“Beware the Daring of A Cautious Man”: The danger of a half-hearted RFP response.

You’re sitting at your desk staring at an RFP you just received for a nice big job.  It’s big bucks if you get it, and a high profile client to boot.  The kind of event you sit around hoping lands on your desk.

You’re so excited that after scanning the RFP you call the client up to thank them for the opportunity, and to ask the usual qualifying questions.  The answers wipe the smile off your face pretty fast.

“How many other event companies have you sent this to?”
“I see you’ve done this event before.  Is the incumbent firm being asked to bid?”

“If you don’t mind me asking, were you happy with their work?”

“Yes, very happy.”
“Why are you seeking so many other bids then?”

“We want to see what other ideas are out there.”

Not exactly the greatest signs.  You furrow your brow in frustration and briefly try to use your special powers to make the client’s head explode through the phone line, then politely thank them for the opportunity again and tell them you can’t wait to show them what you’ve got.

Yes, of course it’s not professional to ask twelve companies to create detailed proposals, but that’s a whole other discussion, and at the end of the day, nobody is forcing you to bid.  Do you have a chance to win the business?  Yes, but with an incumbent agency in the picture, it’s not great.

Now, there’s two types of “not great” situations like this.  The first is where the client is forced by their Procurement Dept. to bid the work out.  Generally, they have every intention of re-hiring the incumbent vendor, but need to satisfy their internal process.  In this case, they normally don’t get more than 3 of 4 bids.   They want to get the minimum number needed to satisfy procurement.

The second situation is the one described at the beginning of this post, where a client really does want to see what else is out there.  That’s why they’ve bid it out to so many people, which is really annoying.  On the flip side, you can bet they will look at your proposal.

So what do you do?  You can either acknowledge the time commitment in creating a winning proposal, factor in the long odds of winning it, and pass.  Or you can roll the dice, show them your best, and keep your fingers crossed.

The one thing I encourage you NOT to do is phone it in with a quick proposal that’s not your best work.  In the twenty years I ran

NY Times Columnist William Safire

my event company, I often had account executives want to do this, saying, “I’ll just throw a quick proposal together.  Don’t worry, I won’t spend too much time on it.”  To which I usually responded, “if we bid, we bid to win.  Otherwise forget it.”

‘Go big or go home’ is another expression that conveys this principle.  But perhaps my favorite is ‘Beware the daring of a cautious man,’ by former New York Times columnist William Safire.  He wrote this after the failed attempt during the Carter presidency to rescue the hostages in Iran.  (Yes, I am that old and I did read the newspaper in high school.  Sometimes.)  Apparently Carter sent in a small team of helicopters, and when two of them had mechanical trouble the whole mission had to abort.

I don’t know why, but that quote has always stuck with me.  What I take away from it is that it’s ok to be daring, and it’s ok to be cautious, but you don’t want to be cautiously daring.

In this case, there are worse things than actually not getting the job.  If you do a half-assed proposal, you probably won’t get the job, AND the client will be so under-whelmed by your work they will not ask you to bid on future projects where the odds are better.  Worse still, they will spread their mediocre opinion of your company among their friends and colleagues when asked.

Far better to politely pass on the opportunity.  Say you don’t bid under these circumstance, or say you’re simply too busy.  Or pull out all the stops and go for it.  Yes, the odds are against you, but if you wow them they’re far more likely to use you in the future, and they will spread a very positive word about you.

By |2010-11-08T23:27:07-05:00November 8th, 2010|Articles, Creative Writing, Running Your Event Bus.|4 Comments

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  1. Jon Greer December 3, 2019 at 11:08 am

    Hi Howard, I remembered that quote to and googled it today so I came across this piece. This is a very insightful and interesting, so thanks!.

    I have 2 things to add: 1) In my experience, if you are one of many bidding to unseat the incumbent and the client says they “want to see what’s out there,” what that always translates into is one of two things: they’re misleading you about the opportunity so they can get a ton of free consulting and fresh ideas, or they want to see if someone will lowball it to win the business. 2) I read Safire’s line to mean ‘know thyself.’ So if you think of yourself as cautious, think twice if you suddenly find yourself inclined to take more risks than you are used to. And if you are interacting with someone you know as cautious, beware of their sudden burst of derring-do.

  2. Anne November 10, 2010 at 5:34 pm

    “you never know” and I agree it is worth the effort because even if there is a small percentage chance, they might remember you for another event.

  3. Mike November 10, 2010 at 5:22 pm

    Great article but here’s my question: let’s say you give a 150% in to this proposal using your best office executives and investing many work hours and at the end you get an answer along the lines of “Thank you so much you guys did a great job but unfortunately we had to go with a different company…” and more so is that you notice the event theme seems to be very similar to the idea you had in your bid. Thoughts anyone??

  4. Andrea Figman November 9, 2010 at 11:13 am

    Great again.

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