The Top Challenges of an RFP Response for Digital Agencies

So you have a web design Request for Proposal (otherwise known as an RFP) — congrats! Some difficult decisions need to be made now, the most important of which is whether or not your organization should even respond. We all know the business development instinct is to respond to almost every RFP.  But is that always wise? Being selective in which RFPs to pursue is part science/part instinct. To help in the decision process, it is important to formulate an institutional evaluation process that answers the basic question, “Should we respond?”

By using evaluation criteria, a framework will have been developed in the event that your team decides to dedicate the time and resources (read: $$$) to respond. We’ll examine some of the steps you can take in the evaluation and response process for an RFP to help determine if it is the right move for your organization. We’ll also look at how you can preemptively identify and mitigate the most common challenges in RFP responses.

Evaluate the Bid Process & Competition for Your RFP Response

One of the first considerations when responding to an RFP is whether or not it was shared with a small circle of potential responders, or if it is a public bid that will invariably elicit dozens of responses. If at any point you are indecisive about dedicating valuable time and resources to a response, this can tilt the balance of your decision.

It’s a simple numbers game: the odds of winning a public RFP are usually much lower. Are you competing against a handful of agencies with whom you share some familiarity and clients? Or are you competing against an undefined number of competitors who may not even be in your geographic or business market? Public RFPs are often (but not always) casting a wide net to identify the lowest bidder. Does your business model cater to low-price and standardized deliverables, or are you providing customized services and solutions that require nuanced understanding of potential clients’ goals and needs before bidding? If the latter, public RFPs can be a challenge to win.

While it is not impossible to be competitive on a public RFP, the bottom line is usually the issuer’s first criteria for vetting initial responders. Passing through the preliminary round means bidding under the threshold established by the issuer, requiring some guesswork. Will bidding under what you are comfortable with put your business at risk? Is the potential upside of merely breaking-even (or worse) worth it on this project? It can be, often for the sake of “loss-leading” to establish a foothold with a large client or a new market. Low-balling for the win comes with risk, however, and this is where experience and instincts come into play.

If selected by the RFP issuer in a closed bid (meaning you are bidding against a finite, pre-determined list of bidders), the budget range will often be known and is likely to be a secondary qualifier. If you are lucky enough to know who some or all of the other bidders are, you should examine your corporate differentiators. Some questions to ask yourself are:

  • Can you position your bid to offer something that the competitors cannot or will not?
  • Do you have testimonials from similar business verticals and clients?
  • Does the RFP require spec work or will extant case studies suffice?

Even in closed bidding, it may make sense not to pursue the proposal depending on your reflection of your competitive advantage for this particular RFP.

Decide if the Time Crunch is Worthwhile for Your Team

One of the more frustrating things that can happen to a business development team is the DUE YESTERDAY.  We have all been in the situation where an RFP requires an extremely aggressive turn-around time with no space for questions or a detailed study of the organization’s business needs. While one can only guess at the motivations of an RFP issuer who releases a request with inadequate response timeframes, we can acknowledge the disadvantage this carries. Without time to properly vet the RFP, are you willing to assume the risk of grossly under-bidding or over-committing to an unknown scope?

While it is never recommended to use a generic, templated response, it is good practice to maintain a repository of previous responses and proposal elements with technical details that can be reused and refitted. There is an efficiency in reusing previously crafted proposal elements but time is still needed to properly validate the reused components to ensure they are aligned with the project and business narrative being portrayed in the proposal.

The real question is: “Do we have time to properly and effectively tell our story?” Yes, a response can be prepared quickly. However, it is vital that you accurately convey the characterization of your corporate culture, your philosophy of strategic and tactical execution, and how your team and business goals align with and enhance those of the RFP issuer. This is one of the strongest competitive advantages you can give yourself. It is also one of the most time-consuming and difficult aspects of proposal development, so having enough time to properly validate this aspect is key.

Weigh Resources and Cost against Potential Pay-Off

Another aspect of evaluating whether or not to respond to an RFP is the measurement of any items that are out of the experience and capability reach of the project team. For aspects of the response that require vendors to “shore-up” knowledge gaps, consider the impact on budget and management timeframes. By the time vendor costs are calculated, you may be out of the issuer’s target range or find yourself in the red before kick-off has commenced. Assessing cost is not just bottom line; it is also the added management pressure of coordinating additional vendors that may complicate the project dynamic with unknown dependencies. The assessment of role and responsibilities, and the challenges each group may face in different phases, should play heavily into this assessment.

Stay Informed about the Decision Process

If you decide to pursue a response, you should continually monitor your chances for success. While assigning various parts of the response to respective subject matter groups, it is important to maintain a centralized, holistic view of the response. The big questions here are:

  • Do I understand the issuers evaluation criteria?
  • Have I have illustrated that understanding throughout this response?
  • Does this response mirror the structure of the RFP?

Question whether you not only understand the RFP, but also the industry terminology and jargon specific to the issuer’s organization and business vertical. Review to ensure the jargon is used organically throughout your response to reinforce this understanding. If you cannot do this, it will reduce your competitiveness against responders who can.

There is no single set of criteria by which your business can determine if an RFP response is worth pursuing. The assumption here is the luxury to say “No thanks.” By considering the investment and hard work involved in large RFP responses, however, you can make an informed determination of whether or not a proposal is worth it. After going through the exercise of evaluating your potential RFP, you will have increased your competitiveness in submitting by having already identified pitfalls within your response narrative. Good luck!

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