A few weeks back, I got an email from a non-profit client letting me know that she was leaving her position in a few weeks and that the organization was looking to replace her with a full service agency. 

Let’s call her Karen.

Naturally, Karen’s email led to the bait – ‘here’s our RFP, reply if you’d like to be considered.’

I generally have a rule against responding to RFPs, but I really like this client and their mission. 

So, I went ahead and created a comprehensive reply anyway. 

With a three-day period until the proposal was due, I jumped right in and spent 3 or 4 hours putting together a comprehensive technical and marketing plan that I was certain could exceed all their expectations. Then I offered a 20% discount because they are a non-profit and that’s my rule in pricing with non-profits.

I read it and re-read it. Made a few edits, read it again, then, I hit send and waited. 

A couple of weeks later I got an email from the organization’s director (let’s call her Susan) that said the following…

Thank you for taking the time to provide us with a proposal for your services.  We truly appreciate your time and thorough approach. Through the process we received three proposals and after much consideration have decided to engage with another agency.  Two factors contributed to our decision: 1) cost of services and 2) the opportunity to continue working with Karen as our Project Manager in her new role. This relationship allows for continuity of work and retention of institutional knowledge.

First, I’d like to start by saying that Susan is an extraordinarily nice person and an impressive leader regardless of her decision. Her response prompted me to reply and see if she was interested in discussing the possibility of parting out any of the services. 

I am so glad that I did this because her response gave me some information that I foolishly should have considered when I was excitedly putting together my response to their RFP. I learned that the agency that they signed on with happened to be the one that Karen was going to be working for…I immediately realized that I’d been used as a pawn for price justification.

I’m sure that with or without my help they will continue to thrive. So, I’d like to be very clear that the reason I’m telling this story is not to rant or blow off steam but to share some lessons I learned from this experience…

  1. Don’t ever reply to an RFP without a meeting over the phone or in person so you can ask questions and read the tone of the response. If I had known that Karen was leaving the organization to join an agency that was also part of the process I would have saved myself the trouble.
  2. Know your value and never sell yourself short. My first reaction to the comment regarding cost of services was that I quoted too high. But I immediately turned back on that – The value quoted was not only fair for the work involved, but when it comes to choosing who manages the image of an organization should they really be looking for the cheapest? We’re seldom the cheapest provider of services but as Marketing Hall of Famer, Seth Godin says – The only thing worse than coming in first in the race to the bottom is coming in second. I’m proud of the work we do and we’re not always going to be the right fit for everyone and that’s okay.
  3. Take business seriously but not personally – I really wanted to have hurt feelings over this because of the effort I put in, but it was my choice to break my own rule and in the end, I cannot take it personally – business is business. Part of me wants to tell Susan and Karen off, and the other part of me wants to say ‘thank you’ for this lesson. 
  4. Finally, don’t ever, under any circumstances, break your own rules because even if you win, you’ll feel like you’ve cheated. And even worse, when you lose you’ll feel like a loser who cheated and in the end, still ended up losing.