How to Write a Better RFP

Andrew Amundson
Andrew Amundson
- 6 min read
Lucy from Peanuts
Free Advice

Imagine you have a pain in your side.

It’s been hurting for over a week, and you’ve decided to seek medical help. Instead of setting up an appointment with your primary care physician, you get a list of a dozen doctors and email all of them — stating a diagnosis deadline, your request for standard medical procedures, and that you want a response of suggested diagnosis before you go see the doctor in person.

Does this sound terrible for both parties involved? This is how the RFP (Request for Proposal) process works (or doesn’t) in the digital agency space. It’s broken, and no one wants to put forth any effort to remedy it.

A Request for Progress

HubSpot defines the RFP as, “A document that becomes a way for you to quickly uncover the strengths and weaknesses of potential vendors in relation to your project without having to spend too much of your time hunting for them yourself.”

That makes sense from the clients’ side — who doesn’t want to save some time, especially when it’s not even your full-time job to submit RFP’s? But the problem is that building digital products is no easy feat, and we often find that clients don’t know what they need to be asking. This results in RFP’s hemorrhaging bloated tech buzz-speak, too-generalized pain points, and not enough of the correct information to truly set you up for successful responses.

RFP’s will often list off endless requirements, yet during the client pitch it’s revealed their actual issues weren’t even mentioned in the RFP. There’s a tendency to use cliches like, “A robust, mobile-friendly SEO, integration, web personalization and/or app.” — with no context. Or to ask for a design refresh/redesign (no one knows what a ‘refresh’ is, or if it’s any different than a web redesign). RFP’s also have a habit of being purely aspirational — as a client, you need to communicate to an agency not just want you want your website to be, but more pressingly your current pain points/problems (bonus points for including what you do not need or want).

The two main takeaways to be determined through an RFP are how well the firm/agency understands your industry, and how experienced they are in solving your problems and maximizing your goals. All too often the timeline, hourly rates, and other details become the primary drivers.

A Better RFP User Experience

Here’s a UX (User Experience) trick that will save you a lot of time, budget and stress. Find some agencies and set up a few calls with them. If any agency is worth their code in 2019, they’ll have a UX and Strategy team that can collaborate with you in these early stages. An interview allows the client to learn about the agency’s character, strengths, culture, process and how their team thinks with revealing immediacy.

Imagine you’re a client with a pain point.

You spend 30 minutes discussing your current problems with a real person at an agency. If everyone on your team can’t be on this call, record it and share with them later. You then have three conversations like this. Instead of having to sift through 15 boilerplate RFP responses and hundreds of PDF pages and Keynote slides, you’ve secured a handful of solid leads in only a few hours. These are valuable, human conversations that cannot be replicated through the standard, faceless back-and-forth of the RFP process — after all, isn’t a cultural and personality fit equally important?

Evidence of Success

This alternative model is best exemplified by our experience with one of our newer clients, MultiState. Their organization researched and interviewed six agencies for an introductory call — based on these conversations, they narrowed the pool of candidates down to three. They then asked for a budget to be submitted, and invited the final three to present to the entire leadership team and board. A day later, they made their selection — they still received three official responses, which checks off the procurement requirement for most organizations (assuming they are after the best suited agency; not the least expensive).

I know when I meet or talk to people if they are a right fit or not. Saying ‘yes’ to an RFP proposal is like agreeing to marry someone based off their cover letter, without actually going out and spending time together first. — Consultant for MultiState

The Phone is a Good Call

Here’s what should be established in the introductory phone call:

  • The budget; what’s possible for said budget
  • What kind of business relationship you want — a vendor or a true partner
  • What exact services you need
  • An explanation of your current process/pain points
  • If the agency/firm is a good fit

In this business, momentum builds relationships; idle time kills them.

Why is all this pertinent? Your budget might require it.

Money Talks

RFP’s are typically not transparent about the budget. Allow us to be transparent: include your budget. Not including the budget means you’re not shopping for the best vendor — it ends up wasting time, because the budget is the gateway for any agency being able to accurately and effectively answer to their capacity to realize your goals. By including the budget, the agencies who aren’t interested will politely decline and the ones who are will allow you to compare the level of service you’ll be getting for your budget. This will make your life easier — and will save you money.

If you absolutely must engage in the RFP process, then allow us to provide you with a beneficial guide that will better your chances of making the right selection.

This RFP guide is designed to help you craft a concise and precise RFP that includes the details needed for an agency to understand the scope of your project. Its purpose is to help you find the right agency by providing the right information and asking the right questions.

RFP Guide

Make sure to address/answer the following:

  • What does your association, nonprofit or corporation do and who is your audience?
  • What is your mission/philosophy/brand and what story are you trying to tell?
  • What is your budget? Budgetary transparency leads to finding an agency that is the best fit, along with prioritizing your needs and what services you’ll be requiring. Clarity around budget establishes what’s possible for a project.
  • What are your main goals for a redesign? Why do you need one? What will a redesign accomplish for your organization?
  • What are your main pain points for the current website or web application?
  • What services are you looking for exactly?
  • Describe current technologies used: WordPress, Salesforce, Netforum, etc.
  • What systems would you like to use for the new website? Drupal, WordPress, Craft, Salesforce, Imis, Memberclicks, Elasticsearch, etc.
  • Content Audit and Migration
  • Do you need a content strategy? If so, what level/type?
  • Current integrations in place — how is your website integrated with your CRM, what are the pain points, and how can it be improved?
  • Integrations improvements that you must have or need (requires details and budgetary considerations)
  • List the specific features you want/need and why, e.g., a calendar, interactive map, dashboard, event registration, etc.
  • Who are your competitors/peers?
  • Any sample websites and/or sections within to provide inspiration
  • Timeline
  • Who will be involved in the decision-making process?
  • What is the selection criteria? How will the responses be scored/weighted?
  • Are you looking for a vendor or a partner, i.e., will it be purely transactional or a real partnership?
  • What type of firm/agency are you looking for?
  • How many firms or creative agencies will you be reaching out to?
  • How many unique templates can you think of?
  • What don’t you want?

What Not to Send

The following are excerpts from actual RFP’s:

  • “The vendor shall come up with a design for for internet marketing materials to drive traffic to website. The design of advertisements should be based on website. These marketing materials should look professional and should be created in a variety of sizes.”
  • “Here are the users we most want to reach: General Public (explain what we do, sharp/modern design so its appealing, not dark, digestible, make them want to return).”
  • “We are eager to have our website have a clean look, tone of easy access to information and regular updates, and feel of high competence and reliability (but not showy).”

A New Proposal

Think of every substantial relationship you’ve ever had, in business or your personal life. How did it begin? With an RFP?

Probably not.

It began with a conversation.

The value for clients actually talking to prospective agencies is invaluable; actualizing the dream of your new website and making a healthy, enduring relationship with a firm a reality.

If you must send a traditional RFP, please implement our guide. But if you want to try something new — what the digital world is all about — try our interview-first method. We here at WDG do our best work and are the best partner when we know more about what a client wants and needs from the beginning. And this ultimately ends in success.

For any more RFP or proposal queries, continue the conversation here.




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