RFPs done right

Love ’em or hate ’em, Request for Proposals (RFPs) are standard practice for many non-profit, higher education, and government organizations, and this leaves project managers with few options when they’re purchasing tangible goods or professional services.

If this is your first project lead, make sure you know your organization’s regulations and purchasing limits. Be aware of all your options. With professional services like design and website development, there are lots of reason to avoid an RFP.

But if an RFP is your only option, there is a right way to conduct the process.

Developing the RFP

Here’s how to develop an efficient RFP for professional services that gets you better results in less time.

1. Establish an effective team who can get on the same page about the project goals. Honest feedback and effective collaboration is an essential part of working with a team. Differences of opinion can be helpful for honing in on the goals and needs of your project. But you must manage the fine line between constructive discussion and derailing disagreement. Don’t be afraid to trim the fat from your team if you have a team member who disrupts the flow of the process.

2. Provide context for the project. Once your team is established, you need to determine the key elements of your RFP. These are important to the responding firm’s ability to develop an effective proposal that meets your organization where you are and solves your problems. These items include:

  • Budget
  • Schedule for RFP including submission deadlines
  • Contact Information
  • Contextual Background Information
  • The Problem to Solve
  • Compensation Terms
  • Required Qualifications (minimum & preferred)
  • Evaluation Criteria & Process (including notification process)
  • Legal/Procedural Rules

3. Determine your budget. Some people believe that keeping your project budget a secret from potential respondents helps you to get the best deal.What it really does is hamper your ability to find the partner who is the best fit for your organization. If you hide your budget you will inevitably get responses with a wide variance in cost, experience, and ability. This means more time on your part to evaluate proposals that you’ll never select because of the cost or lack of fit. You will also have wasted money on the part of the firms developing those proposals just for you to throw them out without real consideration.

Clearly defining a budget or at least a budget range allows firms to decide if they can provide you with an effective solution to your problem within the given budget. Those that can will write proposals, and those that can’t will self-select out which saves both parties time and energy.

After setting your budget, instead of focusing on getting the best deal (i.e. price), focus on getting the best value. In other words, focus on identifying the firm who is giving you the most return on your investment given the budget limitations by evaluating the combination of deliverables and quality of work they are offering to complete for you.

If you truly have an open-ended budget for your project, then your team should determine the value of this project to your organization.

  • How important is it to have this problem solved?
  • What role will a firm’s particular areas of expertise play in solving these problems?
  • Is the product or service you’re looking for going to directly generate revenue for your company, such as an e-commerce website?

These are just a few examples, but all of these questions will help you to determine value and establish a budget. That budget will help all potential partners determine if they are really the right fit for you.

4. Determine respondent requirements. Once you’ve clearly articulated your pieces of the RFP that help to educate the respondents about your organization and the particular project, it’s now your turn to get specific with a few requirements for the responding firms that define how much control your team wants over the creative process, and what you need to see from them to determine best fit.

Be clear about what you want from them, but be respectful of their time. We all know the old adage that “time is money” and RFP responses cost time to develop and evaluate. To be efficient, your goal should be to develop an RFP that is as efficient as possible while still sharing all the information a firm needs to respond. Requirements you should request include:

  • Proposed statement of work, process, and project timeline
  • Description of Experience/Qualifications — may include team biographies
  • Relevant Work Samples — Don’t ask for Spec Work
  • References
  • Legal requirements as dictated by local, state, or federal regulations
  • Proposed Monetary Bid

Of all of these, the most important piece to consider here is whether your team will outline the statement of work (i.e. the solution to your problem), the process, and the timeline for the project, or whether you will simply identify the problem and let your applicants outline these other elements (the process, timeline, and ultimate deliverables) for you.

The benefit of the first option is that your team has control of how you want the work done, and the deliverables you receive at the end of the process. The negative is that when we identify our own problems and solutions we often bring preconceptions to the process that blind us to alternative solutions that may better serve us. This is magnified when dealing with technology because innovation is constantly happening, so you may not even be aware of other solutions that are available to you.

In “Expository Sketch is the New RFP,” Stanford University Technology Strategist Zach Chandler provides good insight as to why engaging your partner firm in helping to solve your problem is essential to successful projects.

While Chandler advocates for doing this outside of the RFP process, if you must seek this problem-solving expertise within the RFP framework, the firm’s response will also give you insight into their process, creative vision, and strategic thinking abilities.

5. Gather any additional information needed. Depending on your project you may consider asking a few additional questions beyond those outlined above. But don’t ask for frivolous requirements, documentation or intrusive information that has no real bearing on your project.

Examples of these frivolous requirements and questions that the MAC team has seen in RFPs include (but are not limited to):

Tell us about a challenge that you’ve faced and overcome.
What project would you like to re-do?
What’s one question we should be asking and haven’t?
After providing a fixed cost bid and an estimate of hours needed to complete the project, please provide a breakdown of each individual team members estimated hours and hourly rate.
Please provide project budgets and scope for similar projects you’ve completed for other clients.

Some of these questions are a waste of time for firms to respond to and your team to read the answers to. This only serves to distract from the only elements of the RFP that truly matter: the quality of the work, the process, the timeline, and the total proposed cost.

As for budgets, the only thing that should really matter is whether you think the work being done for you is worth the price the firm has placed on it. As with all businesses, as a firm does good work and grows, inevitably so will their internal overhead costs. It’s unfair to the firm for your team to try to nickel-and-dime them for the same rate they charged a client five years before. If your team feels the quality of work being proposed is worth the price tag being attached, then the creative firm should have the freedom to distribute the funds how they see fit.

Soliciting proposals

Once you’ve written the RFP and have a solid foundational idea of what you are looking for, it’s time to reach out to potential partners and solicit responses.

Some organizations require you to post an RFP publicly, but many allow you to distribute your RFP selectively to pre-qualified firms. While selective distribution requires some upfront research on your part to identify prospective partners that fit your project requirements, it also provides you with tighter control of the process, shortens the required evaluation process, and eliminates wasted time developing proposals from firms that you’d never actually consider to complete the work.

If you’ve failed to scope the project correctly, or underestimated the project budget given the type of firm you’d like to work with, selectively soliciting bids will also help to identify these issues because your prospective partners will politely decline the invitation to respond.

If you can selectively distribute the RFP, your distribution list may include as few as 2–3 firms or as many as 20 depending on your objectives. The general rule is that if you don’t consider the firm a serious contender, don’t send them the RFP.

Make yourself available to answer questions

Depending on your organization, there may be ways in which your communication is legally limited after the RFP has been distributed. At the very least, you should conduct a pre-proposal conference call where firms can ask you clarifying questions to make sure their proposals are on point.

If you’ve limited the pool through selective distribution and you’re legally allowed to, consider answering individual emails and phone calls. This will allow you to quickly and effectively answer questions, establish a relationship with potential partners, and get insight into their process and attention to detail.

Evaluation and selection

If you’ve done a good job outlining the RFP and soliciting proposals from prequalified firms, the evaluation process should be simple and efficient because you’ll already have a narrow, focused field of responding firms and a clear guideline for how you want to evaluate the proposals.

When you’re writing your RFP and establishing timelines, your team should also internally pre-schedule proposal evaluation meetings as part of this timeline. The last thing you want to do is receive proposal submissions and then spend two weeks trying to nail down your team’s schedule to meet.

Additionally, make sure you’ve established a clear scoring system that is being shared with the respondents as part of the RFP. For example, if your rubric uses a 100-point valuation process and 25 points can be awarded for price, then make sure it is clear what price (or range) will earn the proposal the full 25 points and what will just earn it 15 (or zero) points. A vague scoring system makes it harder for your team to objectively evaluate proposals, and it makes it more difficult for firms to see what you really value in their response.

Successful selection committees

An odd-number of selection committee members is also best in evaluation in the event that the decision comes down to a majority vote. If you have an even number of committee members or a voting system that requires unanimous approval, make sure you have a predetermined tie-break procedure in place.

If you opted to distribute to a small field (3–5 firms) of prequalified firms, you may also consider if it is possible to have the firms present their proposals to you rather than your team just reading them. This will allow you to ask follow-up questions and clarify aspects of the proposal if needed.

Finally, If you ask for references, use them. References can be extremely helpful in evaluating a firm’s expertise and ability to form positive working relationships if these are key evaluation metrics for your team. If you have no intention of contacting the references, though, then asking for previous work samples will go just as far in showing prior work experience.

Final thoughts

Ultimately you can only award your project to one firm, and someone will inevitably be disappointed given the amount of work responding to an RFP requires. However, the firm you select will be your partner for months, if not years. Make sure you treat this relationship with care by responding to emails and phone calls in a timely manner and keeping them up-to-date as you go through the evaluation process.

When you’ve come to a decision, let all responding firms know of your choice and why you went that direction. While you may pass on a firm’s proposal this time, they could be a great partner for you on a project down the road, and letting them know where they fell short will help them to improve for the next project they take on.

While sometimes necessary, RFPs are time consuming for organizations on both sides of the table. Following a simple, clearly defined process and avoiding anything that’s not essential to the process will help you to streamline your efforts and make it as painless as possible for all involved.

This article is also published on Medium.

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