It's Time to Rethink Your RFP

October 20, 2020

It’s been seven years since I last wrote about RFPs. The truth is, not much has changed. So why write this post? Because I have additional thoughts and frankly, a blog post written in 2020 will fare better for the next few years than one in 2013. Fresh content and all that.

RFPs have a ton of pros and cons. And for some industries they are a necessity (necessary evil?). This is especially in the case of government contracts. RFPs can work really well, mainly in widget-focused markets, be they small are gigantic widgets. In areas of services, such as web design, the RFP process fails. It doesn’t fail in terms of actually finding a web design company to work with; it fails in finding the right partner to implement a client’s required solution.

Why are RFPs in the web industry still a thing?

RFPs have historically been dominant in the construction industry as well as government agencies. I really don’t know when or how they crossed over into other industries. It was likely a gradual shift as proposal writers and sales people moved into new positions in different industries.

Whatever the history, here we are – plenty of companies and (especially) non-profits put out RFPs for their website design/development projects. “For governmental agencies, rules and regulations require them to put large projects out on bid to avoid corruption and so taxpayers feel their money is being well spent. Likewise, private associations and organizations (many of which are nonprofits) want to feel they are spending their money wisely, too.” In theory that sounds great, but this translates to looking for the lowest bid possible. In other words, a race to the bottom.

Ok, so what’s wrong with RFPs?

No human touch

Little to no research gets done on deciding who to send the RFP to. Worst case, the RFP gets thrown on some RFP listing website. Either way, what gets lost is the human touch. And I argue that this is silly in every case, but becomes sillier for organizations that boast about creating relationships and the like.

Little to no room for discussion

While many RFPs will provide an email address for questions, that often just becomes this weird electronic back and forth. That’s better than nothing I suppose, but it also allows for a lot more close guarding of the cards, so to speak. In a phone or video call, there’s actual discussion that happens a lot faster than going back and forth by email. It’s in those discussions where really important information comes out. In other words, the RFP process eliminates this back-and-forth discussion which often eliminates the people who will be using the end product day in and day out. The communication becomes top-down rather than a dialogue about how to best meet objectives.

Time sink

No matter what side of the RFP you’re on – sender or proposal submitter – RFPs require a big investment of time. Writing an RFP means hours spent deciding who to put in charge and what to include which is all time that could’ve been better spent tapping your network for trusted vendors. And then there’s all the time spent in going over the submissions. Responding to an RFP means trying to convert a proposal into a sales pitch.

Hidden favoritism

The RFP process is often used to supposedly avoid favoritism. But favoritism and nepotism happen anyway. Companies often already have a vendor in mind, but they send an RFP out anyway (usually to satisfy some bureaucratic rule), only to select the original vendor. Sometimes that vendor helps write the RFP in the first place. The result is a huge waste of everyone’s time and money. (Disclaimer: I’ve been on both ends of this where I have been the favored vendor and one of several who lost to an incumbent.) It’s annoying and quite frankly, doesn’t leave the company putting out the RFP in a good light.

Intended parity isn’t really there

RFPs are often viewed as a way to compare apples to apples and level the paying field. While that may work for companies selling widgets, it’s a lot more difficult to do when reviewing companies that are going to sell you a service and consult on a good solution for your needs. Compare just about any two web agencies of similar size and on the surface level they produce the same thing: websites. The differences are in the methods, philosophies, processes, and, most importantly, the people. Sure, that can all be written down in a proposal, but it’s not nearly the same as meeting the people you’ll be working with and determining a good chemistry.

Are all RFPs bad?

The short answer to that is no, probably not. Few things in this world are that cut and dry. A good RFP – and especially a good RFP process – is very rare. But I think that enough of them are bad enough that they frankly just aren’t worth it. It says a lot more about your company and how you value your business relationships when you take the time to find the right person to work with through a series of conversations rather than a cold RFP.

What can companies do instead?

Consider sending out an RFQ — a request for qualifications

This is an option that, in my opinion, is still lacking the human side of things. It essentially boils down to giving a rough summary and determining who is qualified. I believe it’s still a short cut to real dialogue, but it requires a bit less time. The company putting the RFQ out spells out a summary of the project and desired outcomes. Agencies then simply submit a summary of their interest in the project, their qualifications, and relevant samples of their work.

Send out an RSI instead

This is similar to the RFQ above but I think a step better. It’s called an RSI: Request for Statement of Interest and I came across it while researching for this post on the Canadian Freelance Union website. An RSI is “a process wherein you put out a public call for vendors, stating that your organization is interested in working with vendors within a specific domain.” You provide basic information on who you are, the basic or high-level scope of work (no details needed at this point), and information on the kind of relationship you’re looking for. What makes this so much better than an RFP is that you get a better pool of interested vendors because they will be more aligned with what you do and what you’re looking for. What happens next is going down the road of a more traditional selection process where you narrow it down to a few companies that fit your needs, have an early discovery meeting, ask for a proposal (without all of the typical requirements an RFP would have; let them run with it), and make sure your decision from there.

The RSI method isn’t that different than doing some research to look for the kind of vendor you need, be it a design agency, marketing agency, etc. The only difference is that you narrow it down from the get go by putting together the overview document where you state what you’re looking for (again, from a high level perspective). This brings back the human element as it requires more genuine interest and dialogue prior to the proposal.