The following interview/article was conducted by Vince Giorgi, Vince President of Hanley Wood Marketing for his blog, Touch Point City. The original article was posted here on July 21, 2009.

In case you haven’t heard, online marketing and media conversation has been buzzing in recent days over an incident involving a request for proposal (RFP). If your business purchases products and services, or competes for new business, through RFPs, you’ll want to read on.

The two parties in this scenario are Zappos, the online retailer, and a marketing agency, Ignited. Mike Wolfsohn, Ignited’s EVP-executive creative director, wrote a Sunday post for his agency’s blog describing Ignited’s experience during a recent Zappos agency search. His post tells of the agency’s chagrin at seeing, via Google analytics, that Zappos viewed only five pages of Ignited’s 25-page proposal (submitted as a blog), with an average page-view time of just 14 seconds.

While admitting to voluntarily joining what he and his colleagues suspected would be a “cattle call,” Wolfsohn states in his post that the “Zappos pitch underscores what’s wrong with the review process.” He argues, “If agencies are going to spend weeks preparing their response, the least any client can do is commit 30 minutes to look at it.”

The headline on Wolfsohn’s post: “Is 30 Minutes Too Much To Ask?”An article about the post in the AdAge Daily News e-newsletter triggered, at last count, 88 comments, many from marketing and ad agency pros. A majority take Wolfsohn to task for voicing sour grapes over a relatively standard RFP process in which his firm finished out of the running. Fewer express empathy for Ignited and disdain for Zappos’ approach. Several lament unfairness and imperfections inherent in the RFP process itself.

Rules of the RFP Road?

All this hub-bub over a single RFP made us wonder what exactly are the rules of etiquette and best practices for publishing, and responding to, RFPs?

For insight, TPC contacted David Kutcher, president of Confluent Forms, a Northampton, Mass., design firm. Kutcher also is founder of The RFP Database, a Web-based service that aggregates RFPs of all types for efficient distribution by issuers and searching by suppliers.

TPC: Without delving into the specifics of this case, David, what’s your overall takeaway? What tends to go awry in a situation such as this?

Kutcher: I think everyone is a bit too overwhelmed to think rationally; Zappos received over 100 proposals, which is not really surprising, and Ignited put their heart and soul into the pitch and felt a bit disrespected. It’s completely understandable. I’m not sure anything went awry from a process standpoint, but I think it’s a learning experience for companies that enter into the “cattle calls” as much as it is for companies that release their RFP to the wild.

In this specific case I might have recommended that instead of releasing their RFP to the wild, that Zappos instead release a simple RFI (request for information) that asks for a maximum of two to five pages of information, mostly as a way to get profile information about firms, examples of their work, etc., and from there, select a smaller number of firms to receive the full RFP.

With this sort of approach you can spend more time with the firms you do a final ask from, but also not ask so much non-billable time from firms who go overboard making a full-blown pitch. Only the firms that make the first cut would be asked to compose that full proposal.

TPC: Is every supplier that responds to an RFP owed a certain minimum level of review and consideration by the potential customer?

Kutcher: I think we all like to feel we should be heard and given ample time to make our pitch, but this harkens back to the idea of a company’s “elevator pitch,” which seems to be becoming a lost art. If you can’t connect with the reader in the first 30 seconds and explain why you are the best choice for the project, then you really should revisit your proposal-writing strategy.

Regardless if they keep reading, the reader is likely just going through the motions at that point, since they’ve become mentally disengaged. If you don’t capture your reader, that’s on you, not the reader. And that’s business; it’s up to YOU to make the sale.

TPC: On the client side, what are common things you see companies struggle with or miss when it comes to conducting an effective, fair RFP?

Kutcher: It all starts with the issuer, and generally the RFP process goes off the rails because the organization didn’t put enough forethought into the RFP. This could be that they didn’t do enough internal research for what they were looking for, didn’t think about how their process would be run, or failed to define the proposal format and information they wanted back, so as to have an apples-to-apples comparison.

Organizations need to fully appreciate that companies put a lot of unbillable time and effort into responding to RFPs. Releasing a poorly written, poorly defined, and poorly executed RFP into the world can ruin your reputation among vendors and, instead of leading you to a good partnership, can leave you with the bottom of the barrel.

TPC: What about suppliers? Are there things they need to remember, or ask the client, on the front end, in order to ensure they’re not left feeling badly treated on the back end?

Kutcher: Suppliers need to ask questions, LOTS of questions, until the point where they are assured that the issuer is serious about their project, has done the necessary homework, is issuing this competitive bid project with the full intention of hiring someone, and that a vendor with no prior relationship has a chance of winning.

TPC: What’s the trend line? Is RFP-driven sourcing becoming more prevalent?

Kutcher: I think the trend in RFPs matches the trend toward businesses using the Internet to conduct business and going online to find vendors outside their local areas. Online business, and RFPs, enable a vendor in western Massachusetts (like my company) to win projects from organizations located in Manhattan, beating out local companies because we can offer superior value and competitive pricing.

Instead of location being one of the primary determining factors, quality, value and ideal fit can be considered first. A well-run RFP process can be the most democratic, meritorious and pragmatic approach to procurement and purchasing, but it all depends on if the process is run well.

TPC: Does The RFP Database offer tips or tools to help both parties work effectively with RFPs?

Kutcher: We’ve written a number of articles on the subject of RFPs and proposals that can be useful to both issuers and bidders. You can find these articles on our blog.

The RFP Database also can provide help through our sheer library of RFPs. If you’re new to RFP writing, search our site and find some projects that are similar to the one you’re looking to undertake. See what others have done before. Look at how they described their project, their timelines, and get a feel for what you need to have in your own RFP. Call them and find out if they would revise their RFP if they had re-issued the project.

You can also join our LinkedIn group and find some talented RFP writers and strategists to assist you. You shouldn’t feel like you’re reinventing the wheel, and if you need some assistance or have questions, just ask.

TPC: If you had one piece of RFP advice for clients and suppliers, what would it be?

Kutcher: To issuers I would say this: The amount of forethought and effort you put into the process in the beginning will greatly affect the quality and ease of the process and final project.

To suppliers I would echo the words of the Oracle at Delphi: “Know thyself.” If you can clearly articulate why, on paper, you are the best choice for the project, then you really can’t do much more. Don’t fight for being the lowest bidder, the firm that can do it all, or try to wow them with your management team’s bios. Show them that you can rock their project like you’ve rocked lots of similar projects in the past.
*The comments are both enlightening and entertaining, and we hoped to provide a direct link. But it appears you’ll need to register on AdAge’s site, then subscribe to the Daily News e-newsletter, in order to access the article. If you choose to do so, look for the July 15 issue of the e-newsletter, or search on “Zappos” or “Ignited.”