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The Semantics of File Formats. Posted on 03/18/2002.

In the proposal process with a Large Corporation Back East, we (the folks at Adaptive Path) were asked to submit questions about an RFP. We gathered round, came up with a list, typed them into an email and sent it off.

The Corporation sent all the pitching vendors a list of all questions asked by all of them. This was followed by a conference call. After the conference call, I found out from a contact within the Corporation that other people in the Corporation were concerned about Adaptive Path's professionalism.

See, we had sent questions in the body of an email. Some folks in the Corporation had felt that the questions should have been submitted in an attached Word document. That thought had never crossed our minds. Perhaps more surprising to us, though, was that every other vendor *had* done this. They all somehow knew.

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Just wanted to say that I applaud your courage in posting this. Many people wouldn't.

As someone working at a Big Corporation der Midwest, I can say that vendor selection processes often vary based on the make-up of the project team. Here are a few tips I'd give anyone on the vendor side of an RFP/selection process:

- Whenever possible, clarify as many aspects of expected deliverables as possible. This includes file formats, length/degree of effort expected (e.g. top 5 high-level questions or 101 comprehensive ones), how it will be used, etc.

- I would suggest you brand all your deliverables as much as possible, especially pre-sales ones. Email usually doesn't provide that option very well. That way, if they are looking at your list of questions, they see the Adaptive Path logo alongside these really insightful questions they'll think "Geez, these Adaptive Path folks are pretty smart!" Email looks more like "hey, peter@adaptivepath is pretty smart"...not quite the same. And of course your favorite word processor delivers more polish than Outlook Express can. I also tend to think that the way vendors present their own brand will be similar to the way they'll manage presentation of my company's brand on a project.

- Lead with your best image, but still be yourselves. If emails are how you work best, ask if an email will suffice. Mention that it's more cost effective and gets them what they want faster. Explain that that's your preferred working style (casual, quick, cost-effective) -- it can be a selling point when you're compared to the uppity ad-agencies in suits and ties with very formal sales processes and deliverables. Some companies like formal, button-down shirts and suits ... others like more casual working relationships. Become a chameleon in that regard if possible.

- Reflect back the same type of formality you see on the client's side. If they are looking at many vendors using an "RFP" process, that usually means they are pretty formal in their selection process. Smaller companies or ones with less formal styles don't usually handle vendor selection with an RFP type of process.

Also, dig a little deeper on the "professionalism" comment. Was it based just on use of the email format for one deliverable? Was there enough other client interaction to show your professionalism in meetings and other deliverables, or was this just one of those "we send you the RFP, you respond" types of things with little real client access? I've seen RFPs like that, and think it's a real crap shoot for a vendor. You're likely to either propose too much or too little.

Always try to get as much time/interaction with a client as possible -- think of it like user research for your deliverables and meetings. On the client side people want to think that a vendor is "really trying to understand our goals and unique challenges" -- the more you listen and ask questions the better you look.

In any case, don't take it too hard. Life's full of lessons and bad luck. Sometimes it's just hard to tell which one of those cards you're being dealt.

Damn, now I've given all my secrets over to the "other side". :) I guess I've always wanted to share more of my suggestions with vendors after they aren't selected, but it's difficult to deliver that type of feedback. Many only care whether or not they got the job.

Sorry for the "War and Peace" length comment...
Posted by Lyle @ 03/18/2002 08:18 PM PST [link to this comment]

I did federal gov't contracting proposals for years, and that's STILL the craziest thing I've ever heard. There's a professional ettiquette about attachments being better than e-mail text?? *sigh* I think the problem with these large corporations is that they have so many people each doing his or her own little bit of the proposal process, that each person feels he or she has to justify his or her position by focusing on the most inane bits of crap he or she can come up with. That's my theory -- I worked for a small corporation, and I hated it when we teamed with a large one because a dozen people would be on your case constantly about every finicking detail.

Maybe stick something in your proposal about "using direct e-mail communications over attachments where possible and practical in order to minimize the risk of virus transfer" as part of your project management text?
Posted by Janet @ 03/18/2002 08:20 PM PST [link to this comment]

Aww, peter, I could have told you to expect that. It's quite ridiculous, really, the way Big Corporations make decisions on things like this. I once saw one vendor chosen over another for an audit project even though its proposed fees were several times those of the next most expensive vendor while offering an almost identical process and timeline, because the proposal looked "leagues better than any one else's".

Ironically, though, the same company was later criticized for delivering documents on tabloid - rather than letter-sized - paper, folks wanting to know, "How much are we paying for all of this fancy printing?" Damned if you do...
Posted by jz @ 03/18/2002 09:42 PM PST [link to this comment]

I can really imagine it.

My theory is: you have a large corporation, and someone is made responsible for a certain project. This often is a capable person, a decent project manager, but that doesn't mean they know how to distinguish between different proposals, what things to look at.

When they get proposals, since they don't have all the insight to know what the best way to do it is (after all, that's why they're hiring you), they will select on things like "how professional it looks", or "how famous the company is", or "how well they get along with the representatives", or "how professional the presentation seemed".

And you know what: maybe that's fair enough.

When I choose a plumber I don't know for sure if he's done a decent job until years later. So I depend on word of mouth, reputation, and how reliable the *seem* to me. Maybe a plumber who I don't really like will do a really great job for less money, but what do I know?

It does mean companies often waste large amounts of money, but from my experience, large companies have a momentum of their own and can afford to waste considerable amounts of money without immediate repercussions. That is, the project manager won't feel the repercussions herself.

Of course, even worse are clients who *think* they know what they're doing, but don't really know.

Maybe on a related note: when doing proposals, I often tend to select clients like that as well: if they seem like they'll be a difficult client (maybe they want to decide everything in a *arg* commitee), I add say, 20 or 30% to my timelines, just because I *know* it'll be used.

Mmmm, maybe that wasn't really a related note after all.
Posted by Peter @ 03/19/2002 02:14 AM PST [link to this comment]

Look at it too from the client's POV, and what they would want to do with whatever you send them. It's quite likely they will want to print out multiple copies and pass them out to a committee, or slip into a briefing folder for the big boss.

A printed email in that situation really does look pretty crappy compared to an enclosed document complete with logo etc. The usability of the document is also less in the context of a swag of other papers - it's too easy for it to be overlooked or lost amongst all the other paper.

The point isn't necessarily that the client is making judgements based on appearance (and arguably usability of documentatin), but that you didn't take that into consideration and give it due respect.
Posted by Eric Scheid @ 03/19/2002 04:45 AM PST [link to this comment]

From the client's (ok, potential client's) POV, the RFP process is analogous to a job interview. Every point in the process is an opportunity for the vendor to display their professionalism and understanding of the client's cultural and business expectations.

To the client - especially if we're talking about a Fortune 500-type client - an email response to an RFP is roughly equivalent to showing up for the first interview in jeans and sneakers. Would you take this interviewee seriously? Maybe not. Even if the working environment is casual, it's awfully nice to see a candidate make an effort.

Posted by Anne @ 03/19/2002 07:26 AM PST [link to this comment]

In my experience, RFPs suck. Yes, they're a fact of life, but they still suck. I understand they're a way for large companies to attempt to standardize proposals from disparate vendors, but in my experience RFPs usually mean that a client is looking for the cheapest solution that meets their needs. this is understandable, of course, to a point, but usually an indication that the client isn't interested in evaluating differences in capability or engaging in a conversation. From a vendor's point of view, RFPs usually mean, "we want what we want the way we want it, and we want it for the cheapest we can get it". Many times as well I've experienced that if a client has undertaken the effort to draft a detailed RFP, they're many times not interested in alternate solutions-- they've spent time evaluating their options and they want the solution completed only as they've outlined it in the RFP.

Maybe I'm just cynical and jaded, but every RFP process I've participated in for the last 7 years as a vendor has always been a painful, negative experience whether or not we actually got the project (and in a fair number, we did get the project). So much so that I now avoid projects that require an RFP process to evaluate vendors. Maybe that's pouting, but it seems to work ;)
Posted by tim(at)bigempty @ 03/19/2002 08:12 AM PST [link to this comment]

Peter's original comment said they submitted questions about the RFT via email, not the RFT itself. Personally, I would have thought this is valid since those questions can be easily copied into one document for action, but you never know who you are dealing with. Perhaps the recipient is not a power user and has just discovered all the pretty things you can do with Outlook/HTML email (multi-colour signatures, etc). To them, anyone not using this new formatting capability obviously must not be keeping up with the latest. Plain text, how boring.

I've also found corporate people are more inclined to attach (large) documents to email messages and spray them around to all and sundry. They are used to receiving well formatted documents full of graphics and charts (1+ Mbyte). Aside: At one client I used a web server to store large Excel documents and emailed the URL to those concerned. Some people had a lot of trouble working it out and some versions of Netscape (Mac) didn't let them open the file directly from the URL. This was confusing to people who are used to just double clicking on attachments and viewing them immediately.

Having just been through an RFT I found it interesting that it was specified in the document that all questions had to be faxed to the client. However, we got much more useful information from telephone conversations with the project manager.

Lyle, thanks for the view from "the other side".
Posted by Andrew @ 03/19/2002 01:00 PM PST [link to this comment]

I work in a very small software development consulting company, seven employees. One of our new project managers insists on delivering all meeting minutes in Word, consisting primarily of simple bullet lists seperated by minor headings. For a few weeks, I copied these to our Wiki, where they actually looked better, because our Wiki has a good stylesheet (and I corrected bad formatting). Then it occurred to me that static, recorded meeting minutes were worthless, that we should be using the dynamic nature of the Wiki to record progress and issues.

Needless to say, we're still getting Word attachments of meeting minutes. "It's more professional."
Posted by Anonymous (sorry) @ 03/20/2002 10:40 AM PST [link to this comment]

As a sales professional, and veteran of more RFP's than I can count - I can honestly say "don't worry about it." It's my experience, especially when dealing with highly subjective subjects like software consulting, user experience design, web design, etc., that the winner is often selected before the RFP is even written. This is especially true if this is a case of you getting an RFP on a project that you have not been "working" on for a while.

I've also noticed that the clients that demand everything in Word are the same ones that send me 40 copies of the every Outlook worm. Probably not a coincidence ;)
Posted by Chris O'Donnell @ 03/20/2002 06:16 PM PST [link to this comment]

I have just begun the RFP process for my current employer, a bank. Previously, their process was to chop up the RFP and send it around to whomever they felt could best address the question(s).

My job, to organize this process and stream-line it with a software package. I have realized no matter how much organization you have over the process IF you can't get good information regarding your company or process, you are going to lose.

We are often asked about our numbers. What is your performance for X portfolio styles, etc. If the numbers behind your message are crap, you won't stand a chance. Shit in, shit out.

I have increased our call-back ratio, however we have yet to win an RFP. I do agree, MANY RFPs go out and the winner is already selected before hand. It's just a "fomality" and a way for these crap consultants designing RFPs to justify their high-dollar time.
Posted by Ryan @ 03/21/2002 07:50 AM PST [link to this comment]

I wish I could say that I'm surprised, Peter, but if it's any consolation I agree with your sense of shock at the discovery.

I've been working on a proposal for an auto dealership, and the only other serious bidder is a shop that's got an affiliate relationship with one of the local TV stations.

When we discussed the original proposal after its submission, the client contact mentioned that I had delivered much better than he expected.

Why? Because I focussed on the customer's needs, where the other bidder put most of their energy into talking themselves up (a common practice amongst Web shops in this market).

I bring it up because it's the same dynamic, but working in the opposite direction.

What I want to know is: between AP's client list, their collective publishing credits, and their ASIS involvement, how did the recipient of the proposal manage to come away with the impression that you guys were somehow unprofessional...?
Posted by Ben Henick @ 03/23/2002 12:23 AM PST [link to this comment]

As a 15 year veteran of just such a Large Corporation Back East, I can tell you were dealing with people from the business side of the house. These people live in Microsoft Office. There were many times when I would get one or two sentence e-mails from such people that were in the form of Word attachments. These people essentially use Word as their e-mail programs. This was often a problem for people on the tech side of the house.

Back when I was a tech writer, I used to have one client who would periodically ask for copies of some of the drawings I was creating for my manuals so he could include them in his reports. After the third or fourth time, he asked if it might be possible for me to create my drawings in PowerPoint, so that it would be easier for us to share information. I responded that it would be possible, just as it was possible for me to drive nails with a screwdriver, but it probably wasn't the right tool for the job. He seemed to understand that.
Posted by Ralph Brandi @ 03/23/2002 11:53 PM PST [link to this comment]

After obtaining a contract (going the RFP route, natch) with a Large Technology Company, I've discovered that attachments don't get read. In fact, email doesn't usually get read. They have been very articulate about their access hierarchy, and it's pretty unfair to those outside the Corporate Membrane.

1 notes left on chairs
2 voice mail (we can do this, but we can't say, broadcast something to the entire 15 person team)
3 email
4 attachments
Posted by Steve Portigal @ 04/09/2002 10:07 PM PST [link to this comment]

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