A request for proposal.… If you are like us, when you see one of those come across your desk or into your email, you get a moment of excitement at a new opportunity — mixed with the dread of knowing how much time you will spend answering questions that are meant to try and normalize a process that can’t be objectified, thus eliminating your firm even when you really are the best choice.
If our company sold widgets or some sort of commodity, we could easily have a person dedicated to filling out RFPs in hopes of getting in the door as a new vendor. Then we would have the chance to continually earn that company’s business with good delivery, value, quality and service.
But if your company is a professional services company like ours, and you have submitted yourself to the RFP process to become a new service provider, then you probably know what a defeating process it is. It is about as ridiculous to pick a consultant through an RFP as it would be to pick your doctor, CFO or attorney.
While companies may become more savvy with hiring technology, services or software consultants, they also must realize that highly expert folks who are busy are not going to participate in these games. And I'll explain why.
It is understandable that companies want a way to compare one firm to another. How about old-fashioned communication? Anyone looking to hire a services firm should ABSOLUTELY use the sales process as a way to gauge the quality of the services and personnel they are considering hiring; they should NOT rely on a document that tries to “normalize” the firms against each other. We have seen RFPs that require providing Profit and Loss statements as part of their answer. That’s pretty insulting.
Here are suggestions for carrying out a successful selection process for vetting a consultant or other service provider. Each step is a gradient step that the firm you are considering must graduate to. And failing to graduate from one step to the next naturally down-selects to the ones who are the most interested in you and your project, the ones you are most interested in talking to, and ultimately leading you to the most qualified consultant or service provider for your initiative.
- Hold multiple conversations that go through a gradient of meeting the consulting firm’s personnel. Start with sales and progress to more senior leadership in sales and delivery. Conversations are the best way to know if you even like working with their people! If there isn’t good chemistry at the first appointment or phone call, don’t kid yourself that it will get better, regardless of who recommended them or what their qualifications are. Consider if you will REALLY feel comfortable paying the bill later on if you don't even like talking to them.
- A sales team who is interested enough in your business to impress you during the sales process, who will put you in touch with the technical people you will be working with as well as firm's references will also want to ensure you stay happy once you sign with them. While it’s not their job, an attentive sales person/team will be your advocate should things slip through the cracks after you sign. This is a valuable thing to take note of.
- Ensure you meet the resources who will be slated for your project. Unwilling to commit to whose on your project? Timing could create some issues in availability, but meet someone who could be assigned to your project.
- See if you can meet the most senior technical resource and/or the most senior sales person in the organization and see how you are treated — are they interested, respectful, knowledgeable and AVAILABLE, or are they rushed, annoyed and condescending, or even more telling, completely missing?
- Gauge their interest at keeping the sales cycle going — do they take forever to get back to you or is their schedule accommodating? Do you have to follow-up with them just to keep the ball rolling or have they contacted you before you had a chance to suggest the next meeting? If you can’t keep their interest during the sales process, you aren't likely to be their number one client once you are on the delivery line-up.
- Don’t ask for references as part of your initial vetting step— that’s like asking other customers to do your diligence. Once your own diligence is complete, then ask for references.
- Don’t waste yours or other’s time checking references until you are ready to validate your finalist. Then see if the firm you are interviewing bothers to provide the references and if so, was it timely. Check the references for real, don't just ask for a list. Can you even reach the references? If you can’t, there’s another telling sign about the firm you are considering hiring.
- Find out from the references why they ultimately picked the consultant and what has worked out and not worked out for them. Asking for references but then not following up with them makes the consultant look like a jerk to their client. So be considerate — they have agreed to make themselves available for you, and they are busy like you are, so don’t waste their time.
- Use the candidate’s natural proposal process. In an attempt to conform to the RFP questions, you may inadvertently miss out on the uniqueness of the firm or industry you are considering by causing them to conform to your pre-formed questions. After all, if you knew everything about their industry, you probably wouldn’t need to hire them! It is a very telling way to observe the quality your services candidates will put into you once you become their client by letting them go through their own proposal process. For instance, we have beat out a Big 4 firm with our proposal due to our thoroughness of listing out the tasks and deliverables we will provide compared to a “black hole” of what a Big 4 firm quoted. That is, they didn’t spell out what they were going to actually do, yet quoted triple the price we were charging. Let the competitors eliminate each other naturally by guiding you through what the features and benefits are in their field. Some will completely hang themselves by their omissions and others will shine through like a beacon in the night with exactly what you are looking for. But if forced to conform to the RFP questions, you lose that easy comparison of how well each firm will perform if left to their own devices on how to present themselves.
- Until you start getting proposals to see what the speciality actually can provide for you, you as the purchaser do not really know what you are scoping out, ultimately wasting your own time as the procurer, your team who collaborated on the RFP as well as all of the service providers you have invited to your process. And many RFP processes deter proper discovery so that the provider can't get a totally clear understanding of your project they are proposing on. A natural sales process allows for the level of discovery needed to prepare an honest assessment and quote.
- Find out what the providers’ recommendations are for your problem/situation/project. The other issue with RFPs is the procurement team puts artificial constraints around what they want without being experts in the field. This causes the consultant or service provider to create unusual solutions that are not going to lead to the highest quality product, service or level of satisfaction. And in an attempt to win your business, they may cater to your stated goals for the project and not recommend the product/service/project that you really need to satisfy the situation you are trying to handle.
The effort and time RFP teams spend building out requirements documents, milestones and goals sometimes appears to be an academic self-serving process that could be bypassed with real, live communication with the firms they are interested in. Query one firm against another on items one firm thought of but the other one didn’t. It seems RFP teams attempt to normalize their process to avoid communication. But consulting and services are not automated, cookie-cutter functions. Once you hire the winner of the RFP, then how do you expect to have a successful engagement if you’ve never really gotten to know them?
So avoid that pitfall. Gauge one firm’s willingness to handle your questions and the speed with which they help you versus the other firm(s). Not everything in business can be automated and normalized. Services firms aren’t a “right or wrong” profession. It is a collaborative, communicative process that is as individual as your company is. Eliminating the live person element is a huge mistake that will leave you with the firm who is the most clever at “schooling” your RFP answers, possibly with false answers, inflated experience, outright lies or something that looks good on paper. Conversely, live communication usually vets many issues that you can never prevent or anticipate in an RFP alone.
We have determined it is NOT worth burning the midnight oil answering tedious questions just so a purchasing team can line our answers up side-by-side against another consultant’s answers — only to result in a coin toss to break a tie. But put our Managing Principal side-by-side next to any other consultant they are considering, and we think 80% would pick our firm.
Knowledge, expertise, track record of success, solid references, command of the subject, friendliness and respect are what rate the “big bucks” in consulting. Maybe we're just being self-serving, because we are real, live people who CAN communicate. But after all, isn’t that what you want from a consultant or service provider is a real, live person who can help you with the goals you have for your project? In our opinion, a fat, perfect RFP answer document is just as likely to get you a dead-in-the-head, unresponsive rookie who is lukewarm to you and your firm as it is to get you the expert, successful consultant you are really expecting.