When to ignore a Request for Proposal (RFP)

The “request for proposal” or RFP process for many small graphic design and web design firms is fraught with huge time-wasting and dead-end traps. Have you been caught up in the excitement of getting what seems to be great project opportunity from an established company only to find out “while your offer was compelling, for strategic reasons” they chose some other firm?

This doesn’t need to happen to you again. All you need to know is a few of the methods of a dyed-in-the-wool time-wasting information leach. You can identify and avoid them and get back to real work.

So who are they and what do they do? Watch out for the following behaviors — they are great indicators they are not going to award you any business no matter how much due diligence you put into their Request for Proposal:

They ask too many detailed or technical questions

This type of potential client is asking you too many questions about technical minutia from either “What font will you use?” to “What plugin in WordPress will allow us to do XYZ?” This kind of client is looking for, and getting, free consulting out of you if you answer their questions beyond a low-level, reasonable set of questions.

They ask for too many changes in scope in the RFP

You are being snookered if the potential client comes back to you somehow “smarter” than they were in your last call. They suddenly want to add something you knew they couldn’t have known about in your last email or call. Essentially, the potential client has gotten free consulting from another designer or firm, and is playing your knowledge against theirs. They play firm against firm for free information they would otherwise have to pay for.

They are impersonal

This is a sure sign they aren’t really interested in what you do, and the value you bring, to their web or graphic design project. You are a number, the project is already awarded, and the potential client simply has to have a certain number of responses to fill some interal quota for RFP’s.

They ask for spec work

If they ask for “some samples of your design work”, you have to wonder if they have been to your website at all. If they have not reviewed your online portfolio, just stop now and don’t waste another minute.

They don’t know the basic details about your company

I got this one recently after a “we’d love to work with you” call: they didn’t know where in the country we were located. Time to hang up.

They ask for too many phone meetings

Again, these types of potential clients know that they can educate themselves at your expense. They have no conscience about wasting your time. It’s amazing people like this have the nerve to call. They are armed with just enough information to be dangerous, and try to get you to fill the blanks for them. Once you sense this is the case, it’s time to say goodbye!

They want you to talk to their IT person “for a minute”

While this isn’t necessarily related to just the RFP problem, it’s one to look out for in the bidding process. This kind of “IT” person simply wants to pick your brain and ask you if you have ever heard of some obscure open source CMS or if you have ever been to so and so’s website. They will offer you some advice you didn’t ask for. Lovely. What this means is, that even if you do get the project, this person will be “helping” by “bringing things up” to the project leader (like how the background color has a non web safe color in the gradient, and that you should be using XHTML and not HTML 4.0 Transitional, or that your PNG is not compatible with MSPaint) and essentially drag all profit potential for the project right down the drain. This person has made a career out of not knowing how to actually do anything (since learning FrontPage in 1995), and sticking themselves in the middle of every new project that comes along. As long as the project managers know less than they do, they have job security. Stop now and hang up!

Further Reading:


  1. says

    Great title! I wrote a similar article a while back entitled “Not all Requests for Proposals are worth a proposal”: http://blog.confluentforms.com/2008/10/not-all-requests-for-proposals-are.html

    I think we all need to remember that RFPs are plentify, (see http://www.rfpdb.com for LOTS of RFPs) and that by being selective we can focus our efforts on the RFPs that we can win. Developing a go/no-go decision tree is often helpful in this regard: http://blog.confluentforms.com/2009/10/developing-your-gono-go-decision-tree.html



  2. says

    Weary old cynic that I am, when I read the title, “When to ignore a Request for Proposal”, I said out loud, “Nearly always!”

    Good points, Douglas. Another one you learn to spot is the client — often a small, start-up business — who has no budget and won’t reveal that to you (however hard pressed on the matter) until you have delivered your thoughtfully crafted proposal — whereupon he reveals he thought he could get his custom-designed, content-managed, standards-compliant, accessible, full-of-bells-and-whistles web site for £200! Including hosting, of course…

  3. says

    @ Keith:

    “Nearly always…”. I think I’m in your camp. What is more golden than a good referral anyway. I think if I had invested the hours into marketing that have gone into RFP crafting, we’d have a lot more clients :).


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