In part 1 of the 3-part series, we’re going to identify some common problems with requests for proposals.
As a digital product studio, we’ve seen more than our fair share of RFPs. Not only do we understand how difficult it can be to respond to them — but we can imagine how frustrating it is to create them. In part 1 of this series, we’re going to identify some common problems with requests for proposals. In part 2, we will suggest alternative ways to find a suitable partner agency. Finally, in part 3, we will provide guidance for structuring RFPs to ensure your project is seamless.
What should you do when your company needs to complete a specific project, but you don’t have the resources or technical capabilities to handle it internally? The de facto answer is to put out a request for proposals (RFP). But be careful — there’s really nothing simple about it.
Part of the problem is that an RFP is a bidding process in which the winning proposal is often the one that promises the lowest cost to the client. Too often, this leads down one of two paths: either the agency that wins the bid isn’t of the highest quality, or the agency that wins the bid has purposely lowballed its projections in order to get the work and is almost certainly going to go over time and over budget.
It should come as no surprise, then, that rightfully qualified agencies often choose not to respond to RFPs when there is no prior relationship established. It’s simply not worth the investment. As such, there’s a very good chance you’re not going to get the respondents you’re hoping for after putting together an RFP and inviting new prospective agencies to participate — using up your own company’s time and resources.
With all this upfront investment, it can be catastrophic for the company and the contractor if the project fails. And failure is not uncommon. We usually only hear about the worst-case scenarios that wind up in court, impact the stock price of public companies, or involve the government, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The question is: how can you avoid failure in the first place? How can you guarantee that when you deliver an RFP, it’s going to generate strong, qualified respondents? Here are some reasons why your RFP process might not be working — and strategies for improving, or circumventing it in favour of a targeted, purpose-driven approach.
If you’re considering an RFP, it probably means you have a problem that can’t be resolved in-house. Digital transformation and innovation initiatives, for example — whether it’s designing a user interface for a new website, or developing a game-changing mobile app — can be critical differentiators for modern organizations, but they demand highly specialized knowledge and skills.
This reveals a deep flaw in RFPs: how can companies fairly and accurately judge agency proposals when they’re not necessarily the authorities in the space? Realistically they can’t. Companies that approach their RFPs with the assumption that they already know what the solution should be, and what the work will involve, are ultimately setting themselves up for disappointment, or worse, failure altogether.
It actually makes more sense to start with why your need exists, and what you hope to achieve by solving it. Instead of sending out an RFP indicating what respondents should do or make, reframe it around the challenge you want to solve or the goal you want to achieve. You’re much more likely to get good proposals — submitted by agencies that weren’t creatively constrained.
It may be tempting to focus on factors like price and speed to market in an RFP, and yes those are extremely important — but once again, you risk disqualifying top-tier agencies that specialize in well-researched, battle-tested strategic work. If you rework your RFP to not only talk about costs and deadlines, but collaboration, co-creation, and communication, you’re more likely to find a partner that complements your company’s culture and process. And you’ll reduce the risk of misalignment at the outset.
Of course, there are still going to be agencies that opt to ignore RFPs; they’re simply not interested in giving their savvy ideas to other companies without a guarantee of something in return. If there’s a firm with a strong portfolio and reputation that you think would be perfect for your project, it could be best to simply reach out and start building that relationship. Forego investing your hours and brainpower in an RFP, and book a good old-fashioned consultation.
Companies make bold requests in hopes of attracting the best agencies, and agencies make bold promises in order to win an RFP. But too often, neither party comes away satisfied. That’s why it may be best to break your project into a series of smaller and less risky contracts — for instance, commissioning the discovery and development phases separately with different partners.
You can nurture your network of agencies with several lower-stakes projects, and get a sense of which ones work well with your team and deliver great results. You can focus on these agencies for future projects. And as an added bonus, if for some reason the project goes awry, the risk of critically impacting your company’s bottom line is significantly reduced.
When it comes to scaling back your RFP to focus on a specific and targeted ask, it’s important to understand the unique issue your company is looking to solve and do your due diligence in researching the agencies you’d like to work with. Be direct in soliciting their input. By finding a way to create that first small connection with an agency, you’ll build trust and increase the likelihood they’ll respond to an RFP down the line.
Too many companies are convinced that they can beat the odds and hit all three marks of the project management triangle: low cost, high quality, and fast time to market. Barring some sort of miracle, this won’t pan out in practice — and the persistent belief that it’s possible is one of the biggest reasons why RFPs fail, period.
Agencies that promise the complete trifecta may be the best salespeople, but they’re probably not the best product teams. So how can you manage expectations, without lowering expectations? Out of the three points of the triangle, quality should always be the top priority, with cost and speed to market coming in second. If your offering is substandard and has a poor user experience, you’ll just end up starting the project, or parts of it, over. For long-term success, quality cannot be compromised.
How to Score a Winning Partnership There are common mistakes companies make when commissioning work through RFPs, but there are also steps you can take to get great agencies to respond.
One last tip: if you’ve identified an agency that can creatively and effectively tackle your project and collaborate productively with your team, skip the RFP altogether. In our current innovation economy, there simply aren’t enough hours in the day.
Don’t miss the rest of our series featuring actionable tips on how you can write RFPs that bring you qualified agencies — or ways to circumvent the process altogether. Sign-up now.