Are RFPs a Waste of Time?

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“I’ll never do another RFP!”

I hear that often from designers when they don’t win a project, especially after working for hours on a proposal that probably wasn’t a great fit in the first place.

The solution to this problem is not a rule about what you will or won’t ever do. The solution is a set of criteria or questions to help you decide whether or not to participate in a Request for Proposal process, or any proposal for that matter.

When you are presented with an RFP opportunity, your approach should be a cautious one. Don’t be impulsive about this. Instead of assuming you would do any RFP that comes your way, take the opposite position: You will only do it if you have a good reason, can make a strong argument, or if it’s perfect for you.

Think first about whether it’s a good fit for you. That’s most important. Once you’ve determined that it is, turn your attention to whether you’re a fit for them. Those aretwo separate and different questions.

image from Getty

10 Decision-Making Criteria

After you’ve weeded out the most obvious projects that you have no business pursuing, whether because you have no connection to the company or the industry, the timing is impossible and/or the budget is totally unrealistic, use these guidelines to build a case for yourself to justify the time and effort required to submit a winning proposal.

The criteria that follow will help you decide. The more you can say yes to, the better.

1. Are they a good fit for you?

While you should of course review the evaluation criteria to see if you meet their requirements, it’s even more important to read the scope of work to see if it meets your requirements. Will doing this project bring you closer to your business goals? Does it support your positioning? Does the organization fit the description of your “ideal clients?”

2. Are you a good fit for them?

Do you know the industry? Do you understand their challenges? Do you have experience you can leverage to demonstrate that? And do you have samples to prove it?

3. Is the project a serious one?

Not all projects are serious, even when big corporations are involved. Some get started but are never finished. Others have lots of excitement but little budget allocation. Poorly written RFPs are a good indication that the project owners don’t know what they’re doing, which can be the case no matter the size or prestige of the company.

4. Do you have the time?

Will the project fill a spot in your upcoming schedule when you will need work, even if it will take time you don’t really have right now to write the proposal? If so, it may be worth doing. Or, if it falls in your lap at a time when you are slow, you may be more available to invest in a complex RFP.

5. Do you have a connection?

Ideally, you want someone on the inside, a patron of sorts, who knows you and your work, who can explain the politics of the organization, give you the inside scoop and go to bat for you, if necessary.

6. Will they meet with you in person or virtually?

Relationships are everything in business, and if you don’t have a chance to establish one with this prospect, it will be much more difficult to differentiate your firm from the others on paper. Besides having a chance to make an impression in a private meeting, you will learn what’s really important to them and get a sense of what they are like to work with, one of the most critical unknowns with RFPs.

7. Will they answer your questions?

More often than not, an RFP will be missing essential information that you need to make your decision or price the project. You need a way to get answers to those questions or you’ll be at a disadvantage.

8. Can you speak directly to the decision-makers?

Many RFPs are done through a procurement process with no access to anyone who will actually be involved once it gets started. If you can’t get through to anyone who understands the scope of the project, steer clear.

9. Is there a budget? And is it a healthy one?

Many RFPs don’t include budget. They expect you to price a project without any context and no way of knowing whether your pricing will be in their affordable range. You must be able to at least find out in advance what range they are in before you spend the time on the proposal.

10. Are they local?

You are more likely to win a project from a local company or organization. They may never ask to meet you, but as long as the option is there, it may have meaning to them. If you’re not local, you can emphasize your willingness to travel.

With an RFP in hand, it’s easy to imagine that all you have to do is guess the right number and it will be yours—almost like playing the lottery. But that is usually wishful thinking.

No matter how much you want a project, if you can’t satisfy at least half of these criteria, don’t do it. There are so many better ways to spend your time.

For example, you can use the 10–20 (or more) hours you would have devoted to that single opportunity and instead spend it identifying 10 ideal clients and tailoring an outreach campaign to them. You are much more likely to get a new client out of that process, if only because the odds are higher!


Graphic Design Proposals 101: A HOW Design University course

In Graphic Design Proposals 101, instructor Ilise Benun will teach you how to write a proposal, how to weed out bad prospects, and get to know the good ones better before you work with them.

Learn how to use the process to your advantage—developing strong connections, so that even if you don’t get the job in question, you’ll have managed to build a relationship with a future.

Enroll today for $79.99.

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