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May 12, 2015

Request For Partner (A Reader's Guide)

May 12, 2015

Every time we receive an RFP for a new website, I have to admit that I go a little Pavlov for just a minute. After all, an RFP is basically an inbound lead tied up in a bow, right? It’s a warm, gooey opportunity, freshly baked and delivered right to the table. Ding Ding!

Here’s what else it is. It’s someone’s (maybe yours) hard work and hope that they'll find the perfect partner to guide them through a process they're not equipped to go through alone. Notice I said perfect partner – not perfect proposal (There is no such thing as the perfect proposal, not this early in the game.) Which is why, more times than not, RFP’s end up in the wastebasket (sometimes mine). 

So while I still believe that more can be communicated in a two-hour meeting than in a twenty page document, I hope that the following guidelines will bring you closer to finding that perfect partner, and if you think that SmallBox might be the one, that you’ll feel comfortable ringing our bell.

Vetting Prospective Agencies

  • Decide whether you’re looking for a vendor or a partner. Vendors are more tactical. They execute the plan and exit. Partners come alongside you to help build strategy and define solutions to reach your business goals. Figure out which of these types of relationship your project calls for and look for an agency that works that way. At SmallBox, we rarely enter a relationship through the tactical vendor door. So if your RFP is a thinly disguised honey-do-list, we’re likely to politely decline. 
  • Consider your own network.  Ask others you know and trust for recommendations and referrals before sending out your RFP. And don’t stop with just the agency’s name. Dig for details about communication style, cultural fit and how they deal with unexpected challenges. When people have a good experience, they don’t mind telling their friends. We’re much more likely to respond to an RFP that comes to us as the result of a client referral.  

  • Start with a conversation. Create a short list of agencies you know you want to consider (see above point). Then reach out for conversation before you finalize your RFP.  Chances are, you’ll start to hear some common questions… perhaps some you hadn’t thought of before. No one knows the black hole that project scope can become like those who’ve had to crawl out of it.

Communicating Your Project

  • Don’t forget that functionality is more than a list of bells and whistles.  Functionality describes the performance and processes of the website, so don’t just tell us what it is – tell us what it does. Rather than list what kind of database you’re using, tell us about the information that is traveling between your database and your website. What’s the back and forth flow of data? Why do people need it? Help us understand why the bells ring and the whistles blow.
  • Tell us what problems you’re trying to solve. We want to know what’s important to you in between the bullet points. What is the number one thing you’re trying to accomplish with this project? What would happen if you solved that problem? The right solution is only right if it solves your problems. If we know what you’re dealing with, then we can put our heads together and deliver a well-thought-out proposal.
  • Tell us about your existing technical environment. The devil is in the details so don’t leave anything out. What CMS is your current website built on? What language are you coding in? What third party integrations do we need to consider? Tell us everything (including what kind of tech team we’ll get to work with).
  •  Speaking of team…do you have one? A website is more of a process than a project and it can take a village. Who will share the workload and the glory when the new site launches? Who are the decision makers? The content writers? Who will manage the project? (If the answer to all of the last three questions was “Me”, consider recruiting some inside help in order to maintain your sanity.)  

Soliciting Responses

  • Don’t write your RFP from a template or from the corner office. If you’re sure that an RFP is the only way for you to do an apples-to-apples evaluation of prospective partners and solutions, then you need to put as much thought into it as you would expect an agency to put into the response. Don't write it in a vacuum. Talk to stakeholders throughout your organization about what they need from the website. The sales department may need something completely different than the IT department. Talk to your peeps. Find out what the must-haves are from the whole team and then be prepared to prioritize them.
  • Don’t paper the city with copies of your RFP. It will only create more work for your team and things can get pretty messy when you’re trying to sort apples from oranges. You went through a vetting process for a reason. Stick to the plan.
  • Understand the difference between a Budget and a Bid. Here’s the thing with bidding. Bidding assumes that all things are equal. That every solution will be made from the exact same materials and produce the exact same results. So if you need to buy 600 1.2 oz, stainless steel widgets– go ahead and get a bid on those. But if you need a custom website, do yourself a favor and strike the word bid from your vocabulary. A responsible web design firm will push back politely at the angst-ridden thought of quoting work before they understand the full scope of the job.  At SmallBox, we make it a practice to never quote farther than we can see. For your protection and ours. On the other hand, it’s perfectly okay to talk about budget and to ask for planning estimates. As long as you understand that an estimate is a well calculated guess based on what we know today. Solutions come in all sizes, and in all budget ranges. If you have a firm budget, tell us. Only then can we give you our best recommendation based on what we know you can invest. If we don’t think we can deliver the outcomes you want based on your budget, believe me – we’ll tell you.

  • Recognize that the RFP response is not the actual solution. It’s a proposal for how we’ll go about finding the solution. It’s the start of the process, not the end. A proposal should be easy to understand, providing a clear picture of the agency’s capabilities and recommended approach to your project. It should include examples and outcomes of relevant work and a clear path to completion. But it should not be so complete that it leaves no room for the actual work that needs to be done.  Be wary of anyone who comes to you with a solution before they fully understand the challenges or anyone who responds to your RFP without lots and lots of questions!

Do you create or respond to RFP's? What advice do you have for making the process run more smoothly between organizations and agencies?

Hero image via Sebastien Wiertz / Flickr, CC by 2.0.

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