Environmental sector clients.