Editor’s note: Steve Henke is president of Harpeth Marketing, a Franklin, Tenn., marketing firm providing consulting and outsourced marketing services in the market research industry. He can be reached at 615-415-3980 or at steve@harpethmarketing.com.

In the past year, we’ve helped several firms gather information on their clients, ex-clients and competitors. One of the components of the competitor analysis is a secret-shopping exercise.

Specifically, we were interested in the initial inquiry and bidding phase. Not only did our clients want to see what their competitors’ proposals looked like – and of course, their pricing – but they were equally interested in how these other firms responded to and communicated with prospective customers during the courtship phase.

Some valuable lessons bubbled to the surface. But here’s the thing: Not a single one will come as a surprise to you. They are all fundamental actions that you would think every firm does every day. What was surprising was how poorly many of these firms performed at a time when they had to make a good first impression.

The following are some key areas where we saw many MR firms really drop the ball.

Web site

How easy is it for prospective clients to find the place on your Web site where they can submit an RFP? Some sites have forms that can be filled out; some sites provide an e-mail address. You would be amazed at how many make it extremely difficult. If it’s not immediately findable on your site, fix it!

Responding to the submission

Everyone who submits an RFP online wants to know that it was received. So many firms don’t do this. If your site has a submission form, program it to immediately respond “Thanks for your submission. You will hear back from us shortly.” If you’re using e-mail, make sure you have a human process in place to do the same thing. Don’t leave your prospective clients wondering if it went through.

Order-taker or consultant?

Every project – no matter how small or simple – has its nuances. Take the time to talk (yes, in person!) to everyone who submits an RFP. Ask all the questions you think necessary to make sure you fully understand the project details and can bid it appropriately. Those kinds of calls also give you the chance to make a great first impression, build rapport and learn more about the prospective client.

Phone talent

The old adage “You only have one chance to make a first impression” is so true. That’s why it’s critical that you put your best and brightest employees on the phone to call back prospective clients. It’s a chance to showcase your team’s talent, to prove that you know what you’re talking about and to make sure you really do understand the project. No rookies, please.

Enthusiasm sells

There’s nothing worse for a prospective client than to engage in a call with one of your employees who’s – excuse the pun – phoning it in. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a script or form to fill out, as they ensure nothing is missed in the conversation, but there’s more to it than reading words on a page. Enthusiasm engages the prospective client, shows them you care and are genuinely interested in earning their business and gets them excited by the possibility of working with you. Monotone. Indifference. Turns. Clients. Off.

Honesty – always

One of the MR firms we shopped was a very small boutique agency. They responded promptly to the RFP and during the call said that they were just slammed with project work. They wanted us to know that they were very interested in bidding on the project but couldn’t get to the RFP for a couple of days. We loved that! Very few projects require an immediate response but the fact that they were totally upfront with us told us a little something about what kind of firm they would be to deal with. Shoot straight with everyone.

Check your tech

On several occasions we received no communication back from the MR firms after submitting the RFP. Ever. Is your technology working? Test it regularly. You don’t want to miss out on any opportunities.

Thanks, but no thanks

There certainly are RFPs you receive that you don’t want to bid on. That’s fine. But make sure to communicate that back to the prospective client: “Thanks so much for thinking of us with your recent RFP. We are, however, going to pass on this particular project. Please keep us in mind for your future research needs.”

So, here’s the question: If these things should be done and really aren’t that hard to do, why aren’t they getting done? I believe it comes down to a couple of things.

Things that are easy to do are also easy not to do.” I believe those firms that performed poorly just assumed these kinds of things were getting done because they’re easy, common-sense things to do. But you know what say about assuming…

You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” Because these activities are easy to do, no one bothers to monitor and report on them. So no one is being held accountable to make sure they are done and done well.

Don’t blow it

You build a successful business on repeat clients but those repeat clients start as first-time clients. Getting them to submit an RFP the very first time is hard enough – don’t blow it by doing a lousy job during the RFP submission and proposal process.

Good luck and good marketing.