I live in Ottawa, which means I’m well-acquainted with bureaucracy. If you’ve never been, it’s a thing to behold. We do red tape like Spain does tiny plates of fish and afternoon naps. As someone who absolutely despises bureaucracy in all forms, I spent a good deal of my professional time avoiding such things. We usually don’t respond to RFPs unless we’ve been specifically asked to, and we avoid doing work with clients in areas that thrive on their bureaucracy.
Lately, I’ve seen an interesting trend in RFPs – and that is the compulsive need for what the people with titles that involve “procurement” or “purchasing” refer to as “fairness.” We need to keep our procurement process “fair.” Fairness means that everyone is treated equally. Fairness means that if one respondent asks a question, we all get the answer. Fairness means that we can’t even know who the proposal is from until we evaluate it on its merit alone.
I recently responded to an RFP on a whim. It wasn’t a big job, but it seemed like it would be fun, and I thought we would be a perfect fit. I had never worked with this company, so I called and asked for the chance to introduce myself, find out more about their needs, and maybe glean some insight that went beyond the four pages of the RFP that they had put out. This, you see, is my job.
I was told that I couldn’t meet or talk to anyone, that I couldn’t show them our credentials, dig deeper into their project or their business or do anything but follow the formalized process laid out in the procurement document. I was told they wanted to keep it fair.
They wanted a company to build them a brand that would last a lifetime, but they didn’t want to meet them first. In the interest of fairness, our introduction could only be on paper. A blind RFP, where I can only respond to the needs they have come up with in a meeting, not the ones that might come to the surface after I ask them two or three basic questions about their business.
I’d love to say that this is an isolated incident, but it’s become the reality in our business. We’re meant to be advisors, but we can’t ask questions. We’re meant to be experts, but we can only see a fraction of their business until we’re through the door. Before we can give clients our best counsel, we first have to fit into their checklist, and if the problem they’ve outlined for themselves, or worse, the solution they’ve come up with in a meeting is not in line with their goals, there’s no room to help them navigate toward their real issue.
For most of the documents I see, especially from small organizations that feel they need to have the same “rigorous” process as the Federal government, a 30-minute discussion face to face would likely send them in another direction and save them thousands, but we have to be fair. Fairness means everyone has the same information, even if it’s bad. Fairness means you get the company who writes the best proposal instead of the company that can solve your problem most efficiently.
Trying to find an agency through a blind RFP is like trying to find your future spouse through a glory hole. You’ll only see a piece of what you’re going to get, and the rest might not be pretty.