ALL RFPs look wired.
It's easy to psych yourself out.
Hardly any RFPs are actually wired. Even if the customer has some bias, they can usually be stolen away if they get a better offer. Think about how you buy things. Most folks will give someone they've done business with for a long time the benefit of the doubt, but if someone has a better product or a significantly lower price, they sometimes make a switch. This is especially true if the relationship has gone stale. You may have no way of knowing without bidding.
Use of the word "wired" makes it sound like either it is or it isn't, when in reality it's a question of how much. We deal in odds, not in certainties.
Here are some signs that the odds may be stacked against you. None of them are conclusive on their own, and one or more will likely be true on every bid. But if several are true they may add up to something...
- Emphasis on evaluation criteria that only an incumbent will be able to get top marks in. For example experience of the staff being bid with obscure or customer specific tools. Overemphasis on the relevance of experience might be another.
- Emphasis on criteria that are easy to bias. Risk mitigation and quality are good examples.
- Prohibitions against contacting or rehiring incumbent staff.
- Unusual labeling of key staff. If all of the staff are considered key and resumes are required for all staff being bid it's a bad sign.
- Evaluation practices that are outside the norm for that agency. If pricing is normally evaluated at 40% and on this RFP it's being evaluated at 10% you have to wonder why. But this also requires you to know what the norms and trends are for that customer.
- Use of multiple evaluation criteria to address the same thing. For example, requiring that past performance projects include the staff being bid so that in essence staffing is getting counted twice (and acceptable past performance is hard to find). When combined these can make one particular element count out of proportion.
- Short, inflexible deadlines. On its own it doesn't mean much, but it can favor a contractor who is expecting the bid.
- Ambiguity that favors an incumbent. For example, requirement to supply custom software without the requirements being defined. Scopes that aren't defined. Deliverables that are named, but not described. Statements of Work that require you to know the customer's undocumented standard operating procedures.
- So much detail that it's overwhelming.
- Page limitations that make it impossible to respond to all of the requirements so that only the preferred bidder will know what to focus on and what they can skip without being branded "noncompliant."
- Fixed price proposals where you don't have enough information to know how long things will take.
- Unusually brief responses to questions, especially when there are only a handful of bidders or when they are unresponsive to questions they could easily answer.
- Unusually lengthy answers to questions, often delivered at the last minute without an extension.
- "Processes" specified in the RFP that can't be mapped or flow charted so that only someone who has experience with them can figure out how they work.
I once helped implement a task order response center where we had to respond to 5-10 day turnarounds on bids that were notoriously supposed to be wired, generally poorly written, and probably failed at least half of the items above on every bid. If they were wired, we stole a lot of them away. I think it scared people away and reduced the competitive field so much that if the incumbent let their guard down we could sneak in.
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