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The worst questions to ask on an RFP, and what you should be asking instead

Posted by David Quigley on September 11, 2013

If you’ve ever been tasked to respond to a request for proposal (RFP), you probably came across some questions that caused you to scratch your head. Here are my favorites, followed by my observations about what these marketers should be asking.

“If your company were a dog, what breed of dog would it be and why?”

Unless you’re marketing to dog owners, this question seems more entertaining than insightful. Even if you’re looking for your agency to help with your positioning, it’s unlikely this question will yield anything meaningful. Having worked in new business for marketing agencies over the past 15 years, I’ve seen my fair share of RFPs from marketers in various industries. One thing is for certain: Weird, odd and even downright irrelevant questions are not industry-exclusive. How do these questions find their way into the RFP, and what questions should marketers be asking instead? Both great questions.

“You have been given the opportunity to create a half hour TV show of your own design. What is it called and what is the premise?”

First, let’s start with the obvious. Most RFPs are not written exclusively for the project for which they are issued. Many RFPs are a “Frankenstein monster” assembled from various pieces of previous RFPs and other non-related documents to form the current monster before you. Often there are multiple mad scientists from different departments who are tasked with putting the monster together and bringing it to life. Inadvertently, some unrelated questions find their way in, and every once in a while someone will throw in one of those really crazy questions. Marketers should put the extra effort into developing an RFP with questions unique to the assignment, keeping them as relevant and direct as possible.

“If you were a super hero, what super power would you possess?”

With this one, I’d like to think that someone with a beautiful mind is throwing in a Freudian question to test the aptitude of the responders. That may be giving too much credit where it might not be due. Gauging from the number of flaming hoops that most RFPs already ask responders to jump through, it seems like those crazy questions were more likely dropped in by someone who will be tasked with reviewing the RFP responses and just wants something to break up the monotony of the process they face. Marketers should only include questions that have a direct impact on the assignment itself. Marketers might yield more insight by asking questions designed to reveal responders’ culture and thought processes in later rounds of the RFP process, when they have a chance to glean face-to-face insight.

“How would you solve world hunger?”

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We’ve all had the RFP that asks for an unrealistic answer, or worse yet, an unbelievable amount of work to be submitted for no compensation. Often there are few or no real parameters or information and guidelines from the marketers. For example, “Tell us how you would increase our sales” or “Show us how to make our product the Xerox or Kleenex of our industry.” Marketers should recognize that asking world hunger questions, or even worse, asking for responders to provide specific solutions in detail are a no-win situation. Instead, marketers should be asking very specific questions related to the RFP subject such as “Tell us which marketing channels you would recommend to increase conversions and sales in the 4th quarter and what other types of benefits we could expect to see from those channels?” Responders are more open to giving explanations on how they would approach the project in more general terms and will give you a sense of the direction they would recommend for your RFP project.

“We use ‘XYZ’ software platform along with its unique format and proprietary coding for executing the main element of this campaign. Please explain how you can provide this exact same solution and
at what price?”

Marketers often are required to obtain a certain number of responses to an RFP before being able to award the contract. Questions that are very specific and seem like they have been written for one responder are generally just that. Another dead giveaway is an unrealistically short response time frame. Responders would be wise to recognize these and quickly determine that they are “filler” for the quota rather than having a legitimate opportunity. In an ideal world, marketers wouldn’t be forced to fulfill a requirement, I’m sure everyone in marketing agrees.

“Our contracts require net pricing on outsourced items. Beyond that, how much of a discount can you offer? Do we get a percentage off if we pay Net 15? Is there wiggle room for the agency time that you bill?”

Let’s face it. Most marketers are under tremendous budget pressure and as a result are price-conscious. If a company is already dictating requirements on pricing and negotiating for terms, it’s a good bet that the RFP is based solely on price. If that is the case, marketers should be very up front to all responders and let them know that price is the main determining factor. In addition, marketers should realize that they are effectively asking for the best solution within a specific price range, not necessarily the best solution.

Marketers would do well to remember some basic principles when issuing an RFP.

1. All questions should be relevant to the topic of the RFP and as direct as possible.
2. Avoid obscure and off-the-wall questions. They will only work against your RFP and could cost you some legitimate responders. Not to mention they become fodder for blogs and message boards.
3. The more information and guidance that the RFP gives, the better and more direct responses will be received. Let responders know exactly what you are looking for, with as much detail as possible. Plus you’ll have an opportunity to effectively gauge how well the agency dissects and applies learnings as well as takes direction.
4. Save any detailed questions about invoicing, payment terms and financials for later stages in the RFP process. These are points of negotiation, and as such should not be included in the preliminary RFP response stage.
5. Be up front and honest about the entire RFP, the reason it is being issued, what exactly is expected, the true selection criteria and what responders should expect moving forward.

Driving Response and Action: Marketing Communications Best Practices

Topics: CMO, Best Practices

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