The trouble with Requests for Proposals (RFPs) is that there are usually many other firms replying. This competition makes it crucial to differentiate yourself and demonstrate clearly that you can meet the client's needs.
You can't do this successfully without certain information and some of this information is often missing from the original RFP. The only way to obtain the additional details is to ask the person soliciting the proposal.
Many clients hesitate when I suggest they reply to RFPs with questions of their own. They ask:
- Won't the client be annoyed with my questions?
- Won't the client think I should already know the answers?
- Won't the client be insulted that I'm suggesting their RFP was incomplete?
My response: Don't be shy about asking! If the client is serious about the RFP process, they should welcome your questions. In fact, the more questions you ask, the more focused and relevant your response -- saving the client time and resulting in a more compelling presentation.
What can you ask to focus your response and weed out those RFPs that don't have real potential? These are the ten questions I recommend:
- Why are you conducting this RFP?
There are many reasons to conduct RFPs -- dissatisfaction with existing counsel, cost reduction, consolidation to reduce management time, etc. Knowing the client's motivation helps determine what's needed and how serious they are about awarding the business. If they can't answer this to your satisfaction, you may not want to participate.
- Why did you include us?
You want to know what the client already knows about you and how you are positioned. You can then capitalize on this information to stand apart in the proposal.
- What criteria are important to you in selecting a firm? How would you rank the criteria?
This will help you craft a focused response, honing in on the issues that are most important to them.
- Do you have a timeline for making the decision?
If they don't have a timeline, they may not be particularly serious and you may want to reconsider your participation.
- Are there any special circumstances or "hot buttons" of which we should be aware?
Forewarned is forearmed.
- What kind of relationship do you want with your outside counsel?
They may be looking for a partnership, a way to expand head count without hiring another inside lawyer, or a second opinion. Each approach dictates a different response.
- What role will pricing play in the decision? What issues are of concern about pricing? Predictability? Risk/reward sharing? Cost reduction?
Believe it or not, not all RFPs are about cost reduction, and even those that are may define cost reduction in different ways. Knowing the answers to these questions will help you determine the pricing structure that will appeal most to the client. Many an RFP response has included an alternate fee proposal that the client was uninterested in.
- Are there documents we should review or people we should speak with prior to responding?
The more information you can gather, the better you can address their concerns.
- Who is responsible for managing the competition process? Who else will be involved in making the decision?
You need to know who your audience is to craft the most appropriate response. If the CFO is managing the process, there's a lot of information in that fact. You want to communicate differently with business people than highly specialized lawyers.
- How many other firms are competing? Which other firms are competing and which lawyers from those firms?
In order to differentiate yourself from your competition, you need to know who that competition is. Some people won't answer these questions, but it never hurts to ask.
Responding to an RFP is a time-consuming process. Before you invest that time, make sure that you have a good chance of winning by discovering if it is an open competition, what the client is really looking for, and what it will take to make you and your firm stand out.