Note: this blog post originally appeared as a LinkedIn Article as “Proposals: Red Flags and Dirty Tricks.”
If you’ve spent any amount of time creating proposals, then you’ve undoubtedly seen all sorts of questionable behavior by proposal requestors. Sure, they send out an RFP (or post it online), asking for responses, acting like they want many proposals in order to make an informed decision. And then then they create traps to disqualify those proposals so they don’t have to read them. Some common approaches:
- Extremely tight proposal deadlines making it almost impossible to respond
- Limited number of pages, making it almost impossible to be responsive to the RFP criteria
- Strict requirements on font, point size, spacing, etc. – little things that make it easy to get your proposal disqualified (“You used 10-point font size? Off with your head!”)
- Vague language with no knowledgeable person to contact for clarity
- Highly restrictive requirements for staff experience, license/certification, or relevant past experience
- Outrageous project schedule requirements or contract terms (that may not even be insurable)
- Continually revising the RFP and changing the requirements / scope while not changing the due date
These are all red flags that demonstrate the pitfalls of responding to a proposal unless you really know the client/agency and have an established rapport with them. That’s not to say that you need to have a deep relationship with every client you submit a proposal to (how often are the final decision makers / selection committee members “hidden” to the proposers, anyway?), or even that a good relationship would prevent some of these behaviors. Rather, these are clues that if you’re not “in the know” about the opportunity, then you shouldn’t waste your time submitting a proposal (the proposal requestor doesn’t want it, anyway!).
In many cases, your competitor very well may have written the RFP document. They wrote it so restrictively that only their firm could check all the boxes! And you know what? You’d do the same thing if given the opportunity (and many of us have). However, there’s also a trap here. Another bad behavior you’ll come across is the proposal requestor that reaches out to you for a proposal and detailed scope of work to a project that may not be well-defined. “What do you think this project will take?”, they ask. And then after you spend many hours pulling something together, everything goes quiet – or you get ghosted. You thought you had a 95% probability of being awarded the project, yet they won’t even return your calls or emails. And then, low and behold, one day an email arrives from that prospect. Unfortunately, it contains a Request for Proposal which just happens to include that detailed scope of work you developed – almost verbatim. And they sent the RFP to your competitors, as well. So essentially you did all the legwork for the RFP, and now you have to bid to get the project.
Most of my time is spent in the architecture, engineering, and construction (#AEC) space, but I’ve been involved with proposals from other perspectives as well, particularly in the nonprofit realm. Recently I saw some of the same old red flags and dirty tricks in an RFP – as well as a new one! These included:
- Sending RFPs to groups that had no business in actually responding – they didn’t have the qualifications or the capacity
- Including RFP requirements so time-consuming that it would be impossible to comply in the allotted time
- Including RFP requirements so cost-prohibitive that few (if any) recipients could submit a truly responsive proposal
You may be shaking your head because you’ve seen this kind of thing before. But here’s the new one:
- Not publishing any limitations on word count or file size (only that the proposal must be electronically delivered in a single Word document), and then rejecting any file 1 MB or larger at submission
So you could spend weeks working on the proposal, trying to cross as many t’s and dot as many i’s as possible (not that it was possible to get them all!), finalize the proposal just before the deadline (the world most of us work in), click the link to upload the file, and only once you have attempted to submit the file find out that there is a limitation on file size!
I don’t have a fundamental problem with file size limitations, but there are two glaring issues here:
- Not making proposers aware of any file size limits in advance.
- Requiring files to be less than 1 MB – what is this, 1993?
The average smart phone photo is probably 2 or 3 MB – no different than it was in the early days of smart phones, thus a 1 MB file is small by today’s standards. For most proposals, it’s downright tiny. Therefore, a 1 MB file size limit would be a “red flag” had it been published to proposers. Not disclosing that limit and essentially using it as a way to reject proposals is a downright “dirty trick”!
You can argue whether there was Machiavellian intent, or it was simple ignorance that caused the issue. However, when you look at the other red flags – before even getting to this little trick – you can clearly see that the proposal requestor had little interest in actually receiving any proposals.
They had already pre-ordained the winner – and perhaps the “winner” was the status quo. (A colleague once told me that the biggest competitor will always be the status quo.)
If you make the RFP so restrictive, invite unqualified groups to submit, and then create a layer of “security” to disqualify any potentially-responsible proposals, it’s easy to say, “We didn’t receive any proposals that met our criteria, so we are going to (fill in the blank).”
And in this case, the blank may be “proceed as planned,” “stay with our current firm,” or “not move forward with the project/initiative.”
Downstream, however, there’s a feeling of frustration, disappointment, even dejection. Large amounts of time have been wasted in pursuit of an opportunity that was never going to pan out. The opportunity costs can be staggering when this kind of thing happens.
I’m a big proponent of making quality, objective Go/No-Go decisions based upon data and facts (as opposed to the all-too-common subjective, “Sure we can do that!” decisions). And yet, there are many red flags that go unnoticed or are intentionally ignored, costing organizations huge wheelbarrows of cash and their employees massive black holes of productive time.
What are some of the proposal red flags and dirty tricks that you’ve seen?
Interested in upping your proposal game? aecumen offers a half-day proposal workshop for project managers and marketing professionals to learn about best practices and proposal trends. Contact Scott Butcher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 717.891.1393 to learn more.