Those tricky procurement questions that shouldn’t be asked. (And how to side-step them).

Out of the blue, an RFP arrives in your inbox from a company with in an irresistible brand name. Wonderful! 

But just as quickly as the excitement arrives, your enthusiasm drains away as you realize the RFP is a whopping 25, 50 (100!) pages (plus their terms and conditions). There’s probably little or no information about why they’re searching for a new agency and their questions are buried under a mountain of legalese and procedural directives.

Yep.  Probably a procurement crafted document from hell but the brand’s so great you can’t say no.  Sound familiar?

Well, take comfort, you’re not alone in your pain as almost any agency that receives this kind of procurement missive is agonizing as much as you are. 

So what are the clues and questions that you have a procurement driven RFP on your hands and how should you answer it?  Here are few tell-tale warning questions we’ve seen in the past:

Will you accept 180 day payment terms?

This one’s easy: No.

For God’s sake people – why would anyone ask for or (or accept) 180 day payment terms. If you’re a client in search of a loan – go to a bank – don’t ask a potential agency to cash-strap their business to ease your cash-flow. Put another way,  would you mind if we held your paycheck for as long as you hold paying your invoices? Of course not.  So why would anyone else?

Describe your case studies in detail and attach all documentation in order to allow us to understand and evaluate the outcome

This issue for any agency in attaching ‘all documentation’ is likely a breach of confidentiality, and how could any team not associated with the project possibly evaluate the outcome?

No matter how the question is phrased, the answer is: Client name – problem / solution – result. Succinctly. If you’re allowed to provide detail, by all means – but not at the expense of your own confidentiality agreements.

Do you have a documented Disaster Recovery Plan/ Business Continuity Plan (DRP/BCP) in place?

It went on: Has it been tested? What are the provisions of your DRP/BCP in respect of the services you are providing to your clients (E.g., alternative premises, recovery time, access to equipment and systems, etc.)? If you do not have a DRP/BCP in place, please state whether you intend to develop one. If so, please estimate date of completion.

This one came from an Asia Pacific RFP, but the variation on the theme could come from anywhere. And simply put, this is a procurement team lifting a question from a manufacturing RFP and dropping it into an agency RFP. 

If you find multiple questions that are obviously only relevant to manufacturing or supply based RFPs, then make the case for pushing back, picking up the phone and asking why – even if it does break the rules.

What discount will you provide / what work would be done at no cost?

Another case for pushing back – even if it means breaking the rules.  As with extended payment terms, free work should be a deal-breaker for any agency and procurement teams should know better than to ask.

Meaningful pricing is virtually impossible without a scope of work and pricing should reflect a competitive market price, while leaving room for a fair profit for the agency.  Anything less is asking for trouble.

Five golden rules

Rather than asking isolated questions that are largely irrelevant to agency search and selection, procurement teams will receive more meaningful and insightful responses by following five golden rules:

  1. Context. Providing context for both the reason for the RFP and the questions being asked will help agencies craft insightful responses tailored to the organization for which the RFP is being issued.
  2. Case studies. Case studies should be used to provide a window into areas of agency capability that would be most relevant the client. An excessive number of case studies (more than five or six) will make evaluation between agencies more difficult and increase workload for both proponents and readers. 
  3. Document size. Limiting the size of the response document to a specific number of words or pages is a great way to get the agency to focus their response, sharing what’s really relevant based on the context you’ve provided.  This sets the foundation for more considered RFP responses and hopefully more engaged reading.
  4. Differentiation. Generic questions across about agency  history or capabilities lead to generic answers that make the distinction between agencies more difficult, whereas thoughtful questions will generally lead to more thoughtful (and meaningful) answers.
  5. Evaluation criteria. Clearly articulated evaluation criteria will help agencies understand what to focus on within their responses and help procurement teams, and their marketing counterparts, rank responses in a meaningful order of merit.

And finally… the question to which we don’t have an answer:

If your agency were an animal, what animal would it be?

I have to admit, I’ve no idea how or why this question would be asked but (unfortunately) we’ve seen it. So presumably the answer is, ‘dolphin’ because who doesn’t love dolphins, right?

Stephan Argent is Founder and Principal at Listenmore Inc offering confidential advisory to marketers looking for truly independent insight and advice they can’t find anywhere else. Read more like this on our blog Marketing Unscrewed / follow me @StephanArgent

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