In every industry, there is a “buying season” – a time when potential clients are flush with budget money and are looking to spend it. The buying season is often driven by the company’s fiscal year; the injection of cash at the beginning and the urgent need to “use it or lose it” near the end. What usually follows is a flood of Requests for Proposal (RFPs).

In my line of work, answering an RFP is not as clear cut as one would think. After all, there are no blueprints to review, no work site to survey, and no rooms to model. It usually starts with an email or a phone call that a company is looking for a person to do some freelance PR, writing, or marketing work, and would I like to submit a proposal?

One of my mottos is: I’ll always have the conversation. I’ve worked as a freelancer for nearly ten years, so my library of RFP answers is large enough that answering a few questions on capability and experience don’t really take too much time. By talking to the potential client, they can bounce a few ideas off of me, I can give my feedback, and I can also keep a handle on what the market is looking for right now.

But occasionally I run into the situation where I can’t always tell whether an RFP is really an RFP, or a fishing expedition. Integrators often get burned by fishing expeditions when the potential client takes the suggested equipment list and goes on a buying spree at Best Buy. All that time, hand-holding, and hope for the job gets flushed. For people in my line of work, the pilfering of ideas is more subtle than a trunk-load of consumer grade LCDs but the plundering of time and expertise is just as insulting.

I haven’t fallen victim to a fishing expedition in quite some time, but I still hear about it happening from fellow freelancers. Are these potential clients clueless or ruthless? It doesn’t matter; the end result is the same.

My first job out of college was working for the PR and new business group for Arnold, the marketing communications agency whose claim to fame at the time was Volkswagen’s “Drivers Wanted” campaign. I was in my early 20’s, wanting to make my mark, and thinking I knew more about new business than my very seasoned senior VP boss. Ha ha, joke was on me. She was a tough boss and an even tougher new business exec. Little did I know then that the wisdom (and by “wisdom” I mean the iron fist and the late nights rewriting my RFP copy) she imparted on me then would serve me so well now.

Rule 1: Potential clients who are serious about hiring a new vendor show up with money in their hand. They talk budget, don’t balk at a refundable deposit, and act more like a brainstorming partner than an eager student trying to capture every word out of your mouth.

Rule 2: Your proposal should reflect your value as a contributor and include a broad overview of ideas. The proposal should focus on how you add value and your thoughts on strategy, not your tactics. Any potential client who wants an exact list of what you will do for them is only looking to take your tactics and implement them themselves.

Rule 3: Don’t give in. A potential client who is looking for new PR/marketing ideas without paying for them will say almost anything to get you to hand over a detailed plan. Are they serious? If so, see rule #1.

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