Finding the Right Balance in RFPs

RFPs that provide no flexibility for the research vendor to offer some good ideas are often unwise.  RFPs that leave everything up to the vendor are also highly problematic.  The challenge for research clients is in finding the right balance between providing too much guidance and too little.  The quality of your insights project will depend on finding this balance.



By Ron Sellers

RFPs are at the same time the bane of the research vendor’s existence and the thing which keeps us in business.

I’ve run my own research company, worked for a research vendor, and headed primary research for a major corporation.  I’ve sent out lots of research RFPs (Request for Proposal; sometimes Request for Quote, Bid, or Information), and received more than I can remember from everything from a small local church to some of the biggest corporations in the world.  But I continue to be floored at how much variation there is in the RFP process from one potential client to the next.

The RFPs I get run the gamut from “Here are the exact specifications I want and I’m not open to changes – just give me a price” on one end of the spectrum, to “Here’s the basic business issue – please design a complete research process for us as part of your bid” on the other.

With the first approach, my company is given no freedom at all to act as anything more than a pricing spreadsheet (which most likely means price will be the decision driver).  Often, we get these bids from purchasing departments that know nothing more about research than they do about which wood is best for pencils.

Even if the RFP comes from a highly experienced and competent client-side researcher, this approach reduces the research vendor to an order taker.  Even the most experienced researchers can still learn from others, as iron sharpens iron.  Sometimes an outside view brings fresh ideas and perspectives that can heighten efficiency, reduce cost, or shine a whole new light on a business issue.  Fieldwork is usually driven by specs, but things such as project design require creativity as well as the science of research.

I have no problem at all with an RFP containing detailed specifications.  It’s when the RFP (or the client) leaves no room for suggestions or potential improvements that it can become frustrating.  If we’re not allowed to be collaborators at any level on the RFP, the chances we can actually be collaborators on the project itself are pretty slim.

On the other end of the spectrum, however, is where the real frustration can emerge.  Grey Matter Research frequently receives RFPs that provide little or no guidance.  “Our sales for this product category are shrinking and we need to do some research to figure out why and what to do about it – please design the methodology and tell us what it will cost, and submit it all in an RFP.”  We even got a request once from a major corporation that sold products through resellers, and the RFP didn’t specify whether the target of the research was the consumers or the resellers (it was our job to recommend which one to research).

There are many problems with this approach.  One is that we have to spend considerable time mapping out an entire research strategy, with no defense against the client taking our approach and handing the whole thing over to another vendor to conduct.

Another problem is that we’re forced to develop the entire research strategy in a vacuum, without critical corporate history and knowledge that resides with the client.

A third problem is that this approach also squashes collaboration, because instead of the client making all the decisions, now it’s just handed over to the research vendors with little relevant client input.  I well remember a nebulous RFP for a bank that provided very little guidance.  When I contacted the client and started asking some questions, I was castigated.  “None of the other vendors had any questions – why do you?”  My goal was to design a project that would be best for the bank rather than for my company, but the client saw collaboration as a weakness rather than a strength.   The best  research is not a package you take off the shelf and put in your cart – it’s a partnership between client and vendor.

But possibly the biggest issue with this approach is that there is simply no good way to compare RFPs that could be dramatically different.  One vendor might recommend focus groups while another suggests a large online study and a third targets a small study with galvanic skin response and eye tracking, all at vastly different price points  and providing vastly different kinds of feedback.  It’s like test driving a Lamborghini, a Dodge pickup, and a Smart car and trying to decide which one is “better” without knowing the budget or the needs of the buyer.

Even if there is a little methodological guidance given, we get RFPs with notes such as “vendor to recommend sample size” or “vendor to suggest number of focus groups.”  The challenge with this approach is that there is no right answer to these questions.  Most researchers would agree that a sample of 50 people is usually insufficient for a quantitative study, and that a sample of 10,000 is overkill in most cases.  And most of us would agree that a sample of 1,000 is “better” than a sample of 400 – more subgroup flexibility, more data points, lower sampling error, etc.  But is 1,000 “better” if it costs 50% more and takes another two weeks in the field?  In some situations, the trade-off is worth it; in other cases, it’s not.  That’s a case-by-case decision, and one that usually needs to be made by the end client, since it’s their budget that has to pay for the additional respondents and their timeline which has to allow for them to be done.

Particularly difficult is when absolutely no budget guidance is given.  I’ve designed research projects from $7,500 to $750,000, with everything in between.  When reading your RFP, I have no idea whether you’ll look at a project with four focus groups and 400 interviews and like the fact that I’ve kept it small and lower-priced, or laugh at the fact that it’s so small and insufficient compared to what you want (and possibly to what some other vendor responding to the RFP has guessed in recommending 12 groups and 1,600 completed interviews).

I’ve quoted price tags of $50,000 to small companies and had them suggest enlarging the project, and I’ve quoted the same price to major corporations and had them tell me that’s way beyond what they can spend.  I’ve lost projects because another vendor was “able to solve our problem with fewer focus groups.”  Uh, no – apparently they just guessed right at what you actually wanted.  My company could also do fewer focus groups, and possibly even at a lower price had I been given that opportunity.

From a vendor standpoint, the ideal RFP provides solid background on what the project is meant to accomplish (and what the current business situation is), thoughts or guidance on methodology (at least the basics of whether you’re looking for qualitative or quantitative information and who you actually want to research), guidance on your budget or scope expectations, and the freedom for Grey Matter to collaborate with you and, between the two of us, design the best approach for what you need.

So please, Mr. or Ms. Client, don’t reduce your vendors to simple order takers and remove our ability to provide some ideas that may prove valuable to your work.  On the other hand, don’t expect us to design the ideal project for you in a vacuum, with no guidance other than a whole lot of guesswork, and give you a final product you can then send to someone else to complete while we’re left with no compensation for our time and good ideas.

Find good vendors that can collaborate with you and be research partners that will sharpen your thinking and help you achieve even greater success.  Then give us the necessary guidance and background and see what more we can add to the design.  Shackling us with parameters that are inflexible or forcing us to guess at what you need will both end up limiting what we can do for you.

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2 Responses to “Finding the Right Balance in RFPs”

  1. Nicholas Tortorello says:

    January 2nd, 2015 at 10:15 am

    Ron, this is an excellent article and clearly portrays the difficulties in writing client proposals. I don’t bid unless the client will take questions and is looking for more than an order taker. It is usually a waste of time to just bid, since competitive bids will be ridiculously low. I always try to keep one rule in mind, which is if I can’t make a profit than I won’t bid.

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