Often clients don't know what they want but they want to know how much it will cost.
We've all had that sinking feeling when meeting with a prospective client. The work is interesting and right in your sweet spot. But they don't know exactly what they want or even what the deliverables should be. After a few minutes, you realize that just getting a decent proposal together is going to take a serious investment of time to unravel their needs.
ur company's search for a better way to respond to RFPs (aka Requests For Proposal) began after a long and arduous bidding process around building a community-based website. We invested 3-4 days of our time conducting meetings, white-boarding ideas, and writing up our recommendations. We pushed the client into an awkward discussion around budget. But, at the end, we delivered a proposal with a rock-solid roadmap for executing the project.
What happened next changed how we pitch and has made all the difference in our business.
Instead of hiring us, the prospective client simply passed around our ideas and deliverables to every other vendor for competing bids. Those vendors, in turn, said, "You bet we can do that - and for less." We didn't get compensated for our time or our work, but our ideas were implemented.
Prospective clients in the creative fields frequently use the RFP process - albeit unintentionally - as a cost-effective way to get brainstorming, mock-ups, and prototypes for free.
So what now?
When the next potential project came along, I had that same sinking feeling halfway through our first meeting. I knew we had a ton of unraveling to do before we could define the deliverables and scope of work. But this go around we were not going to do the client education for free. With a bit of apprehension, I launched into a nervous pitch about why our company doesn't do RFPs and proposed a new "discovery" option.
Why the "Discovery Option" Works
Not just anybody can walk in and know the pitfalls and what it takes for success in a creative endeavor, right? You have valuable creative and project management skills with insights that were hard-earned. By charging for a "discovery process," you tie monetary value to those skills and set a good precedent for the client relationship. But it's not just a good deal for you...
Frequently, prospective clients don't know exactly what they need or why they need it. Your experience in guiding clients at the outset of a project presents tremendous value because you can save them time and money by avoiding mistakes in focus, deliverables, and most importantly expectations. You, in turn, help make the prospective client look great to their management by helping them be more savvy and better attuned to current trends and opportunities.
The next time you're faced with a murky RFP, consider countering with a "discovery option" at a fixed price that's fair for both parties. Here are three simple tips we've used to make this approach successful.
1. Clearly outline what deliverables the client will get at the end of the process and make sure they represent real value.
Remember, further education and a brief write-up based on research or brainstorms with specific recommendations qualifies as real value. For example, we offer a PDF with a bullet list of technical and creative specifications needed to build out and manage an online presence based on the client's target market. Whether they use us or not, they are now smarter on the process, technology, timelines, language, and pitfalls of building a digital experience.
2. Eliminate risk by ensuring the client there is no further obligation at the end of the discovery process.
Frame it as an easy way for you both to see if the relationship is a good fit. For big ticket projects the prospective client often feels much better dipping their toe in the water this way. Bonus: the smaller price point often means the liaison can get approval much easier, especially given the value proposition of specific deliverables and custom education.
3. Inject a bit of creativity to help them innovate.
Dig in and come up with some interesting ideas and examples that have real potential for them. Pull together data that helps back up your recommendations or gives great insights. This shows you are a pro and working hard on their behalf to push the envelope for ideas - which most of your competitors will not do in an RFP process because they can't afford to waste the time. All of this leads the client to trust you more since you're working hard to help them innovate.
In the end, the discovery option is a win-win for both parties. You get paid for work you used to give away for free and, as a result, do a better job on the proposals. The prospective client gets a roadmap with tips, ideas, and well-researched recommendations. And, as a bonus, both parties know whether this is a relationship that they want to pursue in the long-term. Furthermore, if the client doesn't see value in the discovery option, you know right away that they might not be a good fit and could be a client from hell
And if you're wondering, we did land that next project and have since used this approach in all RFP-type situations. Potential clients love it because they get to try out our company's process with little risk. And we can provide much more accurate quotes because we've already done the hard work of sussing out a solid scope of work.
I can tell you first-hand that it's pretty liberating to finally be able to say that you don't do creative work for free.
What's Your Experience?
Have you found good ways to maximize the time you invest in responding to RFPs?
More about Jake Cook
Jake Cook is an entrepreneur, professor, and writer. A co-founder at Tadpull, he also teaches Online and Social Media Marketing at Montana State University. He’s fascinated by the intersection of design, technology and creativity. Follow him at @jacobmcook.
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