Responding to RFP's

Many of you who are also consultants know that one of the realities of life is to write sales proposals.  When working for large companies or governments you typically submit a proposal in response to a RFP – a request for proposal.  This task is much like taking a pen and jamming it into your eyeball.  While this may be fun for those who enjoy physical self mutilation -  I personally do not appreciate this painful experience (well, that’s not true… I’m still a consultant and in some form that is one type of self mutilation I would assume).

What’s wrong with RFP’s?  Well, there are a lot of things wrong with them.  First and foremost, in most cases they are completely obscure and difficult to read:

“Section The proponent must demonstrate how their technical solution and application architecture will address the scope of the project with reference to the issues provided in addendum C along the document styles contained in detail in section 1.3 and 1.4 in this document, provided that 75% of the design of your solution has already been complete prior to the release of this RFP.  The proponent’s response must only summarize this approach providing details on provided coding standards, build standards, deployment and operation standards and provide detailed samples of each.  Any omissions to this response will result in non-compliance.”

Now, I ask you please read the above quote.  What does it mean?  How do you respond to this?  Are you scared? I’m scared…  What can we do?  Let’s send in a question… ya, that’s it!

“Dear Customer.  Could you please provide a more clear description of what is required as a response to section  Thank you kindly – signed your humble consulting company begging for your work”

Waiting patiently for a response….

“Dear Pee-On Consultant who obviously knows nothing: Section clearly states the requirements for the response you are to provide”


Um… ok – right… got it.  Hmmm


So, let’s say I build houses… and someone says.. “Hey, wanna come and build me a house?” –

I say “Damn Straight Brother – what do you need?”

They say “Well, I really want blue walls – how much will that cost?”

I say “Hmm.. well, I need to know more about the house you need… how many floors, how big, will you need a basement? How many doors?  “

They say “Well, you should know that’s not important.  What I really need is wood shingles.  Now knowing what you know… how much will the house cost?  And don’t try to screw me because I’m going to hold you to it and I also have 50 other house builders bidding for the work”

I say “ Um… let’s go with $250,000”

They say “Wow, that’s a lot.  Could you justify that based on my requirements?”

I say “Well, it’s the blue paint… that made all the difference”

They say “Ok, Great.  But prove to me that the method you will take in building my house will result in me having blue walls.  Describe your approach with regard to meeting my requirements of having blue walls and wood shingles”

I say “Um… Well…. I will ask what shade of blue you want… which I’m sure you won’t tell me until the very last minute.  Based on that, I’m going to go to the store… and um.. buy some blue paint.  Um… then I think I’ll come and ah… paint your walls blue and stuff… then, I’ll come over and ask… ‘hey, did I paint your walls blue?’  And you’ll say ‘Damn… not that shade of blue you idiot’  Then I’ll say ‘oh, well, that would be a change then.. you’ll have to pay me again because you’ve changed your mind’ and you’ll say ‘ I will NOT pay you again because it’s your fault… I always wanted another shade of blue… its not a change in what I want.. its what I wanted all along but didn’t know it until now”

Back to RFP’s

After everything is said and done… our submission is in tip top shape we wait patiently for the response.  And usually you get one of the following:

1.      I’m sorry, but we have decided to go with another vendor

2.      Congratulations, you won – AND LIFE IS GOOD!


But, if you get an “I’m sorry” note – you want to follow-up and try to figure out what went wrong.  Here’s an ACTUAL reenactment of a response to this:

Consultant – “So, why didn’t we win?  Did we bid too high?”

Client – “No – you had a good price”

Consultant – “So, was our approach wrong?”

Client – “No, you had a great approach”

Consultant – “Alright, is our technical solution bad?”

Client – “No, you guys had the strongest submission”

Consultant – “So, why did we lose?”

Client – “Well, we’ve never worked with you before.”

Consultant – “You’re right… so you didn’t select us because we’ve never worked with you before”

Client – “Right”


Or you can get a responses like:

Consultant – “So, why didn’t we win?  Was it our people, our approach, our technology, our solution?”

Client – “No.  You had the best people, the best approach, the best technology and we were positive you would be the most successful at the task”

Consultant – “OK, so why didn’t we win?”

Client – “Your bid was too high.  We decided to go with the least qualified group who had the lowest cost – and by the way, they were half your price, you should really look at your rates as we are forced to choose the lowest cost submission every time.”


Consultant follow-up in 6 months – “So, how is the project coming”

Client – “It’s going as expected.  We’re close to 5 times over budget and late on every milestone.  But don’t worry, we budget for this.”


Ah – this IS the life!!!  It’s wonderful isn’t it?





  • I feel your pain. Really.

  • I hear you Joel; preach on, fellow consultant.

  • Joel, I've always enjoyed your webcasts, but this entry is a classic. I've been going through similar conversations with a partner negotiating with a potential client for a paid discovery phase, and the client wants a bottom line price now!

    Right before I opened up my BLogroll and found this post in your feed, I replied to my partner with the following: Tell him you want a house. You cannot tell him the square footage, the location, whether or not it has a pool, spa or mother-in-law apartment. You cannot tell him whether or not it has a garage. You cannot tell him whether or not it is on the waterfront, nor the type of water if it actually were on the waterfront. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera...

    I think you get the picture; but will the client?

    Strange minds think alike <g>?

  • Can I get your blog in another colour?


  • blue eyeballs!.

    man lots of people out there are going to identify with the scene immediately

  • How true, how true ... great post!

  • It is fact!!!! i have passed this suitation too many times.But i also won too many projects

    but i guess Customer decide onj propsal based on tghe following:

    1- Politics 50%

    2- Pricing 25%

    3- Technical 25%

  • Here's my test for RFPs. Ask the person who sent it, "Did you send this to me because you need three bids in order to give the work to the person you want? If that's the case, tell me what you need me to bid and I'll save us both a lot of time."

    Responding to RFPs is a waste of time for a small business. At least my test gets me a good laugh.

  • Interesting take.. The hardest part is building specs - which are so time consuming, it's a huge investment either way and hard to justify if you don't feel certain you'll win the bid. Explaining the specs is almost as hard.

    Blueprints on a house are so cut and dry - virtually everyone can understand them and there is very little room for interpretation. We haven't reached that balance of simplicity and detail in software design yet IMO.

  • Sounds absolutely familiar.

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