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Some ABCs Of RFPs

A few tips for newcomers working at MR agencies on the "Marketing Research 101" basics of how to respond to a client brief.

Back_To_Basics

By Kevin Gray

If it hasn’t happened yet it won’t be long before you receive a Request for Proposal (RFP) or Request for Quotation (RFQ) from a client you and your company have never worked with before or have had little interaction.  “RFP” and “RFQ” are frequently used interchangeably but more often than not RFQs are just asking for cost and timing and the general methodology has already been decided.  Some clients are looking only for data collection and tabulation, and perhaps charting services, and intend to analyze and interpret the data internally.  This should be respected.  However, even without stating so explicitly, many clients want their brief to be challenged.  They’d like ideas and a fresh perspective from the marketing research agency.  They are seeking a business partner, not an order-taker.

How you respond is critical, obviously, because of the impression you yourself and your company convey.  Moreover, it is in the very early stages of a project that many critical – and sometimes costly – decisions are made.  If the project is commissioned, misunderstandings and miscommunications early in the process can magnify downstream and lead to a black hole filled with red ink or a dissatisfied customer who will never return.  In the heat of battle, pressures to get the proposal out quickly can be strong, but haste often does make waste.  Please remember this.

  • The first and most important decision – and you should confer with your superiors – is whether or not to bid on the project!  No one likes to turn down business but this will be the wise choice if the client’s needs and expectations aren’t a good match for your company’s skills profile and expertise.
  • Budget expectations and timing may also be out of line with what your company can realistically offer.  Also, keep in mind that some competitive bids are really a formality and mandated by procurement policy and, unless your proposal is clearly preferred in terms of price or content, the client will use a favored supplier.
  • If you decide to bid on the project, in my experience the most essential things to know when preparing the proposal are: 1) who will be using the results of the research; 2) how the results  will be used; and 3) when they will be used.  This often is not apparent even from a detailed RFP and may take some artful digging to unearth.
  • Be very careful about making assumptions!  Assumptions can be especially risky in multi-country research but as a general rule confirm when you have doubts.  While you don’t want to badger the client, what might on the surface seem like a small detail could later turn out to be consequential.
  • Corporate culture and marketing research expertise, though usually difficult to judge from the outside, can have  a big impact on how your proposal is received.  Proposing an advanced solution to an organization in which marketing research isn’t well-established or is viewed skeptically can backfire; to paraphrase Voltaire, the “best” may be the enemy of the good enough.  In some situations it may be appropriate to propose more than one option, for example a basic option and an advanced option at different costs.
  • Do your homework.  It will pay off in two ways: it will improve your chances of winning the job and of meeting your financial objectives.  The client’s website and searches will tell you a lot about the company, their industry and also something about their corporate culture.  That is often the best place to start and takes little time.  Even if your agency has not had contact with the client it’s possible that a colleague has at one point in his or her career.  Joe down the hall might have actually worked for them!
  • Learn as much as you can about market trends in the client’s category and, more fundamentally, how the client defines the market and competition.  In terms of marketing activity, try to find out what have they been doing and what their competitors have been doing.
  • Though it can be difficult to uncover, it can be very helpful to know what marketing research the client has been conducting and with which agencies, and if they handle much research internally.  What kinds of research do they outsource and what kinds do they prefer to do internally?  Knowledge of these sorts of things can provide context when you’re thinking about the proposal.
  • The Client is King…but not God.  Within any organization there are strong tendencies towards groupthink and on some brand teams there is almost an ideological fervor that can blind them to facts and issues that are truly important.  Habits are hard to break…but that doesn’t make them good habits!
  • For very complex proposals a brainstorming session with your colleagues and even an informal  SWOT analysis (Strengths/Weaknesses/Opportunities/Threats) of the client’s situation can help you to write a more effective proposal and save you time in the longer run.
  • Organizations are often fond of their own jargon and if the RFP or other communication includes terms unfamiliar to you, make sure you know what they mean.  Be careful about your own jargon as well and avoid slang; your counterpart(s) at the client may be newcomers themselves and, furthermore, their native language may not be yours.
  • Long before the era of “Big Data”, many clients have incorporated internal company data (e.g., customer transactions) and secondary data into their decision making.  Think about what other information the client might already have on hand or would be able to acquire that would enhance the research.
  • Think of the questionnaire, data and most importantly the deliverable when you’re sketching out your proposal.   To reiterate, think about who will be using the results of the research, how they will be used and when they will be used.  Begin from the end and work backwards, not the other (usual) way around.
  • If the RFP includes a draft questionnaire or one that’s been used for a similar project, have a good look at it, but be careful not to allow your thinking to be “locked in.”
  • If advanced analytics (e.g., conjoint, segmentation) will be a component of the project, when you are preparing the proposal be sure to consult with your marketing science resources, internal or external, who will be working with you on the project.   Advanced approaches can go terribly wrong if the person doing the modeling doesn’t have the data they need in the required form.
  • You may have a strong background yourself in Statistics, Computer Science or some other technical area.  Resist the temptation to showcase this.  Few clients are interested in those sorts of details and, more importantly, methods are means, not ends! 
  • While this may seem self-evident, make sure you are clear who the contact person or persons within the client organization are and who in your company should be copied on correspondence.  Getting lines of communication straight is very important but not always obvious, especially if the initial request comes from a  third party (e.g., an ad agency) and not the end-client.
  • In international research make sure everyone has the time differences right.  It’s very easy to check this and public holidays on the internet.

MR agencies are a diverse bunch, of course, and include multinational fieldwork suppliers, boutique qualitative specialists, full-service customized agencies and companies built on one or more proprietary methodologies.  Every MR agency is unique in many ways and their repertoire of current and prospective clients will vary substantially.  Every marketing researcher is also different and no one list will fit all.

It usually will not be possible, or necessary, to consider all of the above before you send your proposal to the client.  Nevertheless, it won’t hurt to keep these basic tips in mind.  Your company may have a checklist as part of its internal training but in many MR agencies this is learned the hard way and on the fly.  Consider developing one for yourself or your company if there isn’t one already available.  Early in my career I put one together for my own use and it was a helpful reminder.  Better yet, if your company doesn’t not have a proposal template, it would be worth the investment of time to create one.  Dos and Don’ts relevant to your organization can be incorporated into the instructions on how to use the template.

Hope this helps!

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9 Responses to “Some ABCs Of RFPs”

  1. Chris Robinson says:

    August 22nd, 2013 at 7:54 am

    Kevin, I thought there was only one leaker of information in the US at the moment and he got 60 years!! This is an incredible distillation of years of experience and one of the most useful and immediately practical articles I have seen for the young market researcher. Kevin if you see a lot of weird guys hanging around with military style haircuts, 60’s style black suits and Rayban sun glasses, i would suggest laying low for a while!!

  2. Kevin Gray says:

    August 22nd, 2013 at 9:11 am

    Thanks so much, Chris!

  3. Brittany says:

    August 23rd, 2013 at 1:08 pm

    We just won an RFP not only based on how we answered their questions but in the amount of research we did. We did several man on the street interviews and took pictures of their target audience and sprinkled snippets and imagery throughout our document. We also took leaders of industry and used their quotes as well. That very simple strategy is what helped us win the pitch. They learned a few insights and we learned even more – win – win.

  4. Imran Forbes says:

    August 25th, 2013 at 2:48 am

    Thank you for putting this issue into perspective based on your experience. I have found your knowledge sharing immensely insightful.

  5. Leonard Murphy says:

    August 25th, 2013 at 1:19 pm

    Although focused more on marketing agencies, this infographic has some interesting points as well:

    Ten Pitches For Improving The Pitch Process from the IdeaLists

  6. Kevin Gray says:

    August 25th, 2013 at 5:40 pm

    Congratulations, Brittany! Doing one’s homework can really pay off downstream, too, as I’m sure you know. And thanks for the Infographic, Lenny. Regarding point 05, hurry up and wait seems to be increasingly the rule rather than the exception, at any rate that’s my perception.

  7. Saima says:

    September 24th, 2013 at 8:16 am

    Kevin, some clients now look for draft questionnaire along with the snap shot of the report formats. What do you say about these requirements? Don’t you think these can be misused with low budget agencies if your company proposed high cost?

  8. Kevin Gray says:

    September 24th, 2013 at 9:07 am

    Good question, Saima. I think this is case by case but would be very careful about giving away IP that an unscrupulous client might share with a low cost supplier. More than once in my career a client has shared a proposal prepared by a competitor and asked me if I could do something similar at a lower cost. One way to handle this is to propose something similar at a much higher cost. (;-)

  9. Kevin Gray says:

    October 1st, 2013 at 9:31 am

    Just to make certain my last comment was clear, giving a very high cost would be one way to drive an unscrupulous client away and make sure they don’t return.

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