The web is littered with manifestos about the death of the RFP. Organizations feel they’re a necessary evil that consume time and energy, often across multiple departments. Agencies believe RFPs emphasize the wrong things, precluding meaningful conversations and substantive evaluation. Yet organizations continue issuing them, and agencies continue responding.
That’s because of the promise they offer. When done well, an RFP can also help you determine who’s not a great fit; don’t forget that quickly eliminating a candidate is a win for both you and the prospective agency. More to the point, a great RFP can help you find the best partner for your needs. Here, we’ll share what we’ve learned from looking at hundreds of RFPs. These insights are guaranteed to improve your next search.
Know the basics.
If you’re reading this, you likely know what an RFP, or Request for Proposal, is — a document issued by an organization to solicit bids from prospective service providers. There are a variety of reasons it might be a good idea to issue an RFP. You may be embarking on a project for which your organization lacks internal expertise. You may be looking to replace an ineffective partner or seeking wider choice than your existing network can offer. Or you may be sourcing new perspectives on how to tackle a critical issue or solve a challenging problem.
There are a few core components everyone gets right — organizational mission, project goals, project scope, and schedule. A schedule provokes conversations about priorities, and supports detailed evaluations of which approach is best. Project-level specifics like goals and scope ensure agencies respond to the same prompt, helping you compare apples to apples. And sharing your mission encourages candidates to address the more primal layers of alignment.
Step up your game.
To build on that foundation, there are five elements we consider essential, but that many RFPs fail to include.
- Business goals. While most RFPs convey the immediate needs of the project, they don’t provide the bigger picture of why the project matters to the organization. Including business objectives empowers respondents to offer more holistic recommendations for the work ahead, which gives you a clearer picture of how they’d help you now, and in the future.
- Audience priorities. Delivering for your audience is the definition of a successful project, yet many RFPs provide only cursory descriptions of their users. Share special requirements your audiences may have, as those impact scope and price estimates. Do the audiences speak and read in different languages? Are there unique cultural attributes or sensitivities to consider? Which needs are most important? Setting priorities around user needs helps clarify what the right agency partner will bring to the table.
- Your team. Think beyond your own project team. Let respondents know if there are tiers of stakeholders the selected agency must navigate. Hierarchical organizations and layered approval processes may indicate additional resources needed for facilitation. List the people in your organization who will manage and support the work after launch. A dedicated division with robust IT support suggests a very different response than a small team with limited experience. With these details, candidates can shape their deliverables to your future needs. You’ll get more accurate proposals and avoid unpleasant surprises downstream.
- Technology. Providing the technological context is essential for today’s agency engagements. Are there existing systems that need to stay connected? What are your expectations (and dreams) for analytics? Where is data stored and how is it used? The more detail you can provide, the better. Even suggested tools or potential integrations can spark useful conversations and produce more informed recommendations. Where elements are firmly defined, agencies can plan accordingly; where they are open to interpretation, agencies can be strategic.
- Budget. Last but not least, a great RFP includes a budget cap or range. There’s a lot to be said about the value of sharing your budget with prospective partners. But the key takeaway is a budget allows agencies to determine if they can deliver within your organization’s means and to recommend their best thinking on how to accomplish the work. As importantly, it sets another consistent parameter, allowing you to evaluate respondents on the same playing field.
Start a conversation.
By now it’s probably clear how much time and energy you’ll commit to tackling the basics and stepping up to the next level. To get the most value for that investment, you’ll need to consider more than the RFP components and deliverables. Changing your mindset can produce long-term returns on the process.
Keep in mind the best outcome of any search is finding a partner. A partner is a team capable of transcending the immediate needs of a single project. They’re aligned with your broader organizational needs and capable of growing with you over time. On this count, the least successful RFPs tell more than they ask. Relying too much on hard specifications can inhibit higher-level thinking by your candidates, robbing you of an opportunity to see where they truly shine.
Instead, use the RFP as a starting point. Think of the proposal as an early-stage deliverable in a long journey. Most engagements, even those following a well-run selection process, begin with several unknowns. Acknowledge them. In response, you’ll get more candid recommendations and more accurate estimates.
Break it down.
In many cases, embracing uncertainty within a project highlights the wide landscape of potential solutions. This is especially true for opportunities that feature longer delivery timelines, a lengthy post-launch lifespan, or the creation of more complex systems. We’ve found that the greater your ambition, the broader the landscape for interventions; in other words, bigger challenges have more potential solutions and require a more developed foundation on which to build.
To navigate that, consider using your RFP to focus on a smaller territory. Working in phases helps bring clarity and build confidence as you go. Your partner can test your assumptions, providing a data-driven plan for moving forward. Together, you can explore the strategic, creative, and technical possibilities and evaluate the time and cost implications of each. Each small step converts uncertainty into certainty.
Get a better result.
By looking beyond the basics with your RFP, you’ll enable prospective partners to produce better estimates. Estimates built atop deep insights and clear data will reduce the probability of unwelcome surprises, increasing the likelihood of a successful partnership (and making you look smart!). Just as importantly, the open dialogue you’ll have will set the stage for genuine collaboration throughout your relationship. Lower costs, less bumps, better solutions, and a great relationship are all possible with your next RFP.
This article is part of our Client Handbook series, where we share what we’ve learned from 20 years of working with clients. The articles collected in this Client Handbook will help you at every step of your agency relationships, and ensure you deliver value for your organization.