On the hunt for the right vendor to help with your website refresh or app launch? Creating a request for proposal (RFP) is often an essential – and even required – first step. But much like digital experiences themselves, RFPs can range widely in quality.
At their best, RFPs clearly educate potential partners about your needs and help you compare your choices more easily. At their worst, RFPs are vague, complicated, and time-consuming for everyone involved. That can prompt some vendors to bypass them completely, leaving you with a less-than-stellar pool of options.
Many agencies see RFPs as a high-risk, low-reward business development strategy and are selective about responding, since they can eat up so much time. Case in point: The average company spends 32 hours and has 9 team members work on each RFP, yet wins less than half of them.
Despite all this, RFPs aren’t going anywhere. So how can you create an RFP that will actually attract the type of partner you want?
At Oomph, we review hundreds of RFPs every year to find the projects that are best suited for our skills. After sorting through the good, bad, and truly ugly, we’ve established an internal scoring system for potential RFPs — and learned some valuable lessons along the way.
Here are nine key factors that can help ensure your RFP stands out from the rest.
1. Embrace open communication.
By establishing open lines of communication from the outset, you can build a sense of trust and clarify questions to ensure the proposed solutions meet your needs.
If holding calls with individual vendors isn’t an option, hosting a pre-bid call is one effective way to gain face time with several prospective partners at once. Connecting live can give you a sense of how your two teams will mesh. For example, if an agency flakes on the call, those issues will likely only get worse during the project itself. On the flip side, a vendor who gets your goals and needs can often give you a more customized and accurate estimate.
2. Be as transparent as possible with your budget.
Ah, the million-dollar question: How much will this all cost? Some organizations decline to share a budget in their RFP, either because they’re not allowed to or because they don’t want vendors to inflate their price to match the stated budget. But omitting a dollar figure can quickly lead to frustration on all sides: You don’t want to waste time sorting through responses that aren’t in your budget, and agencies don’t want to respond to potential clients who can’t meet their rates.
By providing a targeted cost, you build trust with potential partners and avoid wasting time on solutions that are out of your price range. When including a budget, be clear on how vendors should respond. Do they need to list every expense as a line item or can they group costs? Should they include additional items that they think could enhance the project?
If you’re in an industry where you can’t share a budget, consider at least including a not-to-exceed figure. Otherwise, be prepared to sift through huge swings in costs. This is one instance where getting specific about your desired solution can actually be a good thing. Noting that you’re looking for a templated website vs. a custom build, for example, can help you avoid getting some proposals that come in at $20,000 and others that come in at $200,000.
3. Give ample time during the process.
RFPs are a lot of work and you don’t want to rush. A hasty process can increase the likelihood of mistakes, omissions, or incomplete responses from potential partners.
If you’re accepting questions on your RFP, make sure you leave enough time after answering them for agencies to formulate their response. If you have a second round, create some breathing room for agencies to prepare, especially if you’re expecting a presentation.
4. Provide the basics on your company.
Vendors want to know who you are and what you’re about. This includes basic details like the products or services you offer, your location, and your audience.
You should also include details on what makes your organization different. What sets you apart? What’s your mission? This will help vendors better understand your company’s goals, allowing them to tailor their proposals to your specific request.
Finally, let vendors know who will be spearheading the project on your team. Are there multiple decision-makers? Will your board need to sign off? Sharing information on your working style can help attract vendors who are a good fit and ensure they plan for the right level of collaboration in their scope.
5. Focus on your project goals, not the solution.
When creating an RFP, it’s easy to get caught up in the specific deliverable you think you need. But try to think big picture.
What do you want to accomplish? What was the impetus behind this work? For example, if your online leads are slowing down or it’s been ages since you last refreshed your design, share the details in your RFP. Make sure to include any project constraints as well, like if you want the winning firm to use your existing technical setup or if you’re open to new solutions.
By focusing on challenges and goals vs. proscriptive solutions, you allow potential partners to propose ideas that you may not have considered — but could be more effective than your initial solution.
6. Let applicants know which response formats are (and aren’t) OK.
List out the required elements you want to see in a proposal, like solution overview, a proposed timeline, and relevant work samples. Providing a standard framework can make it easier for agencies to assess the effort involved before deciding whether to respond and help you compare the strengths and weaknesses of various approaches. If any items are high-priority, be clear about where you expect applicants to spend the most time.
While providing details on what you’d like to see in the proposal is a smart move, be flexible if possible on how agencies deliver their response. If your project involves design work, allowing agencies to submit a PowerPoint deck instead of a written response can give you a glimpse at their design skills and how they interpret your brand based on the RFP. If you need proposals submitted in a specific format, go digital if possible. Most agencies will click “Pass” on any RFP that requires submitting 10 printed copies of a 30-page response.
7. Be clear on what will set applicants apart.
Think about what would make your partner a perfect fit for your organization. Is it experience in your industry or working with your preferred CMS? Is hiring a woman- or BIPOC-owned firm important to you? Are you eager to find a local agency that you can collaborate with in person?
By explicitly stating what will set top-tier candidates apart, you not only motivate vendors to put their best foot forward, but also give them the guidance they need to do so. Providing specific evaluation criteria in your RFP can also help ensure that the vendors who respond are the ones best suited to your project’s needs.
8. Consider your invites carefully.
The RFP process is meant to help you choose a single partner to meet your needs. Finding your ideal match requires carefully considering their expertise, proposed solution, and alignment with your company’s culture and values. So when you send your RFP, aim for quality over quantity in responses. Reviewing proposals from vendors who lack the necessary skills or who are a poor fit can lead to wasted time and, ultimately, a less successful project.
Beyond posting your RFP across your channels, think about how to proactively find the best partner for the job. Doing research in your industry and even asking competitors or affiliates who they’ve worked with can help narrow down your search.
9. Hold off on those references.
We get it – it’s helpful to get a second (or third, or fourth…) opinion when choosing a partner. However, it’s best to wait until you’ve narrowed it down to a few potential partners before reaching out to their references.
Why? You don’t want to waste your time contacting references for vendors who may not end up being a good fit for your project. Some vendors also may not want their clients contacted over and over again for early-stage RFPs. By waiting until you’ve narrowed down your list, you’ll likely have better, more specific questions to ask the references based on the vendor’s proposed solution.
Creating a Win-Win RFP Process
With the help of a well-crafted RFP, you can attract top-tier vendors who will be eager to flex their creative muscles and propose solutions that achieve your project’s goals. By prioritizing transparency, setting clear expectations, and valuing communication, you can establish a strong foundation for a productive and successful collaboration.
Need a fresh perspective on your digital project RFP? We’d love to talk about it.