I’ve been on both sides of the request for proposal (RFP) game. I can tell you I really don’t like being on either side. As a client, writing a good RFP is hard. Finding the right potential partners to send it to is time-consuming. Making a decision between qualified and capable firms can be gut wrenching. As a consultant, reading most RFPs is painful. Responding to them is time consuming and expensive. It often involves mind-reading, appeasing unrealistic expectations, and making guesses based on faulty inputs.
Somewhere along the way, the RFP process got ingrained into business processes. Now that more and more of the problems to solved involve creativity and innovation, it doesn’t work. Increasingly, creative agencies and consultants are no longer responding to RFPs – or at least to blind ones. It is time for organizations that need work done need to stop writing them.
Let’s look at the main reasons you need to step away from the RFP and try an alternative to building better relationships and find creative and innovative solutions to the world’s tough problems.
#1 - It doesn’t focus on a problem to be solved
Most of the RFPs I’ve seen are prescriptions for what the client thinks needs to be done to solve a problem they haven’t defined. Would you walk into your doctor and ask for a specific medication, procedure, and recovery plan before describing your symptoms? No? Then don’t put that into your RFP for a new website (or anything else for that matter).
Consultants are natural problem solvers. We have a wealth of experiences and knowledge tucked away in our brains and can find the right solution to your unique challenges when given the chance. Instead of telling us that you want a clean, interactive, modern website (who doesn’t?!), tell us what has led you to decide you want a new website. Having an understanding of the symptoms helps us provide a better diagnosis and plan for helping your organization meet its goals.
#2 - It is a list of requirements
Similar to #1, providing multiple pages of requirements for a content management system (CMS) will not get you the best outcome. When you are shopping for a new system, issuing a requirements list turns into an arms race among product vendors. You’ll get a bunch of proposals that all look very similar and each vendor will tell you that their product does all of those things and more. A slick salesperson will talk to you and give you a demo that works perfectly....For a fictional company that neatly fits the system specs but looks nothing like your organization and doesn't have your business rules. Once you start implementing your chosen product, you find out how much customization is required for the things you need. Suddenly it gets more expensive. You’ll find that you are just another cog in the machine, but it’s too late because you picked the system and don’t want to admit it’s not right, and anyway, you already paid for it, so you’re stuck.
Instead, provide scenarios or use cases about how the system will be used and what problems it needs to solve. By doing this, the potential partners will be able to tell you how their system – and their implementation of it – will meet your specific needs. The pricing will be more accurate. Every piece of software needs to be customized. But how much and level of complexity vary widely. Find out in the selection process where you fall on that spectrum and set expectations accordingly.
#3 - It is sent out blindly
Posting an RFP on a forum “to share with anyone you know” shows you haven’t done your homework. Much like dating, there are only a few consultants or agencies that are a good match for your organization. Sending out an RFP for anyone to respond to means you’ll get a bunch of proposals from agencies who are good (or not so good) at responding to proposals. The best probably won’t respond at all. You’ll have to wade through more proposals than you have time to handle. And chances are you’ll pick someone who has a good sales pitch, not the best solution.
You need a way to discover who these potential partners are. Use your network to get recommendations. Talk to those agencies before you write your RFP (if you even need to do this). Having conversations about your needs and their process will get you much farther down the road than a bunch of documents being sent around. As a consultant, I’d rather spend time talking to you and gaining a real understanding of your challenges and opportunities than writing a proposal that is a bunch of guesses about what you want to hear. I’ve got questions, you’ve got questions. Let’s get them answered right away so we can decide whether we are a good fit. You can still get multiple proposals, but now you’re comparing apples to apples and everyone can compete on equal footing.
#4 - What you want doesn’t match your budget
Admit it, you have a budget. Or at least a budget range. And that is OK. But understand what you can get for that amount. If you were shopping for a car, you wouldn’t walk into a Porsche dealer and test drive the 911 Carrera and then tell the salesperson you only have $25,000 to spend on a car. You can still get a perfectly fine car for that amount, but it’s not going to be a Porsche. Similarly, when you issue an RFP that includes multiple integrations, complex functionality, and needs to be done in 3 months, you have to expect to spend more than $50,000 (and probably adjust your timeline). You either need to have experience with previous projects to set a realistic budget or conversations with potential partners about what you can expect to get for a certain amount. In other words, do your homework.
Being upfront with your budget will help everyone. It sets expectations for whether you can get a Porsche or a Focus. It creates trust and helps consultants provide a realistic solution for what you have to spend. You will get a better return on your investment and have a better chance of staying on budget. Good partners would rather establish a long-term relationship than get a quick buck now.
#5 - It asks for spec work or “innovative ideas”
No, thank you. Would you ask a chef to think up some meal ideas and show them to you before you decide to order and pay for a meal? I didn’t think so. So why ask a design professional to do that? If you haven’t seen this, watch this two-and-a-half minute video that asks people in other industries to do spec work. Spoiler: They all think the guy asking for a free meal, free personal training, free coffee, free picture frames, and free blueprints is crazy. Do you do what you do for free? No? Then why should we? #saynotospec
Unless you’ve done extensive user research and provided the results with your RFP, do not ask for any innovative ideas either. Each combination of an organization, its mission and goals, and its audience is unique. Trying to guess what will work for your unique combo risks getting you excited about something that may not be feasible or desirable for your situation or budget.
Good partners will shy away from this because they’ve probably been burned before. Too often, an RFP will be issued and proposals give the client great ideas. That then get implemented in-house or by someone else. Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens after a lot of failures. The a-ha moments happen in the midst of working on a problem. Find the right partner and together you just might find them.
What can you do instead of an RFP? Actually, none of this precludes doing an RFP, though if you could skip that, hooray! What is needed is better scoping and a process to create good partnerships. Here are 3 ways to do that.
Try a project roadmapping session instead. It’s a small investment that gets your potential partner and your leadership team together to determine the direction of the project. Good firms or consultants will lead you through early discovery to outline goals, scope, direction, and even requirements for whatever problem needs to be solved. You’ll have a good plan you can then shop around or hire the consultant that helped you create it.
Get outside help
No one would think less of you if you hired a consultant who specialized in RFPs and selection process for your problem area. (Psst, we do that for some clients!) Wouldn’t you rather spend a small fraction of your budget to make sure you do the right project than get half-way through your budget and timeline only to discover you’ve gone down the wrong path?
Break a project up into smaller pieces
When talking with a digital agency owner recently about upcoming projects and the proposal process, she said, “I would like clients to come to us with their content ready.” You see, her agency is really in the business of solving communication problems with technology. The RFPs she gets are usually not asking for a problem to be solved. Instead, they are asking for consultants to spend a lot of time and effort creating a document that only proves that the respondent is good at writing proposals. You can absolutely do your content first and then find the right technology solution to support it. It would save you time and money in addition to giving you a better outcome.