We detail here our best practices for great RFPs that will help you find and select the right partner agency for your digital needs! We also strongly urge that you consider doing an RFI prior to your RFP.
At Forum One, we have a lot of experience on both sides of the “Request for Proposal” (RFP) process. In the last five years, we’ve responded to several hundred RFPs, helped clients write RFPs, and ourselves hired partners through RFPs.
RFPs can be an effective way to hire a trusted partner for critical services you need and help set the schedule and budget for the work. RFPs can be effective tools if they focus on providing enough detail on outcomes, without being too restrictive about approaches, and if the process is clear and transparent.
But RFPs have drawbacks. They can lead to a “beauty pageant” – rigid meetings focused on style versus substance, discussions of theoretical approaches versus actual project experiences, and an unknown budget undermining the whole process. RFPs can get stalled or stopped if the hiring organization has not built internal agreement on their needs, or decisions can get made on previously not disclosed decision factors. The RFP process is expensive for the bidders, so these mishaps can cause ill will.
The Effective RFP Approach
An RFP can be a great way to find the right partner for your project whether you are required to have one or not. We have found the following elements to be crucial in creating a successful RFP.
First, you should do your homework! Internal and external research will help you narrow your needs, understand possible solutions, and know what the solution should cost. Speaking with people who have experience with the needs you are looking to fulfill will prove invaluable. Build consensus within your organization about the needed outcomes and get budget approval before you seek a partner.
Don’t rely on an RFP as a “fishing expedition” to learn about what your project might entail instead you can use an RFI to gain this information. This is a waste of time for everyone. Conduct a bit of desk research to understand what a scope of work like yours might entail and what the going rate for such work tends to be.
The RFP Document
Asking your potential partners for the right information will save you time when it comes to evaluating whether they can meet your needs. Here’s what we recommend:
- Background: Include a section about your organization and why you are embarking upon this project at this point in time.
- Objectives: This section should talk about what you are looking to accomplish and should include the challenges you are looking to solve
- Requirements or scope of work: This section should include the non-negotiable parts of your project.
- Budget range: This does not need to be an exact number but you should be able to provide a detailed range in which you are looking to stay in based on your upfront research. This will avoid the situation in which you get a wide range of budgets.
- Schedule: You should outline when the project needs to be done and why. Is it driven by a board meeting, an annual conference, fiscal year, or something else?
- Evaluation criteria: In this section, detail how you will be evaluating proposals and potential vendors based on the information that they have provided. This should also include a list of sections that should be included in their response, page limits, any other criteria that will form the approach to their response. The typical proposal format should include:
- Background about their firm
- The proposed approach, including budget, schedule, team
- Comparable examples, and references
- Contact information
- RFP schedule and process: Here, you should outline the timeline for the RFP process. This could include expression of interest, questions, answers to questions, time for bidder meetings, proposals, an invitation for finalists to meet, time to make the final decision, time to negotiate final details and contract, and time to commence work.
Pitfalls to Avoid
We have also seen RFPs that have gone awry! Here are some common pitfalls we suggest trying to avoid.
Lacking Clear Objectives
We see too many proposals that are long on technical or tactical requirements, but short on key objectives for the organization with the project. The RFP should go into detail on what the organization seeks to accomplish, the current shortcomings this project should solve, and how the success of this project will be measured. Focusing on objectives and outcomes will be valuable for your potential partners. Be careful, though, not to over-engineer the solution – let the bidders figure that out.
Not Providing a Budget
Many RFPs avoid providing budget guidance, even if a general range. In our experience, this leads to proposals that are not useful. We periodically respond to RFPs with our best ideas, are not offered budget guidance, and then are told our proposal is not in the right price range. I think clients hesitate to offer budget guidance because they want bidders to be as aggressive as they can be. The downside of that is proposals that are not tailored to an organization’s needs and expectations. Our experience is that we (and others) squeeze as much as possible into a proposed budget window. Budgets can always be negotiated subsequently. Without a budget, you are at risk of getting many proposals that do not hit the mark, resulting in a lot of wasted time for everyone.
Lack of Information about Incumbents
Firms answering an RFP need to know if there are other groups with existing relationships. It is important to avoid the perception that an RFP is being used to justify a decision already made, or being used to drive down the price of the incumbent. (That’s also not fair – if you are not happy with your incumbent bidder, then fire them!)
Straight to a Proposal without Narrowing Qualification
Responding to RFPs is expensive, so we prefer processes in which firms (any firm or invited firms) are asked to send a brief letter or proposal for a qualification step. At that point, three to four firms are invited to submit full proposals. Having a large number of firms submit long proposals wastes everyone’s time. (Hint – or just run an RFI process, as we detailed above!)
No Face-to-face Time
When possible it is useful to have a face-to-face meeting with finalists. This helps level the playing field and for you to get to know the team you might be working with
It is useful to have dialogue with applicants throughout the process. Before proposals are submitted, it is appropriate to have either a conference call or written questions that are shared. After proposal submission, it is fine to negotiate deliverables and price, not assuming the proposal needs to be the final word.
Lack of Feedback
Providing feedback to both winners and losers after you have made a decision is crucial to those vendors to improve their process and make better use of their resources. It is also important to commit to the process; we have participated in several exhaustive RFPs in which in the end the client decided not to do a program at all.
All of these objectives can be met in a relatively brief document. Many of the outstanding RFPs we received are five to 10 pages. Including these ideas in your next RFP will ensure you have happy applicants and set the stage for a successful project.
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