Once a problem is identified – and I mean the real problem, not the symptoms – identifying the relevant solution usually is fairly straightforward. Unfortunately, when it comes to running the business part of their practice and managing client expectations (rather than solving legal questions), at best many lawyers unwittingly fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between addressing the symptoms and addressing the underlying problem.
This is readily seen in the context of lawyers’ responses to the ever increasing RFPs from clients. Many lawyers and firms view preparing RFP responses as something their administrative or management team should address with little or no lawyer involvement. While I am quite confident that many talented professionals fill these administrative and managerial roles, most times these professionals do not have relationships with the client and need the lawyer(s) actively involved in the response process to provide the context needed to identify the real problem triggering the RFP.
In hope of helping those administrative and managerial professionals who struggle to get their lawyers interested and actively engaged in reviewing and responding to RFPs (or any client relationship efforts for that matter) and those lawyers who mindlessly respond to RFPs, I am sharing some examples of what this spectrum looks like and the impact on results.
The worst symptom-approach example I know of concerns a firm that assumed that a long-standing client’s RFP was a formality that need not be taken seriously – after all, the firm was the clear incumbent. The firm invested little deep thought in preparing its response; in the end, the firm’s submission missed the mark and lost the very large (as in lots of zeros) repeating client business to another firm. I heard about this one after the fact.
Conversely, the best real-problem-approach example I have witnessed was a firm that took an unexpected RFP from a key client (regarding services the firm had been providing for the past ten years) seriously, despite being undisputed experts in their area of practice and the client’s go-to provider. The result? The firm earned a spot on the client’s final list of approved vendors moving forward. That two other firms were added to that list confirmed that the RFP process was real, with no guaranteed outcome. Full disclosure – I know because I helped the incumbent firm prepare its RFP response.
Whether a symptom- or underlying-problem-approach was taken, in each example an initial question and answer about the RFP likely went something like this:
“Interesting, we just received an unexpected RFP from our client. Has the client issued an RFP before?”
“No, this is the first time and this is odd. We were introduced to them ten years ago by a mutual contact they trust, we are specialized in their main area of need, and they have been really happy with our services so far.”
My guess is many firms (including the unsuccessful firm in the first example) stop asking themselves any more questions as long as everything looks pretty straightforward and they have many precedents to pull from in answering the RFP’s questions. From what I have heard and seen, many of these automatic RFP responses do not end well for incumbent firms.
Those interested in maximizing their probability of success will dig further to understand the motivation and context behind the RFP. Using the second example described above, additional questioning might go something like this:
“Why would the 10 year client issue an RFP at this time?”
“I don’t know. They aren’t able to discuss the RFP, but I think it’s because our main client contact now has a new boss.”
“Why can’t they discuss the RFP?”
“Because they are a government-related entity and want to be sure there is no bias or unfair advantage at play when selecting vendors.”
“Why would the new boss trigger an RFP request?”
“I’m not sure, but it may be because the new boss wants to confirm that the law department is complying with the organization’s requirement that vendors be reasonably priced and selected by way of an open bidding process.”
“Why would their relationship with your firm be a concern?”
“Well, we started working with them 10 years ago from a word-of-mouth introduction. The requirement was introduced 2 years ago and, at that time, we were already regarded as a well-established, cost-effective supplier in a specialized area where there are no other real competitors – so no RFP was issued.”
“Why did the client introduce the requirement?”
“I would think it’s because a few similar governmental organizations have been found to be working with vendors who hadn’t been selected by a bidding process and were charging higher than market rates. So, they needed to demonstrate that they were prudently spending the public’s money.”
As you can see, asking “why” five times (a classic approach to identifying root causes to issues, symptoms, and problems) and considering the answers revealed that the main client contact needed to issue an RFP to:
- comply with organizational requirements in place for 2 years,
- establish that the main client contact’s historic decision to retain the firm was (and remains) wise (thereby looking good to the new boss and not looking foolish for having neglected the RFP requirement for two years), and
- demonstrate that the public’s money is being spent prudently.
Keeping this context in mind, the firm answered each of the many RFP questions in a way that demonstrated their understanding and responsiveness to the organization’s needs and sensitivities, expertise in the field and how that expertise specifically benefitted the client in the past and would continue to do so in the future, and overall cost-effectiveness. While not expressly asked, the firm also identified the main types of work that the client relies on the firm for, areas where retainer and fixed fees may be appropriate (providing cash flow certainty for the firm and cost certainty for the client), and alternative fee approaches for more specialized work (again to provide the client with more budgeting certainty).
Notably, while the firm was not able to ask their client for background, self-posed questions needed to identify the client’s underlying problem helped the firm piece together the most likely reasons behind the RFP. The firm could answer its own questions based on general information from the firm’s existing relationship and public knowledge to craft a relevant, meaningful, and competitive response.
Even with imperfect information, trying to understand why a client has put out an RFP (or included questions on topics like budgeting and project management capabilities) goes a long way to helping you identify and address your client’s real, underlying issue. And that is what client service is all about. So if you are not already, I strongly encourage you to ask these sorts of questions and have these internal discussions. Your clients (and your bottom line) will thank you for it.