The Search Insider RFP Panel: Truer than You Know

First published May 14, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Another Search Insider Summit is in the can. And one of the most interesting panels we had was the one put together by Aaron Goldman about the RFP process in search. Aaron picked up from where he, Steve Baldwin and Janel Landis left off in a string of columns talking about the frustration of RFPs and RFQs. Aaron posed the question of whether the RFP process was fundamentally broken to a balanced panel of clients (represented by  Olivier Lemaignen from Intuit and Tom Bombacino from Restaurant.com) and agencies (represented by Tom Kuthy from Resolution Media and Janel from SendTec).

It was a fascinating session. We heard from both sides about the challenge of finding the right search partner. Panel members said the RFP process was overly rigid and bureaucratic, an attempt to avoid risk that ended up putting agencies and marketers into an adversarial relationship right from the start. Tom Kuthy said he often refuses to play the game, either trying to change the rules to a more mutually enjoyable alternative or just picking up his ball and going home. On the client side, Olivier was sure that RFP stood for “Request for Pain.”  Surely, the panel agreed, there has to be a better way.

Where Have I Heard This Before?

I found the panel so enjoyable not because of Aaron’s able “steermanship” — although he was his usually engaging self — but because the stories of pain we heard rang so true to my past experience.

As luck would have it, Enquiro is midway through an extensive webinar and white paper series on organizational buying behavior. It caps off several months of research that involved talking to hundreds of B2B buyers about how they make purchase decisions. And what I heard on Friday afternoon at Captiva was exactly what we heard time after time from these people. B2B buying is a huge pain in the butt.

There’s a sales maxim that is often quoted: “People want to buy, but they don’t want to be sold.” While this is generally true, there’s an interesting variation in the B2B world, which, as vendors, we all live in: “B2B buyers definitely don’t want to be sold, they’re ambivalent about buying, and the only thing that really matters is covering their ass.”

Here’s the Rub

When we buy things for ourselves, there’s usually an element of risk, but also one of reward. Human decision-making balances the two against each other. And we do it by gut instinct. There’s often a degree of rational deliberation, but the engine that drives consumerism is emotion: the thrill of possession vs. the fear of loss. There is a yin and yang to most purchases that carry an element of pleasure. That is why we love to buy. But some purchases, like life insurance, carry no inherent reward. There’s only risk to consider. Buying life insurance is no one’s idea of fun.

Most B2B buying is like life insurance. There’s no reward side to the equation, only risk. If we make the wrong decision, we can lose our job. If we make the right decision, we don’t get a new car, or a TV, or even a new pair of shoes. We just get 10 tons of ball bearings, or a new search agency. Where the hell is the fun in that?  Avoiding risk is all there is to most B2B buying.

Buyers and Doers

Now, some people are occasionally thrilled about B2B purchases. These are the people that get to use the new equipment, or software. They’re the ones that get to work with the new search agency (fully staffed by exceptionally fun people), taking a huge burden off their shoulders. Surely there’s an element of reward in it for these people? Yes, and that’s why they almost never give the final OK to a purchase. They’re too highly motivated to buy, so somebody needs to apply the brakes. In our research, we call the people wanting to buy the “Doers” and the people applying the brakes the “Buyers.” It’s the Buyers who insist on the RFP process. As far as the Doers are concerned, RFPs are a waste of time.

Tom and Olivier were “Doers.” They had little time for the ass-covering pretense of RFPs. On the vendor side, no one likes an RFP. But what we were missing on Aaron’s panel was a “Buyer.” I’m pretty sure the procurement people at Intuit are in no great rush to scrap their RFP process.

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