Common Issues in the RFP Process for Digital Services

  1. The client wants everything but the kitchen sink, including “custom AI chatbots” and “extensive user research,” but doesn’t have a budget that’s even close to sufficient.
  2. The client has chosen a platform that a 3rd party has deceptively sold them, rather than doing an RFI (Request for Information) or letting that platform choice happen during the RFP process itself.
  3. The client will not have a conversation or allow any consultative dialogue because the RFP process says they can’t.
  4. The client sends the RFP to tons of companies and advertises it publicly, leading to an RFP cattle call.
  5. The client selects the RFP winner based mostly on price, rather than any relevant business goals and KPIs produced or long-term value delivered.
  6. The RFP lacks outcomes that truly push the needle for the organization. Sometimes the client has hired someone else to design the RFP for them, without an in-depth discovery into the goals and workings of the organization. A "breathtaking web design" may please internal stakeholders and help with the brand image, but the most beautiful design doesn't do anything if it's not highly usable, encompassing well-thought-out goals, metrics, and KPIs that truly drive the organization forward.

What Can Happen as a Result

  1. The vendor who wins promises to deliver everything but the kitchen sink at the lowest price, but later in the process points out that their RFP response said that all of their promises were "pending discovery." After the discovery period, they inform the client that it will take 3 times as much money to do all that they want -- either that or they have to trim project scope. So, they're left whittling down scope after discovery, which leads to inefficient results and nobody is happy.
  2. The chosen platform has plenty of limitations, is actually hard to use, is bad for user adoption, isn't future-proof, is hard to maintain for developers, tends to be difficult to find quality developers for (thus increasing maintenance cost), leads to vendor lock-in, and will probably be in popularity decline or possibly even shut down 5 years from now. The vendor who does win is one of a very select few who specializes in this often-eccentric platform.
  3. The expertise of companies like ours – where we make this our life's work and do this stuff every day – is completely lost in the process. No conversations, no dialogue, no shared vision, just "build it and collect your check." Furthermore, there is no opportunity to suss out things like trustworthiness or how well we'll work together. Thus, the flashiest, most deceptive PDF with the lowest price wins.
  4. An RFP cattle call ensures that right-sized local companies are scared away and only the largest, lowest-value/highest-price out-of-state companies snatch it up.
  5. Most of the time, the most deceptive RFP response wins. Sometimes a new vendor will come in at a price that induces a financial loss for the vendor, but they take the loss in order to move into the business or organization, paying to establish a relationship. Other times, the vendor will simply ask the client for more money later, a very common tactic.
  6. A commodity is produced, rather than a strategic outcome benefiting the organization.

Because of this vicious cycle, and our desire to seek out long-term relationships, true strategic partnerships, and win-win engagements with our clients, we rarely respond to RFPs. We have probably responded to at least 100 in the history of our company, which is where these hard lessons have come from.

An Alternative to the RFP Process

While we realize the RFP process is efficient in terms of the time required by stakeholders, the costs of the poor outcomes generated by the process itself can be greater than the benefits. Here we propose an alternative to points #1 - 6 above.

  1. Talk to a few vendors beforehand, asking them what is reasonable for your given budget. Ask them to be honest, and tell them that this is not a price competition, but rather an information-gathering opportunity. If you need to roll this into a Request for Quotation or Request for Quote (RFQ) process, then so be it, but keep it small and targeted unless you only want to attract large firms and squash supplier diversity.
  2. Instead of being sold a tech or marketing platform outright, talk to a few vendors who have experience in multiple platforms who can give you an unbiased opinion based on their experiences working with these platformsGoogling "platform name unbiased review" or "platform A vs platform B vs platform C" can get you started.
    You can even hire a vendor to do the due diligence for you -- ideally one with experience in multiple platforms. We see so many clients get sold on platforms due to the quality of the vendor's sales and marketing teams more than the inherent qualities of the platform itself.
  3. Talk to a few vendors, if your organization allows it. Get a consultative dialogue going. What you're asking for – these vendors have made their life's work of it. It's worth a conversation. 
  4. Keep your vendor invite list small, and even public or vendor-facingDoing large cattle-calls with 10 - 20+ different vendors weeds out smaller, more diverse vendors who would otherwise take the time to bid. Larger companies have entire teams dedicated to doing the cattle-call process, and they play the game, meaning that they may only win one out of 20 or more proposals, or even one out of 50.
    They can afford to play that game because of their size and economies of scale, but smaller vendors often cannot or choose not to. Keep your list under 10, be intentional about your vendor research outreach, and even consider publishing the list of invited vendors.
  5. Consider the price-value trade-off. Learn more on our blog about agency pricing and the tradeoff often faced between price and value. 
  6. Come up with SMART goals and KPIs for your RFP. SMART goals are specific, measurable, assignable, realistic, and time-related. Establish Key Performance Indicators and other metrics that are important to your organization. This will go a long way to producing a more meaningful, strategic RFP.

Our Evaluation Criteria

Of course, we do respond to certain RFPs. Before we even begin to engage with an RFP, they have to pass these criteria – we chose to publish them publicly to give insight into how a vendor might think about your RFP:

RFP Acceptance Criteria

Locations, where we have a clear advantage, are as follows:

  • Anywhere in the state of Minnesota 
    • Our home office is here.
  • Chicago, Illinois (or somewhere nearby in Illinois)
    • MN is a well-known neighbor and we're working to establish a presence here.
  • Out-state NY
    • We have a large client list there.
    • NYC metro may be too much competition, however.
  • The state of Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa
    • We are right next door to these states and the market is less dense. 

Sectors, where we have a clear advantage, are as follows:

  • Academia / education / university / public school
  • Business (SMBs, especially B2B but also B2C)
  • Health / wellness / healthcare
  • Senior living
  • Music industry 
  • Art museums 
  • Possibly State or Local Government - ONLY in the states of MinnesotaWisconsinIowa, North Dakota, and South Dakota 

Sectors where we have good experience but not always a clear advantage (evaluate case-by-case):

  • Manufacturing
  • Media / publications
  • Nonprofit organizations 

RFP Qualifying Methodology

These are our qualifying steps and questions to see if the RFP is worth bidding on:

  1. Do the location and sector match those listed in the Criteria section above?
    1. If yes, then see the next question below.
    2. If not, then please ask the Deal Owner what our special advantage is / if there is a reason we are bidding on this.
  2. Does the RFP itself at all mention location as a factor? 
    1. i.e. does it ask us to respond about where our location is / how far we are away from their offices?
    2. If yes, then please ask the Deal Owner what our special advantage is, and check with C-level before proceeding.
  3. Does the RFP require specific domain knowledge that we do not have, or are there boxes we do not check? 
    1. If yes, then please ask the Deal Owner what our special advantage is, and check with C-level before proceeding.
  4. Will the RFP take more than 3 hours of team time (other than the Deal Owner) to complete?
    1. i.e. are there extensive requirements on the RFP format? Tons of questions we have to respond to? Lots of questions requiring complex answers for which we will have to pull resources? 
    2. If yes, then please ask the Deal Owner what our special advantage is, and check with C-level before proceeding.
  5. Has the deadline for questions passed? 
    1. If yes, then please ask the Deal Owner (1) if they have access to the questions, (2) if the questions answer our Standard Questions for RFPs, (3) what our special advantage is, and (4) if we can get this RFP completed with little to no team resources. 
    2. If the Deal Owner can't make a case for the above, then please stop here as we should not bid on this opportunity.
  6. Is the proposal due at a minimum of two weeks from current date? 
    1. If yes, then see next question below. 
    2. If not, then please ask the Deal Owner what our special advantage is.
    3. If the Deal Owner can't make a case for the above, then please stop here as we should not bid on this opportunity.
  7. Is the opportunity larger than $25,000 USD? 
    1. If not, then please ask the Deal Owner if (1) it's an easy RFP to complete without using team resources, OR (2) we can gain an important relationship, portfolio item, or future business out of it. 
    2. If the Deal Owner can't make a case for the above, then please stop here as we should not bid on this opportunity.
    3. If you don't know, tell the Deal Owner to reach out to the RFP contact and ask what the budget is. 
      1. If they are unable to get an answer, and the project seems small, then please stop here as we should not bid on this opportunity. 
      2. If the project seems big (i.e. it is for a big company, a university, a museum, a school or university, or a large non-profit organization) then proceed to the next question.
  8. Does the opportunity state that Drupal, WordPress, or a tech-agnostic CMS solution is an acceptable technology to use? 
    1. If so, then proceed to the next question. 
    2. If you don't know, reach out to the Deal Owner and ask.
    3. If not, then please stop here as we should not bid on this opportunity unless we have a really good relationship or other strong connection with the potential client. 
  9. Competitive Analysis of competing agencies- are the competitors shared? If so, take a look at their websites and do a quick competitive analysis of their skills sets, etc.
  10. If you have made it this far, then it is worth asking our standard RFP questions

Standard Questions

We ask these standard clarifying questions, as appropriate:

  • QUESTIONS THAT QUALIFY OUR INTENT TO RESPOND TO THE RFP
    • How much of a factor is location? Will you accept firms that are not in the same city/state?
    • Is there a target budget amount you are looking for? Even a range would be helpful.
    • Do you currently have an incumbent agency providing these requirements? If so, who? 
    • Did another company help you prepare this RFP?
    • Is this bid open to any respondent, or have you only sent it to a pre-qualified list?
    • About how many firms did you send this RFP to? 
    • About how many responses are you expecting?
    • Is the reason for this RFP because your current RFP is expiring, or are you looking for a new partner to deliver the requirements?
    • Are you open to a conversation, phone call, or meeting with us before the RFP is due? We find that this helps relieve a lot of the uncertainty that RFPs tend to induce.
    • What are you looking for in terms of our design expertise?
    • How important are our company values to you in your decision-making process and which values matter to you most?
  • QUESTIONS SPECIFIC TO DIGITAL MARKETING CONTRACTS THAT MANAGE AD SPEND
    • Can you provide expected annual budgets for the advertising services listed in the RFP?
  • STRATEGY QUESTIONS
    • Who are the main competitors within your sector?
  • LOGISTICAL TECH QUESTIONS
    • Do you need post-launch technical, content, design, or strategic support? If so, for how long?
    • Are there any microsites or subdomains to be included in the scope?
    • Does the site have any unspecified integrations with other systems? For example, does the site need to display content from other systems or does it need to send information (via web form or other) to other systems?
    • What types of users will need to login to the site (content managers, editors, admins, etc.)?
  • MISC QUESTIONS THAT MAY OR MAY NOT BE APPLICABLE
    • Please confirm whether the RFP is to be awarded to a single provider, or whether multiple providers will be awarded the contract?

Response evaluation

Below is our evaluation process.

  • Preexisting relationship with vendor / incumbent agency
    • If they already have an incumbent agency providing these requirements, and not clear that they're unhappy with that agency, do not bid
  • Another company helped prepare the RFP.
    • Just be wary. Not disqualifying in and of itself.
  • Location
    • If location is AT ALL a factor, then do not bid on the opportunity, unless the location is in one of the "clear advantage" locations in our Evaluation Criteria.
    • If location is NOT a factor but they still require on-site consultation, then the opportunity must exceed $75K, because that's going to be a good amount of travel time and distraction / context-switching for our team.
  • Open to any respondent / pre-qualified list / how many responses
    • If the RFP is open to any respondent OR over 15 firms have been sent the RFP directly, we should only respond to the opportunity if we have a clear advantage from our Evaluation Criteria and if the Deal Owner can make a compelling case to a C-level member of our company.
  • In general
    • In general, if they are not willing to answer, or answer coldly / do not answer our questions in a way that gives us information, we should not bid on this opportunity.

Conclusion

An RFP process has the potential to be a successful way to compare multiple proposals and arrive at the best solution and vendor relationship. Ideally, that means:

  1. Talk with a subject-matter expert or company like ours before you generate your RFP, to make sure you’re not unnecessarily asking for the kitchen sink and exploding your budget.
  2. Don’t choose the delivery platform before the RFP unless it makes sense and you have truly done your due diligence and explored all possible platforms out there.
  3. Talk to potential vendors and allow for dialogue and communication in the process.
  4. Send your RFP to a small, targeted, well-researched list of firms, say 5 to 7, and keep the process intimate.
  5. Choose the right vendor who you can trust, who focuses on your business goals and KPIs rather than the one who sells to you the best or proposes flashy solutions that will just end up disappointing you in the long-run.
  6. Fill your RFP with SMART goals, KPIs, and other measurable outcomes.

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O8 is a digital consultancy based in Minneapolis, MN offering high-performance website UX Design, CRO, and strategic consulting, as well as high-tech capabilities in Drupal, WordPress, and HubSpot. We work differently from traditional agencies in that we extend your team with ours.