Most organizations that have a web site occasionally (or often) hire web consulting firms. This post outlines the best approach to issuing a Request for Proposal (RFP) – a common step in hiring a vendor.
RFPs, if written well, are useful in identifying vendors with appropriate skills and are (somewhat) useful in guaranteeing reasonable price and quality. On the other hand, RFPs are very expensive: They take a lot of hours to prepare and conduct, and firms which reply spend a lot of resources to prepare a proposal. RFPs which are poorly run can also result in poor outcomes and bad sentiments. (It is important to remember that there are ways to meet the objectives of an RFP without actually doing an RFP — such as through contests, through conducting small, sole-source trial projects or through using incumbents.)
What makes a good RFP?
There are many good, standard articles on “how to write an RFP” (found through a quick review of Google search results). Most propose an outline which includes the following:
- Summary / Key Information
- Vendor Details
- Evaluation Criteria
- Contact Information
This approach is typical and useful. There are often, however, a few key important qualities that are neglected:
Objectives: The biggest single problem with many RFPs is that overall objectives are short, but the tactical details and requests are lengthy and detailed. This often forces vendors to answer the wrong question (e.g. how to implement RSS feeds), yet not provide creative solutions for more global ambitions. A page or two describing objectives is far more useful than pages of requirements tables.
Budget: Many RFPs avoid providing any budget guidance. This leads to proposals that are not useful. Providing budget guidance has the theoretical risk of inflating otherwise less expensive proposals, but generally firms squeeze as much as possible into a proposed budget window. Budgets can always be negotiated subsequently.
Incumbents: Firms answering an RFP need to know if there are other groups with existing relationships with the client. Even if there are incumbents, firms may still decide to bid — but they should understand the playing field. It is important to avoid the perception that an RFP is simply used to justify a decision that has already been made.
What Makes a Strong RFP Process?
Qualification stage: Since RFPs are expensive, it is often best to first send a brief letter or proposal for a qualification step. Upon qualification, 3-4 firms are invited to submit full proposals. Having a large number of firms submit long proposals is a waste of everyone’s time.
Face to face: When possible, it is useful to have a face to face meeting with finalists. This helps level the playing field.
Dialog: It is useful to have a dialog with applicants throughout the process. Before proposals are submitted, it is appropriate to have either a conference call or share questions in writing. After proposal submission, it is fine to negotiate deliverables and price, not assuming the proposal needs to be the final word.
Feedback: It is important upon completion of the RFP to provide feedback to both winners and losers. It is also important to commit to the process: sometimes groups issue an RFP, but in the end decide not to do a program at all.
All of these objectives can be met in a relatively brief document. Many outstanding RFPs are only 5-10 pages. Including these suggestions in your next RFP will lead to a less expensive and more efficient process.