Showing Your Work and What to Do About RFPs

All in the name of keeping the balance of power

The Final Proposal DeliveryThe UX of Sales: Testing & Iterating
Definition part 2—Defining the Proposal
Definition part 1 —Identifying Your Users—The Buyers
Discovery Process—pt 2—The Questions
Discovery Process—pt. 1—The Funnel
A Refresher for thinking about the UX of Sales
The Way We Used to Do Things : A UX Sales Story

Showing Your Work

Notice how during the sequence of several meetings with a prospective client, I never mentioned showing our work or doing a dog and pony show of our portfolio. This is because for the most part we don’t.

Not until we are fairly close to or through the proposal phase do we generally show exemplar work. And even then we don’t do a canned presentation. We use what we have learned in our series of meetings and what they are looking to see that would have the biggest impact on their decision to craft a custom presentation of example work where we can talk about how the goals or the process or the outcomes are parallel their needs. We present this in person or through a screenshare conference call.

We never send a portfolio without us being there for two reasons.

  1. There are some projects that we are allowed to show but not leave unchaperoned for contractual reasons and
  2. It’s always better to tell the story—about the project, the goals, the outcomes and map that to their needs. A batch of mocks in a PDF or Powerpoint can’t do that on its own.

Most people understand this because they want the same consideration with their work later.

People who are expecting a slick dog and pony show, akin to many interactive agencies, will usually end up being disappointed with our style because we spend time talking about the process, how we think and solve the unique challenges and problems and not just final finished work. This is why it’s really important to understand your users at each phase of this process—if we are delivering to executives, marketing or brand champions, then the presentation of work is slicker, shinier and more about surface design with the discussion revolving around upholding or extending the brand and metrics around reach and ROI. If our audience is UX focused then we will show more process work and talk about the team dynamics and success metrics.

Showing our work at the end of the sales process ensures that we keep a good balance of power in the overall power dynamic and that we maintain control over how and what we show so that it is extremely relevant to their specific needs.

What about RFPs?

Mostly we don’t respond to RFPs. Over time we have found that the key to successfully selling, is building a relationship with the buyers.

If you come across a Request for Proposal that seems interesting and you are interested in getting the work, it will require an extra amount of diligence to coordinate the conversations.

Consider the RFP an initial introduction and then ask to talk to the people who will make the buying decision. You are looking to get to the four types of buyers in this process and to work through your sales questions with them, regardless of what is in the RFP. If you are blocked from getting access to the buyers, seriously consider declining to respond. As discussed earlier, it’s really important to understand the needs of all the buyers and if you can’t talk to them you are at a real disadvantage. 

If you get access to the buyers, go through your normal sales process. Most likely though, you will still need to fulfill the requirements of the RFP in terms of the way they want a proposal written but there are things you can do to level the balance of power.

When giving your presentation about your proposal, you want to acquire enough information from your sales questions to know how many other people are submitting, who they are (if possible) and do everything you can to go last in the presentation order.

If an RFP requires spec work (work done for free in advance of actually having the project) we usually decline to respond. There is no reason to ever do free work and ultimately it devalues the profession when you give your work away and sets an unbalanced level of power precedent going into a project that will be difficult to ever get back into balance.


If you have enjoyed this series and found it useful to your sales practice, let me know. I am working on the rest of the book—selling yourself, crafting a portfolio and working through the logistics of contracts and hiring sub-contractors. If you have specific questions you’d like to see addressed let me know that too in the comments and if you would like to share your war stories, I’d love to speak with you.