Wikipedia defines an RFP as “an invitation for suppliers, often through a bidding process, to submit a proposal on a specific commodity or service….” There are different kinds of RFPs. This article focuses on what is known as an unsolicited, or blind, RFP. An unsolicited RFP is an RFP that a company sends out to vendors or suppliers without establishing any kind of communication or introduction to the company or its stakeholders beforehand. Companies typically send out an unsolicited RFP to at least three to five different vendors. From the perspective of the vendor or supplier, the scenario is similar to the one I’ve just described. When responding to an unsolicited RFP without knowing the stakeholders, you are doing so blind—hence the term blind RFP.
Don’t Respond to Unsolicited RFPs
I know receiving an unsolicited RFP can seem like someone has given you a map to buried treasure, but if you’re a UX consultant, I’m urging you to just throw it away—and don’t even think about picking up that shovel to start digging! It can be hard to simply put that RFP in the trash, but you’ll be saving yourself a lot of time, disappointment, and frustration if you do. I know there are people who are reading this and shaking their heads in disagreement; I know because I used to be one of them. But don’t stop reading just yet, nonbelievers! Let me explain why responding to an unsolicited RFP is probably a waste of your precious time.
Why You Probably Won’t Win the Bid
Even if you’re a qualified candidate who meets all of the requirements the RFP specifies, you can still be rejected for one of the following reasons:
- price—I’ve listed price first for a reason. Price is usually the number one reason for your not winning a bid. In most blind RFPs, companies aren’t looking for the most qualified candidate. They are looking for the lowest bidder. Keep in mind that the RFP process is, in fact, a bidding process. Companies use RFPs to attract multiple bidders and, as a result, they expect to have more leverage in negotiating with their chosen vendors. Sometimes, companies use RFPs to start bidding wars and psychologically pit companies against one another. This is especially true for RFPs that let you know who you are competing against. They want you to know so you’ll base your pricing according to how you think the other companies will set their pricing. Of course, the competing companies are doing exactly the same thing in turn. Everyone is focused on winning the business through pricing rather than designing the right solution to solve the problem. This is a disastrous approach for both the company and the vendor, because, ultimately, the quality of the work suffers.
- a predetermined outcome—In most cases, the company already knows what vendor they intend to hire. Most companies require managers to go through an RFP process—even if they already know what vendor they want to hire. If you don’t know you’re getting the bid before responding with a proposal, you probably aren’t going to get it. As strange as it may seem, if you’re hearing about a project for the first time through an unsolicited RFP, you’re probably already too late.
- trolling for free advice—In some cases, companies are not really looking to procure a consultant at all. They’re looking for free consulting. Not all RFPs are sent out with such poor intentions, but sometimes no one wins the bid. Some companies use RFPs as a tool to get pricing information and free consulting during an actual procurement process. They may even ultimately use this information against you to help rationalize why they should hire a different company—perhaps the one they’ve had in mind all along.
- too many vendors—Some people who send out unsolicited RFPs are true believers in what’s been called the Spaghetti Method. They send their RFP to anyone and everyone. It’s sort of like throwing a plate of spaghetti at a wall to see what sticks. In reality, the odds of winning a blind bid decrease greatly with every additional consultant who submits a proposal.
- fundamental disagreements—Perhaps you disagree with an RFP’s methodology and suggested course of action. Certain RFPs require you to respond to them in a specific format—and, if you don’t follow it, your proposal will most likely be thrown out. Likewise, if you have an idea that doesn’t fit the format, there’s generally no provision for—or interest in—such insights. Bidding on something other than what an RFP requests—even if it makes more sense and saves the client money—is often a sure way to lose the bid. In my opinion, if a company tosses a proposal because it doesn’t fit their formatting rules, it’s not a company you want to work with.
To be honest, I now become annoyed whenever I receive an unsolicited RFP, because the company who’s sent it hasn’t even put forth the effort to contact me directly and discuss the details of their project before asking me to devote my time writing a proposal for fixing their problems. Rather than contacting different vendors individually, they’ve instead decided to save their own time and slapped together a list of requirements, asking a bunch of vendors to respond to their RFP. It shows laziness and basically screams, I want to put forth as little effort as possible to fix my problems. My clients need to care more about solving their problems than that. If they are not willing to invest a minimal amount of effort in finding the right vendor, that’s a red flag, showing me we most likely won’t be a good fit.
Why an RFP Process Doesn’t Work for UX Consultants
Some companies simply don’t know what they want—or worse, they think they know what they need, but focus on the wrong services. RFPs keep consultants from doing what they do best: providing real solutions, without being biased by preconceived notions. The value consultants offer is in their ability to analyze a problem and offer a solution rather than merely implementing a solution they weren’t involved in devising. An RFP demonstrates a company’s total lack of trust in a UX consultant’s ability to decide what procedures and methods best address their problems. Worse, RFPs are often written by individuals who don’t have a clear understanding of a project’s challenges. Given the chance, with the expertise qualified UX consultants bring to a project, they’ll hopefully propose a more appropriate solution and methodology for the client.
Good UX consultants offer a unique way of looking at a problem and solving it. This is why it’s almost impossible for companies to do an apples-to-apples comparison of proposals. Based on their varied knowledge and experience, consultants have their own approaches, which may differ greatly from one another’s. It’s up to the client to decide which approach is the best fit and trust the consultant they hire to solve the problem.
It’s critical for UX professionals to have a deep understanding of the problems companies ask them to solve. We can’t just read a vaguely stated problem in an RFP and, with no dialogue with the client, blindly prescribe a research or design approach. Doctors don’t write prescriptions over the phone for a reason. They need to examine you first to make sure they provide the right treatment plan. Well, the same is true for UX professionals. We can’t assume a client knows what’s wrong and how to fix it. Instead, we need to examine a product for ourselves, before trying to address its problems. A good UX consultant questions everything—and a good client will let us do just that.
Case in Point: Unsolicited RFPs for Usability Studies
Most of the unsolicited RFPs I receive are for usability studies. Typically, such RFPs specify the number of participants and the number of rounds, and they’ve already defined the logistics for conducting the study. This would be fine if the specifications actually matched a client’s needs. But sometimes prospective clients think it’s necessary to conduct tests with more participants than are actually needed. Many prospective clients look at usability testing as a validation process, and they don’t understand the need for conducting more than one round of testing and having iterative design cycles. Sometimes they request remote usability testing when in-person testing would be the better approach. In such a case, if a company had contacted me prior to defining their solution, they would have gained a much better perspective on the problem, possibly saved themselves both time and money, and in the end, received a solution that would appropriately solve their problems.