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  • May 17, 2012

RFP Advice From The Front Lines

Stop what you’re doing! John Conner sent me from the future to prevent you from authoring this RFP. I’ve seen the aftermath. Internal teams at odds over Decorative Illustration the redesigned site, users confused by an experience that somehow got more complicated, unreconciled technologies, hopes dashed, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria.

It is within your power to prevent the bloodshed, Dear RFP Author. It’s May. Let’s assume you’re working toward delivering an RFP before the end of the fiscal year. Further, let’s assume you’re building an RFP to redesign a web property. How can you avert disaster? How can you avoid the pitfalls that have plagued so many RFPs before you? Well, I’d start by recommending you:

Avoid All RFPs

Don’t Google RFP. Don’t do a search. A Request For Proposal is a many splendored thing. RFPs facilitate municipal governments bidding waste disposal services and state universities purchasing lab coats (never go to a school that’s BYO Lab Coat, that bit of advice is free of charge).

Don’t use someone else’s template. You don’t know where that template has been…

You’re in a leadership role of an internal creative department or a member of a procurement team. Architecting your organization’s redesign plan is a unique opportunity to help your company/school/service/team evolve. You are engaged in the critical first steps, so don’t start off with a bad template. Templates shoe horn your project to meet their own dimensions. Instead, start with a blank canvas and explain your project:
  • Why are you undertaking this effort?
  • What are the limitations or challenges of your current experience?
  • What business requirements or user needs do you need to (better) meet?
  • Who is your primary audience and what do you want them to do?
  • What are the capabilities of the team that will manage and update your redesigned site after (re)launch?
  • How will you measure the success of your project six months after launch? After one year?
  • What are the biggest risks to your project? What are you afraid of?

If you need more questions, email me and I’ll send one of our project planners your way.

NOTE: Be careful not to be too prescriptive. This is about strategy, not tactics.

Say things like, “We need to have an experience that works well on mobile devices.”

Don’t say things like, “We need a responsive site design.”

You’re putting the cart before the horse by suggesting a solution. Focus on defining the challenge/goal. You’re paying your vendor to solve your problems. Go ahead, get your head wrapped around your project. Got it? Good. Now you can look at some RFP templates, but remember, don’t force your project to fit any one template. Bend, break, and Frankenstein these things together until they adequately communicate your needs and goals.

If you find yourself requiring a response that fits into a set number of pages, set in a specific font, font size, line spacing, you need a paper copy mailed in addition to an emailed pdf, or you need them burned to CDs with one marked as “Original”, stop. Make it stop. If you’re the state of Wyoming and legally you need to require those criteria, bless your heart. You’re stuck. If you voluntarily require these criteria in the hopes of diagnosing how well a vendor can “follow instructions,” you’ll get what you deserve in your vendor responses. Agencies have a saying, “You get the clients you deserve.” It works the other way too.

Allow some creativity in vendors’ responses, this is a creative endeavor and these are creative teams, but do not request speculative work. Spec work is a terrible thing for many well documented reasons. If you’re looking for spec work, do me a favor and don’t send us your RFP.

Be Picky

You get to pick a group of agencies to invite to your RFP. This should be a treat. If you’re in the industry, this is your chance to geek out with teams you admire. It’s like the awesome first issue of a comic book where the super team is originally hand selected. Right? Anyone? No? Moving on, remember, when forming the Avengers, you build a team of 6 or 7 superheroes, not 75.

This past year, Happy Cog was invited to respond to an RFP from a large municipal government. I asked how many firms were invited to respond to the RFP, and was told 364. This is insane. An RFP is a courtship. You’re engaged in a matchmaking transaction. An RFP is a series of first dates to determine who warrants a second date. Order the lobster, you’re worth it! You wouldn’t go on 364 first dates, would you? That’s only one night off, two if it’s a leap year. Keep the party small so you can get to know your guests. Start with six and whittle that group down to three finalists.

If you don’t have a wishlist, ask for advice. Your company employs designers, developers, etc. right? Ask them. Ask Quora. Ask Twitter. Or do your own research. Pick sites that you think are exquisite, contact them, and ask who did the work. Check out award sites. There are more design awards out there than design agencies, check out the winners. I’m partial to Webby awards myself.

Getting to Know You

Now that you’ve found potential dancing partners, get to know them. Schedule calls for all of the RFP participants to speak with your project team. If it’s not worth your time to connect each of the potential vendors with the project team, or a subset of the project team, then you’re not taking this project seriously enough. Make the time.

Let people talk, ask each other questions, and get to know one another. Are you having fun? You’re going to spend months (in some cases years) working with this vendor. If it’s not fun now, why continue? It’s only going to get more intense as the stakes get higher. You don’t want to go through the tough times with someone that pronounces the word height as “hithe,” talks over you, or eats what sounds like it can only be a bowl of cockroaches while talking on the phone.

The Benjamins

Here’s a great piece of information to share with your vendors: Your budget. Why go round for round with a hidden budget? If you don’t have a budget, you don’t really have a project. You have a strange hobby where you invest lots of time talking to vendors. What you don’t have is a real project.

We’ve bid on a handful of RFPs this year and come under budget 85% of the time and over budget the other 15%. We’ve miraculously never come in at, or $5 under, a proposed budget. This is not The Price is Right. There is no valor in blindly guessing the “right” number. If you guess the right number then you have to put your hand in Bob Barker’s pocket for the hundred dollar bill reward, and Bob stuffs those C-notes way down in there… Maybe you’re just not sure what something like this costs?

If you don’t know what your project should cost and need help, hire help. Ask one of the vendors you’re considering inviting to the RFP to review your project scope, maybe interview a few members of the project team, and deliver a rough project roadmap and estimate. You’ll know you’re getting their best thinking because it’s informed by research. You’ll also know they’ll honor their final bid and think twice about asking for a change request. Your project is based on their expert direction after all.

Get This Party Started

Finally, give the vendors the information they need, and let them sell you on their capabilities. They need your:

Timeline (from RFP response through launch)
Staff information
  • Who will project manage from your team?
  • What internal capabilities can you provide?
  • Will your team be able to migrate content from the old site to the new? Who will migrate it?
  • Will you have updated content ready for the new site? Who will create it?

Technology information

  • What CMS do you use? Are you looking to move to a new publishing platform?
  • What third party systems need to integrate into the new site?

In return, vendors should share their process with you (if they don’t have a process to share, RUN!), some information about their history and capabilities, insights into other projects, a broad response to your project needs, a budget, and a rough timeline. Basically all of the things you need to make an informed decision about their candidacy. Remember, you did your homework. You hand picked these vendors. You know a lot about them already right? Asking vendors to rehash what’s on their site indicates you may not have done your homework. Vendors’ Spidey Senses start to tingle at this point. An RFP is their opportunity to evaluate your team and your project as well. Don’t show up for your first date dressed for paintball when you’re actually going out ballroom dancing (I’ve been married a long time, I have no idea what you people do on dates).

From those responses, pick the best three and invite them to continue the conversation in person. Bring the members of your project team (let’s cap it at 7 people) and ensure that the critical decision makers are available. If the critical decisions makers aren’t available, cancel the meeting. Your vendors would rather reschedule than come back. Trust me. Reschedule.

Let your vendors set the agendas and see what they have to share, evaluate how they engage the room, ask them the hard questions, but be ready for a conversation. When it’s all over, pick the best fit and be on your way. How to pick the best firm? That’s a topic for another Cognition post.

Do you have an RFP horror story to share? I’d love to hear the gory details.

If you’re interested in more RFP advice, check out my SXSW panel with Todd Ross Nienkerk OMG Your RFP Is Killing Me

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