The Only Way to Lose is to Play the Game

I produced a pitch for a potential client and we won the pitch but lost the project.

The funny thing is that nobody won. That thought and all of it’s puns smacked me like a ton of bricks. For four weeks I competed on the basis of a Request for Proposal (RFP) issued by a potential client. That’s a ton of work, I undertook:

  • Six phone calls with the client. Four included some of my team members.
  • Building a hand-picked team of contractors. I intentionally tried to limit their involvement, but it still took two major brainstorming sessions for our team, plus pitch content from each of them.
  • Positioning my team against 10 other studios. Most were small, one was internationally recognized.
  • Construction of a pitch document. I concepted and outlined a pitch document. After 7 major versions we had a finished 25 page PDF.
  • Sending approximately 80 emails in total related to the project and an unknown amount of texts, Slack messages, and back-channeling.
  • Creating three versions of a project plan that spanned over five months and three distinct web properties.
  • Constructing an on-site presentation with my project lead who facilitated an in-person meeting in collaboration with me.
  • Travel. We purchased two plane tickets, lodging, and meals. We also spent two full days on this presentation away from our desks, let alone the time lost to preparing the initial pitch.

My team beat out eight of the eleven other studios to make it to the final round. After the on-site presentation we were fairly confident we had it in the bag. A week later, the client emailed and informed us that the budget was being drastically reduced and the work reconsidered.

After putting eleven studios through an RFP process and spending copious hours of their own team’s time, the client pulled the project and paid nobody. The sheer quantity of man hours wasted across all teams is staggering. In all meanings of the statement,

Nobody won.

You’d think I’d know better. The last RFP I responded to (although I didn’t produce the pitch), my team won. Again, poignantly successful approach and execution. The client informed us we won. Celebrations! Over the weeks following, the client went dark. The project never happened.

That’s right. The last two RFPs I’ve been on, my team has won over the hearts and minds of the client but the project hasn’t happened. What gives?

There are a lot of causes that could be behind this. I work on hollywood model teams with highly qualified individuals. We’re small and cheaper than your typical high-powered studios, but costly as far as contractors go. Maybe we attract clients who are already overly budget conscious and prone to cold feet.

Perhaps our pitches inspire teams to do the work themselves. After all, if a group of 4-5 guys and gals can do it, why can’t they? I don’t have a large enough sample size to guess accurately, and the clients don’t seem to be interested in giving feedback on the pitches although I explicitly ask.

Pitches are lost all the time, and there’s a wealth of resources on how to avoid the critical path to losing. A large loss percentage isn’t surprising.

What’s surprising is winning but not winning.

I think this is increasingly unique to teams like mine. Clients either hire us without bothering to go through qualification, or they are overly cautious because they’re not sure they can truly handle a relationship. That’s quite the spectrum of confidence and willingness to risk funds. So how do we deal with this conundrum? There are a few tactics I want to try on future RFPs. The first is this email reply:

"Thanks for sending us your RFP, we are honored you thought of us and don’t take your interest lightly. Regrettably, we’re unable to commit time to an unpaid pitch because we’re a small team that takes on only a few projects at a time under very high-touch relationships. If you’re open to speaking with us outside the RFP process or considering a small fee for our time, we’re eager to hear more. Are you available to speak with me sometime over the next few days?"

I don’t know how this email will be received, but for the sake of my teams, I’m ready to try it out.

The second tactic is insisting on a paid discovery prior to a fully scoped project. I’ve had success with this recently. Scope a full approach but only pitch a discovery valued at about 15-20% of the total project. This gives the client a test drive and lets you sell to their best interest: smaller timeframe and cost for a set of deliverables that can be used by any team that the client chooses for the final vendor—even if it’s not you. This isn’t a new tactic. You can even rename discovery to better suit the perception you want to build. How about evaluation?

The third tactic is insisting on meeting final stakeholders and receiving explicit written confirmation that my team’s projected budget is within an acceptable range. I’m even considering requiring the client to furnish 2 references. The balance of power is slightly shifted for highly talented web teams. At least for now, clients seem to need us more than we need them–I want to take advantage of that balance to mitigate lost time, money, and empathy. It’s not an ego thing, it’s just good sense. If selling in the world of hollywood model web work really is like dating, why is it so one-sided?

I still think RFP’s can be valuable. Jamie or Matthew can tell you I’m always trying to make clients into better storytellers. An RFP can be a powerful tool in telling the story of a project. What I’m starting to lean toward is not only hijacking the RFP process to change the conversation, but also occasionally flipping the process back onto the client. How about we start making clients go through a PFR…a…Proposal Fitness Requirement process?

Matt Cook January 21, 2016