Five Signs a Prospect is Playing You

In this busy world of ours, nobody wants to waste their own time. Unfortunately, there are folks out there who won’t think twice about wasting yours. So how can you save yourself from falling into a trap?

Over almost seven years of responding to Requests for Proposals (RFPs) and attempting to delicately balance just how much time should be spent on which opportunities, I’ve noticed a pattern of red flags. Here are five signs that it might be a better decision to walk away than to pump precious resources into a proposal.

1.    The prospect’s loyalties are somewhere else.
They’ve been working with their current vendor for 15 years and there are no outward signs of trouble. Yet you just received an RFP demanding responses to 150 questions, pricing on 70 products and samples encrusted in diamonds and delivered next Monday.

If we don’t have inside information from a reliable source that the prospect is seriously considering a new direction, the imbedded relationship alone might be enough reason to walk.  The unfair demands lead us to number two.

2.    They’re asking for too much in unrealistic timeframes.
Pulling together a quality proposal can take every bit of three weeks, from writing to editing to sourcing and revising. Not to mention the time you’ll spend on conference calls with partners and subject matter experts. That’s a huge investment, so you want to make sure it’s worth the time for everyone involved.

I’ve seen ridiculously detailed requests come through with just a week to turn them around and no guarantee of business. In addition to being disrespectful to a potential partner’s time, this move always makes me wonder if it’s a rouse. Do they need five responses to satisfy corporate requirements before signing off on a decision that’s already been made?

3.    The lines of communication are silent.
Their answers to your questions are vague if they respond at all, and you don’t have an internal advocate at the company to tell you truly and honestly what’s going on.

How can you propose the best solution without a clear understanding of the situation?

4.    They’re fishing for ideas
Tread lightly if a company is looking for highly personalized suggestions or consulting in a non-committal situation. Some will even include disclaimers in the request that any information you submit becomes the property of the recipient. How easy is it to forward those ideas to an existing partner?

5.    It’s all about the money.
Of course, price is always a factor, but if it seems to be the only factor and you’re looking at the numbers wondering how in the heck you can make this profitable, do yourself a favor and consider bowing out.

We’ve seen some RFPs culminate in online pricing auctions, which is essentially a reverse eBay situation that sees your price going lower and lower in real-time until you finally hit a floor and stop bidding. Or time runs out.

Those situations are demoralizing, stripping all consideration of service, value and expertise away, sometimes for the sake of a dang nickel. Who wants to pursue a partnership like that?
Those are my five cents! I swear I’m not paranoid or overly pessimistic by nature. I’ve just seen too much time wasted and too many spirits crushed by these tricks to keep silent any longer.

AboutMichelle McCafferty

Michelle joined the Proforma team in 2008. As the Manager of Business Development for Major Accounts, she helps Proforma Owners win new and grow existing programs through proposal and presentation development, as well as periodic Relationship Reviews. Before joining Proforma, Michelle attended Cleveland State University where she earned a degree in Journalism and Promotional Communication.


  1. WOW Michelle, awesome article. i have shared with my team you are SO SPOT ON. We just experienced this with a $4,000 apparel sale. We knew when a “stock person” was asking thread counts what the deal was. Disappointing. when you put so much time into doing a great job for someone!

    1. You’re welcome, Tim! I appreciate your feedback and am glad you found the post helpful. We’re here to support you!

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