DON'T BELIEVE THE HYPE
If you do a quick search on request for proposal documents, or RFPs, you’ll find a stream of articles about how horrible they are, how they’re dead in the modern business world, and on how it’s best to avoid them at all costs. These posts aren’t just on small agency blogs either; you’ll find articles on Forbes and inc among the top results.
Like pundits declaring e-mail to be a waste of time, these articles consistently miss the point. RFPs are a tool. When used correctly, they can be extremely valuable, but like using the back end of a screwdriver to drive in a nail, when they’re used poorly, the results can be disastrous.
At Gravitate, we love RFPs. Or at least we love the well-written, thoughtful ones. Many of our best customers have used an RFP to make initial contact, and the process of learning about their organizations and of scoping their projects was better for it. In fact, 75–85 percent of our new clients initiate our discussions with an RFP.
Those are the positive experiences, but those good examples are overwhelmed by a plethora of horrible RFPs – which is why you see so many negative articles. Here are some best practices to consider:
RFPs are a tool. When used correctly, they can be very valuable, but when they’re used poorly, the results can be disastrous.
- Keep your list of vendors short
- Avoid asking too many questions, especially open-ended ones
- Don’t define the order or length of the proposal
- Avoid asking questions that are easily answered by a company’s website
- Don’t use a commodity acquisition template
- Don’t define process
- If you ask for information about the agency, provide at least as much information about your own organization
- Leave room for change
- Don’t ask for references
Keep your list of vendors short
There’s a certain romance to the idea of sending one document to 100 companies and then simply waiting for the best responses to sift to the top. The reality of this approach is that your team can’t pay much attention to any particular response or any particular vendor. Furthermore, to include 100 vendors, you generally need to scrape the bottom of the barrel and contact agencies you would never consider working with.
A good rule of thumb is to choose a number of bidders whom you have time to talk with on the phone.
Avoid asking too many questions, especially open-ended questions
This is a fine line to walk because you want to select a vendor who provides truly understands the industry, and has the chops to help improve your online marketing; however, the best agencies are busy and may view this as a waste of time.
Here’s an example: We received an RFP late last year with over 90 (!!!) questions such as, “Describe your strategy for SEO optimization?” and “Please describe your process for blog site?” Those are questions you could write a book about and still not provide information that’s relevant to improving this specific client’s marketing plan.
Don’t define the order or length of the proposal
This is generally a sign that an organization wants to make it’s comparisons easy enough to translate the proposals into an Excel document. The problem is that you’re hiring a company to deliver intuitive, understandable content to your audiences, and how the proposal is organized (or not organized) is a huge indicator of how well this company can achieve your goals.
Avoid asking questions that are easily answered by a company’s website
This is the most obvious sign that an organization just e-mailed an RFP to every company it found in a Google search. From our perspective, we don’t understand why anyone would take this approach. You wouldn’t buy a house or a car like this—you would sift through the options and review a few that seem to meet your needs.
Be discerning. Do a little research about the companies you’re contacting and perhaps even the industry in general. Contact the agencies that have a great site and a portfolio that demonstrates the ability to meet your needs.
Don’t use a commodity acquisition template
This a classic mistake made by federal, state, and local government organizations when seeking website vendors. These entities want to purchase a website the same way they buy beans for the cafeteria or tires for police cars. We’ve even seen RFPs include leftover language such as, “number of pieces” and “price per piece.”
We believe that websites are more service than product. Even if you disagree, the process of building a website requires your selected vendors to utilize their expertise, experience, and collaboration skills to take you through the process.
Here’s a great, if somewhat snarky, exploration of the problems with the government bidding process.
As a matter of fact, let’s expand this advice. If government agencies do something in their RFPs, do the opposite.
Don’t define process
This can be a bit of a gray area as well. Obviously, it’s fine to say you want your selected vendor to collaborate closely with your team. Where it goes wrong is when your team defines how your selected vendor does its work. For example:
- You will hold a discovery meeting on this date
- Then you will do x, y, z
- Initial designs will be delivered on this date
- Design sign-off will occur prior to this date
There are two major problems with this approach. 1. You are hiring a web designer because your team doesn’t have the expertise to build a website. Why would you tell them how to do their job? 2. This is work your company shouldn’t have to do, so stop making yourselves crazy!
If you ask for information about the agency, provide at least as much info about your own organization
We get many documents from a number of agencies called “request for information” (RFI) or “request for qualification” (RFQ) to obtain basic information to narrow their focus to a few selected partners. That’s fine—in fact, that’s actually pretty great—as long as you play fair. If you want to do a proper RFI, ask for some basic information, such as the following:
- How many employees does it have
- How long has it been in business
- Does it outsource any work
- What are some great recent projects
Don’t ask how the companies are going to address your specific needs, unless you’re willing to provide detailed information about your own organization, your goals, your project scope, and your budget.
Leave room for change
The next client who hits the selection date specified in their RFP timeline will be the first to do so. It always takes longer than expected, and that’s just to vet and select an agency. Often the legal review delays the project by another one to three weeks after the selection is made, pushing discovery up to a month past the initial target date.
The point is that you cannot plan for all eventualities when writing your RFP. You can accept that your cannot predict everything and then build flexibility into the process.
Don’t ask for references
This is just common courtesy. At Gravitate, we have a stable of references whom we love, and we do our best to be judicious in asking for their time. If you’ve just sent an RFP to 10 agencies, hoping to narrow the field to 3 or 4, don’t ask for references in that initial document. There’s plenty of time to conduct your due diligence for those finalists, and waiting until that information is actually useful respects their relationships with their clients.