Product Managers: The Fight’s Not Over Until It’s Over

The fight's never over until it's over
The fight’s never over until it’s over
Image Credit: Keith (Louie) Abigail

As product managers, our job is to do everything in our power to make sure that our product is a success. It would be a wonderful world if only our potential customers would come to us and ask us to please sell them our product. However, it rarely happens that way. Instead, more often than not customers issue Requests For Proposals (RFPs) and we’re invited to submit a proposal along with several other vendors. I was recently involved in an RFP process and it went very, very badly…

The RFP Process

The large customer in this case had been happily using a product that was provided to them by a competitor of my firm. We had done a pilot of our product with this company and they had been very pleased with what our product could do. We had convinced them that their existing product was not doing all that our product could do for them and that they had to make a change. Because of the rules and regulations that they live with, they needed to create an RFP and get multiple bids. My firm was invited to submit a bid.

And submit a bid we did! Over the course of my career I have been involved in the creation of many different proposals and I can tell you that this one was a true piece of art that laid out our entire product development definition. The graphics team had gotten involved from the very beginning and the whole thing looked like one seamlessly put together professional document. The customer reviewed the proposals and we were selected as one of the four vendors (out of a total of 12 that submitted proposals) to make a presentation to a review committee. We practiced for this presentation and four of us delivered it, each of us covering our own area of expertise. There was no way that we could lose!

We lost. Not only did we lose, but we were informed that we had come in third place. This was not going to look good on my product manager resume. The firm that had won the RFP process was the incumbent that was already providing the service to the customer. We were speechless. The customer provided us with a “grading sheet” that showed us how we had ranked with the top two winners. We had lost by points in every category with the exception of one – “small business”. Damn it – what had happened?

The Fight’s Not Over

It goes without saying that everyone at my company was shocked, dismayed, and mad. And that was just about it. They understood that the customer had made their decision and there was very little that could be done about it. I was all of those things also, but I’m also a product manager and that means that the fight is not over until I say that it’s over. Something didn’t seem right about the way that the points had been handed out. I called up the person at the customer who had been in charge of running the RFP and we had a talk. She answered a number of my questions. The discussion was polite and went very well.

I continued to think about what she had told me and so I called her department again. She was out and so I ended up speaking with her boss. That call went well, but not all of my questions were answered. I sent him an email with more questions and a request to talk again. He called me back. The purpose of his call was to inform me that he was done talking about this matter with me. Ha. I talked and talked with him. In the end, I got him to agree to set up a face-to-face meeting with his boss to discuss how the proposal had been handled. This was done.

In the meantime as per the customer’s processes, all of the proposals that the other vendors had submitted became available. I requested copies of each of them and I ended up driving across town to get them on a flash drive because they were so large. That made for some very interesting late night reading as I studied what the winners had proposed. In the end, I had created a PowerPoint deck that laid out 15 issues I had with the how the winner of the RFP process had been chosen.

This was the PowerPoint deck that I then took with me to my meeting with the head of the customer’s purchasing department. She was a very nice lady and she treated me with a great deal of respect. I identified myself as an angry vendor who had lost a bid and then I covered all of my 15 points in the 30 minutes that she had allocated to me. In the end she seemed to indicate that some of my issues had some credence to them, but she informed me that she was not going to pull the RFP – I was still screwed.

What All Of This Means For You

You would think that this is where the story ends. Thanks for your extra effort Dr. Jim, but you are still a loser. However, there’s just a bit more to my story. It turns out that when the head of purchasing took my issues with the proposal up the chain, it eventually got to the lady who runs the firm. When she discovered that the firm that was currently providing her with the service had won the RFP process she said “no way” and killed the entire project. Now nobody had won.

Look, no – this is not an ideal situation. My firm did not win this big contract. However, just a little while ago we had most defiantly lost it. If I had not stood up and made some calls and gone to some meetings the other firm would have gotten the contract and we would have been losers. Now what we need to do is to find a way to restart the process and allow the customer to select us without having to use their RFP process. Where we are today is a lot better than where we were just a little while ago.

The moral of this story for you is to never give up. This should be a part of every product manager job description. When you are deal with a customer who has selected someone else, the battle is not over. You need to take the time to find out why that other firm won. You may still be able to sweeten your offer and take that win away from them. Follow my lead – don’t give up until the fight is over!

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: When do you think that it is time to throw in the towel on an RFP?

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