Everybody’s Least Favorite RFP Question

I was having a discussion with some colleagues about those questions/requests we get in RFPs that we hate. It’s not that we dislike them because they challenge us in ways that are useful to the client, but because they are 1) difficult and/or impossible to respond to and 2) aren’t going to give the client an answer that is worthwhile anyway.   Let me take one of these recurring requests and unpack why it’s not a good question:

“Provide us with information on all the projects the team/your firm is currently working on, who on the team is working on those projects and the stage each project is in currently.”

So, why is this a poor question?  Here are my three reasons:

It asks for a large volume of information at an early stage of the pursuit process, some of which is proprietary.

Some of our clients don’t want people to know we’re working on their projects, much less provide details about them.  Most firms I have worked for have about 80-120 projects going at a time.  Do you really need info on all of them?  Can you imagine the work required to a) get permission to disclose this info and b) gather the data to provide it?   When the ones asking are brokers or PM firms see this more as a fishing expedition than a reliable way of determining if we have the bandwidth to do the project.  If you simply want intelligence, there are more appropriate ways to ask for it.

It doesn’t usually provide reliable data.

There was a time in the AEC industry when proposals were only good for 60 days from the date of issue, when clients made timely decisions, usually within 30 days, and when projects typically stuck to their schedules.  Nowadays, it’s not unheard of for clients to issue RFPs, put projects on hold, then come back several months later wanting the same team, and the same schedule, forcing the provider to “make up” the time lost in decision making.   In addition, most firms win about 25-30% of what they go after, requiring us to occasionally hedge our bets and put the same people on multiple pursuits simultaneously.

The landscape of project schedules is a constantly ebbing and flowing river of data, with projects often accelerating, going on hold, or changing scope.   An all firm/all projects schedule we give you today would likely be inaccurate by the time you’re ready to start the project.

It doesn’t really answer the question you’re asking.

Those who ask this question really want to know if the team we’ve assigned to them has the bandwidth/availability to do the job and will be with the project for the duration of the project.  Probably they’ve been victims of bait and switch in the past, which we agree is the best way to get a project off on the wrong foot.  Possibly a decision was made on another RFP before you decided so now the people you wanted are unavailable.  In either case, there are effective ways to ensure the team you’re offered is the team you get.  One way I’ve seen recently, which I think is genius, is to require the service provider to guarantee the submitted team for the duration of the project and requiring that all staffing changes be approved by the client in advance.  That way, if a service provider has to switch staff because someone leaves the firm, become incapacitated, or gets committed elsewhere, you can at least have a hand in selecting their replacement.

So how do I recommend AEC firms answer this question?

I recommend firms offer a schedule and team and promise that team will be available for the project according to the schedule submitted with the proposal – and stay true to their word on this issue.  Those providers who bait and switch intentionally make all of us look bad.  If you have a client who insists on detailed active project data, I recommend saying something like: “This question asks for a substantial amount of proprietary information.  If our firm is selected for this assignment, we will provide detailed data at that time.”   At least that way, the volume of work it takes to produce such data accurately will be worth the effort.

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