Request For Failure

I was out drinking with a former co-worker the other day and he had with him a RFP, which stands for a “Request For Proposal.” When he and I worked together, handling RFP’s was a regular part of the job. In other parts of my work career, I was on the other end, helping craft these things. As a result, I’ve had the misfortune to have read hundreds, maybe thousands of the documents. After a while, you lose track. As is the case with most of them, this one was poorly written, with some hilarious errors and omissions.

For those unfamiliar with the RFP, which is sometimes called a request for quote or even a request for information, it is a document companies produce when they wish to buy a capital product or service. In theory, the document describes the item or service, the conditions that have to be met in order to be considered and the process by which the company intends to evaluate potential vendors. These are popular in government and large corporate environments. Here’s a useful overview for those interested.

Not having had to field one of these for a while, I’d forgotten just how dumb it is to try and do business via this process. If an organization or government is buying a well defined product or a commodity item, it makes sense, but for something like a complex service, then it is a recipe for failure. Even in the case of well-defined item like a machine tool, I’ve seen RFP’s that appear to be written by enemies of the issuing company. The people creating the document use it to impress their boss, rather than make a sound purchase.

In the case of the one my buddy had with him, it was missing key information, like what it is the company actually does and why it is they are buying the service. Worse yet, it was written by a consultant. Even after having been away from this stuff for a long time, I can spot the greasy fingerprints of the consultant. Every industry has these creatures and they are always the same. I’m probably being unfair, as I’m sure there are some who are honest and conscientious, but most are just grifters, who prey on the stupid.

Anyway, we got to talking about why it is this stupid way of buying stuff persists, despite the fact that it often ends in tears. You don’t have to be in the business world very long to notice that good companies have strong relationships with both their customers and vendors. They cultivate their vendor relationships, just as they cultivate their customer relationships. They train their vendors to be conscientious and to think of themselves as partners in the enterprise. That way, the vendor becomes an asset to the business.

I think if I were going to write a business book on how to buy stuff, the first rule I’d have is never use an RFP. The second rule I’d have is make sure to visit the vendor’s facility and ask for the nickle tour before making a purchase. If they have a business culture that fits your business culture, or even better, one you strive to cultivate, then you will have a good working relationship with that vendor. If on the other hand, the vendor is running a sweatshop where the employees are miserable, that will show up in their service.

Another thing that I’ve seen often, and it always shows up in RFP’s for a service, is that the prospective customer starts off by lying to the prospective vendors. It’s the strangest thing, but I’ve seen it a lot. For example, salesmen are often trained to ask about a budget for the project. That way, they can gauge how serious the prospect is about actually doing the deal. Countless times, I’ve seen companies lie about their budget or simply refuse to disclose it. The result is they waste everyone’s time, including their own.

Similarly, salesmen are trained to find the motivators. If a company is buying a new five axis machine for their manufacturing facility, they are expecting to spend a lot of money for the machine and the training. They are not doing this on a whim. They have identified a serious problem or a serious opportunity. As a result, they are willing to invest a lot of money to address it. That’s important information that will help get the right machine and vendor, but the company will often hide that from the vendor, like it is a state secret.

Back to the book idea, the third and fourth rule for buying any big ticket item would be to quantify the return on investment and set a budget. Make that part of the purchasing narrative by disclosing it to the pool of vendors. Most likely, the guy you select will look at your reasoning and find additional opportunities for you to turn the purchase into an investment. Again, this is something I always see successful companies do for themselves and for their clients. It’s why they attract strong people and vendors.

The other thing that always turns up in RFP’s is the underlying assumption that the person who wrote the thing is a genius. The specifications will be hilariously narrow, which results in the request being for an exact copy of what they have now, but newer. My suspicion has been that there is a correlation between the level of specificity and the lack of understanding of the problem to be solved by the purchase. Smart companies buy products and services to solve problems. Stupid companies tick boxes on forms.

Again, this circles back to cultivating relationships with vendors. The RFP that spawned this post was obviously the result of some serious business problem the company needs to solve. The trouble is the RFP so thoroughly obscures it, no vendor will be able to identify the problem, so they will not be able to solve it. Instead, they will answer the RFP in a way they think gets them into the next round. In other words the purchasing process moves from problem solving to a long drawn out game of liar’s poker.

That would be another chapter in my book on buying stuff. This actually applies to every aspect of life, not just business. If you have a problem to solve, make that the starting point for proposals. Unless you have a monopoly or an exotic niche, you have competitors who are solving the same problems. One of them may have come up with a great solution and his vendor may be willing to sell that idea to you. Even better, the competitor of that vendor may have an even better solution. Smart people spend money to solve problems.

46 thoughts on “Request For Failure

  1. Back in my line management days, my favorite RFPs were the ones where the client’s consultant had not bothered to scrub the RFP template for references to prior clients or specifications that clearly were for a wholly different business. If we knew the quote was going to be a bug hunt would often have my folks insert sarcastic references in the response for shits and giggles and to embarrass the consultant.

  2. OT, but Gerard VanderLeun has been evacuated from his home in Northern California, and this fire looks like a bad one, all up in the town. Keep him and his neighbors in your prayers.

  3. Most people learn business as a field of study and then combine that knowledge with any experience they may gain working in or starting a business of their own. It is possible to forego the field of study part and go straight to the gain knowledge through experience part via real time participation. The more experienced and effective business people will bypass the RFQ process (if they can) and identify entities that may best address their business problem or need. Having an active dialog with them better defines any requirements and possible solutions in real time free from the chains of theoretical business management. Corporate and government cultures do not always allow managers this amount of latitude so a RFQ is demanded. Successful businesses manage data or information well. That is primarily done with the help of enterprise resource level software but can and must be supplemented with a proper understanding of the inherent observational reality within the business itself. The issuance of RFQ’s or RFP’s is a lame attempt at trying to obtain business acumen that they do not possess. Always moving busy bee. Obfuscation is the key. This kind of business culture stifles and constrains its people. If a company has to issue a RFQ for any reason it probably does not know its business as well as it should. A very thought provoking piece as usual. Well done.

    “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”

    Andy Warhol

  4. When my employer was acquired by Lockheed-Martin we were given new directives from central planning. One was that we could buy our PCs from anyone but we had to buy them WITHOUT sound cards (back when there was no sound capability built onto the motherboard) and we had to buy the SoundBlaster add-in boards from a minority-owned business instead. Naturally he charged about 2X the going rate for this commodity item that we then got to install ourselves, screw around with SW drivers, etc. It would add a couple of extra weeks for paperwork, purchase order, etc. to the typical PC acquisition.

  5. I was an IT consultant for 20 years, and completely 100% legit and honest. But then again, everyone in prison is innocent, just ask them.

  6. I worked for a government contractor. Our customer would start writing their RFP on a timeline that gave respondents 90 days to reply. But they would invariably be late issuing the RFP due to the typical stupidities and we would only have 2 weeks to write our proposal. These were highly technical signal-processing multi million dollar multi year projects, but the customer wouldn’t slide out our response time because they wanted to let the contract during the current fiscal year so the $$ wouldn’t go away. This resulted in POS proposals thrown together in a 24/7 panic mode. It didn’t end well.

  7. This post is another example of the death of common sense in our current culture. What you are describing is a class of people that behave like automatons rather than thinkers. Evolution originally endowed us with creative thinking and problem solving skill because that helped our ancestors stay alive (and eventually reproduce). Today, affluence has rendered that skill obsolete and replaced it with ass-kissing hive-mindedness as the primary survival skill. God help us if we ever have to use our wits again in order to survive another day.

    • You’re spot on.But it’s the only way our welfare/police state can function. It cannot tolerate independent thinkers. Why? Because you notice the contradictions and lies they tell us.

      We will go the way of the USSR because of it or worse like Lebanon where racial and political differences fracture the country.

      This is a distinct possibility. The Left is getting more and more violent. They are not content on just slowly destroying us, they are offended at the very notion we are still standing.

      What happened with Tucker Carlson is a harbinger of things to come.

      • From your post I found out about the Tucker Carlson / Antifa thing. I realize it’s a silly question on a forum like this. But where is the effing law? I hope there were arrests.

        • Maybe. Apparently got enough PR to embarrass the DC police into investigating Certainly Panty-fa left enough social media spoor and video to make it easy to find the miscreants. From Carlson’s statement last night it may actually be dawning on some of his left wing colleagues in the business that this could be a two way firing range in a hurry if this behavior continues.

  8. One of my jobs, before I retired, was to make sure that RFPs for our company’s line of business rarely arrived as a surprise. We were most successful when we participated in their genesis. If, on the other hand, the deal appeared to be a set-aside or a fishing expedition, we saved our company a lot of cost and frustration by not responding. Not all companies see the value in good sales engineering and instead prefer spend money on consultants, contracts administrators, and other bullshit artists. Those companies are typically overseen by MBAs.

  9. If you think industrial RFPs are awful, you should see a software RFP. Specs not only hilariously narrow, but also contradictory and sometimes impossible. Rather than send one of these out, you’d be better off having a dozen monkeys bang on a keyboard until something compiles.

    RFPs are a product of the democratic style of corporate bureaucracy. They exist primarily in organizations where decisions are made by committees, not individuals. Their purpose is not, and never has been, to obtain the best product at the best price. Their purpose is, and always has been, to minimize personal responsibility and legal liability when something inevitably goes very wrong.

    Think of each individual RFP as being a little like the tax code. Being long, meandering, complex, confusing, self-contradictory, and pointlessly specific and frustratingly ambiguous at the same time is actually a feature. It means that, should the issuing company feel aggrieved, which is very often the case with cancerous bureaucracies, there will always be some behavior or dimension that they can claim is out of spec, and thus transfer a share of their own problems to the vendor.

    Your hypothetical book seems written for entrepreneurs who want to see their company grow, not Fortune 1000 corporate CEOs and middle managers who are principally interested in solidifying their power and cocooning themselves against personal responsibility.

    • “Having a dozen monkeys hang on a keyboard until something complies”. That made my coffee come out through my nose. One of the many reasons I start my day with Z and the comments. You guys and gals are great.

  10. Ugh. I was on the vendor side of RFPs for 18 years, often the guy (SE/CE/architect) that had to provide the response from the vendor. I hate them with a passion. There are so many of them where the customer clearly doesn’t understand the issues as well as I do (as the vendor and an expert in the space), and is utterly resistant to being educated. He’s an expert in his own mind and he fills the RFP with all sorts of irrelevant and obsolete requirements and I have to work to try to explain why the solution should be something different than he imagines it to be (usually fruitlessly).

    I much prefer when we can go in and sit down with a customer and have an honest discussion regarding what their motivator is and what is the best way to solve the problem.

    Sometimes the vendor sales on my side is an enemy of the process, too, to a degree. Sales guys want to take the least risky path to a sale, so they want to avoid complexity and murky areas that might reveal areas where our solution is less optimal.

    I retired from my sales engineer position last month and it was a weight off my shoulders. I far preferred the times in my career where I was a developer or architect or a PS engineer — in those roles, I felt like I was working hand-in-hand with the customer, instead of always chasing a sale.

  11. Zman writes truth.

    Often the folk writing the RFP have not enough expertise in the subject matter and request things that are _beyond the laws of physics_. BTDT. That can make writing a proposal a delicate process as you can imagine. Many times we write the proposal and then have our boys re-work the whole deal into something do-able in this universe.

    And the minority/disadvantaged/pokemon-point business pass-through is a real thing. Gov’t or whomever pays an extra 20% on top of what it ought to cost. This is actually a better deal than if they required a pokemon vendor to do the actual work. Because instead of +20% waste/costs, you’d have 100% waste as the pokemon vendor did not deliver.

    • Can someone explain this use of “Pokemon”? I know it’s a game character. I’ve searched the net, and no slang definition comes up.

      • It’s the need for the government, universities, media orgs, and large businesses to “catch ’em all”. You have a quota for blacks or women, and then a couple years later you have to make sure you’ve got a couple gays on the roster, and then you’re specifically recruiting pan-gender animal kin, and on and on.

        I think Sailer coined the term, so he’s the guy to ask.

  12. Meh. You make some erroneous assumptions Z. You assume competence of the parties involved, you assume they have morals and ethics and you assume they play on the up and square. As a technical sales guy myself- I wouldn’t have it any other way. As a flip side to that – a client I had been trying to win for years kept shutting me out to deal with inferior competitors. It wasn’t until I ratted out their imported Cuban purchaser that I got a fair shot. He had been taking bribes for years as had most of his team. The process lets creeps like that know they are being watched.

    For me it’s just businesses. I can go through terms and conditions like a hot knife through butter. If you want my products and services- here they are: no weasel words, no legal traps, all eminently reasonable and honest. If you want to negotiate exceptions – no problem, let’s sit down. The idea is to force the parties to think about what they are agreeing to and have the squabble before money changes hands. These documents are nothing to be afraid of, and can be useful tools to the guy that knows how to use them.

    • John “Razzle Dazzle” Smith. I agree with sorting out all the details and potential conflicts beforehand. Unlike most people, I don’t get in a tizzy over business clichés. They’re efficient short-hand, often created for nuanced face-saving. “Just so we’re on the same page”, is excellent. It’s forewarningly courteous without having to be nervously chatty (feminine) about it. It says, “I don’t know you. You may be a moron. Or at least sloppy. You may be a weasel. You may think the same of me. So I need to bring up stuff that may be insulting to your intelligence and pride.”

      Whenever I’m dealing with contractors for home renovation or whatever, I tend to bring up a lot of what-ifs and costs. If they start getting irritated I say, “Hey, we got a good thing going now. I’m trying to keep that. Let’s not end up like The Beatles.”

      Besides personal animosity, the “All You Need is Love” guys broke up over money, and ended up suing the hell out of each other for the next 5 years. In fact, I believe they were suing each other while the band was still a band.

      I had to spice up your name John as it’s really bland. Sorry.

  13. O/T

    This seems like an escalation. Usually the leftist mob is disciplined enough to only damage “corporate” rather than “personal” property. It surprises me that Carlson actually lives in the district. I highly doubt any chance of prosecution of the mob, the DC courts scuttled the J20 riot prosecution. Just as we are unable to hold public events in blue territory, we are going to be increasingly unable to have a residence in a blue city.

  14. And fortunately there are lawyers to clean up the messy aftermath and collect their own pound of flesh. Shitty, ambiguous RFPs are a feature; not a bug. Bureaucracy, whether corporate or governmental, is a mind-numbing waste of time and talent. I pity all those whom it has ensnared.

  15. As we speak, I am in my 2nd week of 12 hour days responding to a $2.1B IDIQ for services to the government. For this particular agency, I spend about half the effort trying to determine if the entire process is a sham and the whole thing is rigged before it even starts. I track the CO’s and who the “fixers” are, because historically the same people seem to be in charge of the solicitation efforts that end up looking extremely rigged. Protests are just an exercise in futility. A small company with few qualifications hires a particularly connected ex govy and the next thing you know, they are winning $100m contracts. But, if you hire the wrong ex govies you are wasting your time.

    Like the head bug lady said in a Bug’s Life, “It;s a bug;s life, but it’s our life:”. We have no alternative than to play the game as well as possible, hoping to hit the lottery by teaming with known successful vendors of this agency. The bottom like is, you have to already know their business and their needs, or you are just wasting their time. Even then, it depends on whether they seem to have given enough work to their favorites before any outsider company can win. I recently worked for a company where we did not win anything for 3 straight years, while going after everything. Then, they won 4 in a row for over $400m in total value. What changed? Who knows. Thank God I have only 6 more months before I can retire.

    • A story I’m fond of telling is about going to the initial RFP meeting for a government contract. I was a young guy and still a little green. They handed out the RFP’s and discussed the schedule. An old guy sitting next to me thumbed through the document and found the poison pill in about ten minutes. He stood up, told everyone to look at the specific section. In a few minutes everyone left the room other than me and one other guy. He was the predetermined winner. It was a good lesson.

  16. Z: “The people creating the document use it to impress their boss.” The idea of ‘impressing’ is eternal. We have useful but limited economic cliches like, “Just follow the money”. “Everyone’s trying to work the system.” “Everyone’s got a boss”. “There’s no free lunch.” “He’s just out for a buck.” “We all gotta answer to someone.” “Impressing” has it’s own great cliche (that once must have sounded really funny, though now it’s just a common saying), as when little brother comes downstairs dressed too nice, he hears, “hey, who you tryin’ to impress?” It’s a more pervasive motivation than money, as it touches on status. I hope Z can change it up and work the notion into one of those great and seemingly effortless dictums he’s always layin down.

  17. I don’t usually look at the things, but I’m often on the Project Management side after the deal. Unless it’s government work, an RFP should just be the first step in forming a business relationship – just a hurdle to clear to get into the C-Suite and talk about what they really need.

  18. Cishet white males can do some boring work. Somebody has to do it. Thank the lord for you guys!

  19. I work on the managment/sales side of construction. Everything in this piece rings true.

    Often the “Design Professionals” have no idea what or why something is specified. Leave out important details and assume mind reading ability.

  20. I spent years selling and installing industrial and medical pump systems. Overcoming a consulting engineer was often the first step. We called them “insulting engineers”.

    • The last company I worked for got rid of just about all of their engineers and rely on outside firms to do their engineering work. They have essentially no remaining experience or talent and boy are they getting screwed.

  21. With engineering and design projects let by governments often the RFQ/RFP process is governed by Byzantine purchasing laws and regulations designed to encourage/demand “minority” or section 3 responses. Most government engineering offices know they need whitey to get the contract for it do get done properly, but they can’t come out and say it. They write up the RFP and send it up to the diverse purchasing department who sends it back mangled all to fuck. Sadly, it’s not much different in the private sector. Gotta get those quota browny points.

    • Years ago, I met a guy who had created a business for supplying “qualified minority contractors” to companies in need of “qualified minority contractors” for their proposals. What he figured out was that you could qualify for set asides, if you relied on enough minority contractors. How it worked at the time, and maybe they closed this loophole, was that a vendor could qualify as a minority contractor if the majority of his suppliers were minority contractors.

      Let’s say the deal would normally have two sub-contractors. This guy would supply three minority vendors, who contributed nothing but “consulting” so the bid was then classified as coming from a “qualified minority contractor.” He was renting black people.

      • The common scam today is for a “minority” to “win” a bid and sub out the work to real firm. After raking 20% off the top of course. There was a guy in Kalifornia that was a “native” american “disabled” veteran That had a firm that did this with unbelievable success.

        • I’ve seen a lot of small DoD vendors list the wife of the owner as the president or owner. Then they call themselves a “woman owned business.”

          This no country for white men.

          • Omg. My husband wants to do both these with me. Launch me as figure-head president, “native american”, and “disabled” for ISC.

            I’m blind in one eye (hardly debilitating) and only a little more NA than Fauxcahantas.

          • You’re husband is smart. Gotta play the game. Go make some money. If you need to assuage any guilt support the dissident right and maybe they can change the rules to make this subterfuge unnecessary.

          • If a white man casts his gubernatorial ballot for an NAACP negro who supports same sex marriage, minority set-asides, and is the product of miscegenation, yeah, its no wonder this ain’t no country for white men.

      • In the case of the FSU pedestrian bridge collapse, the minority & women-run business that won the contract actually did the work. Just before the collapse one of them bragged to the press about how she was setting an example for her daughter that women can be great engineers too. Bet they wished they’d subcontracted the thing out to a competent firm.

  22. I spent a great deal of my formative professional career reading and responding to RFPs. You are dead on when you state that “RFP’s that appear to be written by enemies of the issuing company” or my case, gov’t.

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