10 min read
How to write the best RFP
As a member of Ntara’s New Business Team, we’ve responded to eight RFPs within the last seven months. And although our team is historically very selective about participating in any RFP process, throughout this RFP season, our team has realized something very important.
The number one rule of an RFP is: DON'T WRITE ONE
And the reason for this is simple; they’re typically very poorly written. A crappy RFP will preclude your team from gaining the best talent or any talent, for that matter. You’ll be left choosing from the agencies that are desperate enough to respond to anything.
Instead, we recommend that you first conduct a Request for Information (RFI) from a short list of agencies with which you’re interested in working, then schedule time to further screen the agencies in question by inviting them on-site to deliver their best pitch presentation. Then, only if necessary, engage in an RFP.
But—if you’re an employee at a company that is forced to conduct an RFP, Ntara has four simple tips on how to create the best one possible. These recommendations will help you craft an RFP, if necessary, to which an agency will WANT to respond. And it will provide your team with the best roster from which you can hand-pick the perfect partner of your choice.
1. Be prepared.
2. Be honest.
3. Be courteous.
4. Be open.
1. Be prepared
For most RFPs, our team spends an average of 20 hours simply organizing all the RFP documentation in a way that we can easily share and collaborate across our team. And every hour an agency spends trying to better organize your RFP is an hour they’re not spending on value-ading work to best accomplish your digital challenge. Poor preparation on an RFP creates a very rough start to any relationship, and it could make your organization appear inexperienced and unprofessional. More simply put, we’ll reject out of hand any RFP that comes across as disorganized and/or incomplete simply because we know it reflects a client that isn’t right for us.
Get your house in order
Work diligently with your team to identify a specific project with measurable goals and clearly defined business logic. Your team should be able to answer a few basic questions:
• Why are we doing this project?
• Is there data to support our project requirements instead of an anecdote, assumption, or feeling of intuition?
• Is this project a WANT or a NEED?
• How will this project impact our organization’s bottom line?
• Is there executive buy-in from our company’s leadership team?
• Do we have a defined budget for this project?
Before you spend time mapping the details of your project, you must establish business and technical requirements, define your budget, and secure a project champion within your executive team.
Next, determine whether your team is in need of a single project or a long-term, full-blown digital agency partnership. If you’re asking for a project, do just that. Ask for ONE project in your RFP. If you’re in need of a digital overhaul, and you’re looking for a new agency to handle all digital projects, an RFP is the wrong approach.
Our team recommends beginning with a Request for Information (RFI). An RFI is a preliminary, formal process for gathering information from potential digital service providers. This engagement helps to identify the capabilities of suppliers and helps better inform the purchasing decision. RFIs are a fantastic resource if very little information is known about the prospective supplier, or if there is a large playing field. Training Industry states, “RFIs reduce the time and costs involved in evaluating potential suppliers and help ensure that bid participants are directly aligned with the needs of the buying company.”
RFIs are much easier to execute than RFPs, and they help position the business and all responding agency teams for success. RFIs are low investment, allowing an organization to identify which agencies are best suited to include in an RFP—and whether it even needs to go that far.
If your organization launches a full-fledged RFP, commit to investing significant time and resources. This is what you expect from your agencies; it’s what you should also expect from yourself. Allocate cross-functional experts from your organization as stakeholders on this project. Your team should be devoted, strategic, and informed from start to finish. If a digital agency sniffs out chaos, you might miss out on a hidden gem of a partner.
Tighten up the details
Streamline all communication through one team member, and make sure they’re not going on vacation in the middle of your RFP process.
Do not send multiple versions of documents, design comps, or code. If your team is not ready to send documents for review, you’re not ready to begin an RFP. Also, keep in mind that providing multiple versions and updates in the middle of an RFP can cause confusion, increase project risk, and often send your service providers back to square one.
Do not send an RFP with any typos, misspellings, or grammatical errors. If you’re willing to strike a service provider from the list because of these careless errors, don’t commit them yourself. Remember that agencies are evaluating you, too. Simply put, as mom always says, “Make sure you have your ducks in a row.”
Organize your Q&A session
Think of your Q&A session like a job interview. Your team needs to level the playing field and afford all potential candidates an equal opportunity to shine. This cannot be accomplished by only meeting in a group session. Ever been on a conference call with six people you’ve never met before, you don’t know their names, you’re all in different locations, and there is no agenda with any clear moderator? It’s as nightmarish as it sounds, and it’s very difficult to actually remain anonymous on these calls as you’re vying for recognition. The way we see it, the group session is best supplemented in one of two ways:
Good: Allow partners to submit their questions to you. Provide timely responses, IN WRITING, and provide them the opportunity for follow-up. For best results, request that all candidates submit their questions prior to a scheduled call. On the call, ensure all partners remain anonymous and answer each previously submitted question. At the end, give agencies the opportunity to ask additional or follow-up questions.
Best: Personally arrange one-on-one interview with each agency. Let them do the majority of the talking. Give them time to ask your team questions. Pay close attention to how well they know your business and get a feel for how invested they are in your company.
The sole purpose of an RFP Q&A for your team is to see how agencies respond with smart questions and to allow agencies the opportunity to prove value by poking holes in your strategy. Your team should only invite the best of the best to the table. Did the potential candidate respond in a timely manner? Do they appear organized? Did they ask superb questions? Do they understand your organizational needs? Critically analyze the participating partners during the Q&A session. This will simplify your team’s review process at the end of the RFP.
Don’t include more than three vendors in the selection round of your RFP. Don’t settle; only include partners that really impress your team and that you really want to work with. Experienced and professional agencies should ask how many agencies are participating in the RFP. The odds are always important to excellent service providers.
2. Be honest
There are two sides to this coin; one greatly benefits your own organization, and the other is more beneficial for a potential partner.
During an RFP, honesty is always the best policy. What is your team REALLY looking for? It’s important to be real with yourself before asking anything of a potential partner. If you have a favored agency going into the RFP, pick legitimate competition that is right-sized in terms of number of employees, service offerings, and experience. Only include service providers to which you’re willing to give the business. Most importantly, don’t feel obligated to include a digital agency in your RFP simply to widen the field. If they do great design work, but don’t work with your preferred technology platform, don’t include them in an RFP for code development.
Our biggest recommendation here: if you’re fishing for a new partner to rescue a project at the hands of an underperforming agency, be very up-front with bidding candidates, and explicitly state this. It can be awkward and sometimes pretty confrontational when one agency takes the place of another, so your team should do everything possible to make the transition a smooth one. Be prepared to answer any questions about why you’re changing agencies.
The best relationships are built on a foundation of trust—and trust does not exist without honesty. If a new partner is expected to come into a project for a rescue, it is incredibly beneficial to your team to properly prepare all parties involved. A new-to-you agency team cannot meet your project requirements or timeline without the support and buy-in of any existing or previous partners. If your team is open to and planning a complete digital agency transition, be sure to ask for a partner’s process and track record within the RFP directly. It will alert the new agencies that you’re preparing for this, and it will allow your team to fully understand if a new digital agency is the right one for your team.
3. Be courteous
As with most situations in life, the Golden Rule also applies to RFPs. Treat other agencies (which are businesses, just like yours) the same way your team would expect to be treated. Don’t ask for an RFP respondent to provide free solutions to your technical problems. While it is perfectly acceptable to attempt to scope an engagement for business requirements or technical requirements in an RFP, it is not OK to expect an agency to provide these deliverables entirely outright before receiving any type of compensation. No work for free.
One of the biggest new business challenges that mid-sized agencies face is balancing RFP responses with other ongoing initiatives and activities. For this reason, your team must be reasonable in the timeline of deliverables. It’s not unheard of for an agency to spend 100-120 hours to research, respond to, and prepare a presentation for a well-written RFP. That is an entire week’s work for three full-time employees. If your organization is going to carry out a strategic RFP using valuable resources on your end, it’s only logical to give responding agencies enough time to craft a quality response.
Courtesy should carry on even after the official RFP is rewarded. Once a service provider has been chosen, we highly recommend contacting those that were not selected to tell them WHY they were not selected. Providing feedback to the losing agencies helps provide agencies the opportunity for continuous improvement, and that only increases the quality of RFP responses your team will receive in the future. Be willing to explain what you liked about their response and what they could have done differently.
It’s also our experience that you will want to leave the proverbial door open. Don’t ever leave someone hanging; if the agency you selected didn’t perform the way you had hoped, you could find yourself back in the market. And what better way to transition the work to an agency that’s already participated in your RFP process and knows the ins and outs of the project? We’ve found that the digital partner landscape is incredibly well-connected where everybody knows everybody. As such, it’s crucial to maintain a level of courtesy and respect.
4. Be open
Your team is open to hiring an expert service provider because you do not have all the expertise and/or manpower in house. While your team might have spent months, hours, and tons of internal resources to develop a “bullet-proof” RFP, be open to the experts’ advice or opinions.
Any agency worth its salt will respond to your RFP using its most strategic thinkers who can read between the lines of your request. Our team is empathetic to a business’s challenges, and we deploy a multi-disciplinary approach for expertise across our service offerings—development, design, integrated marketing, quality assurance, and account management. While our new business team leads the RFP process at Ntara, we usually respond with input from our most tenured team members, as they have decades of diverse experiences to pull from and fill in the blanks of what your organization is trying to accomplish.
If we read your RFP and determine that your organization is not ready for a full ecommerce deployment, we will recommend an engagement that IS right for you. Your selected agency is not an order-taker; they’re a strategic partner. A great RFP should allow the partner to make strategic recommendations, because they serve to benefit your organization. After all, you wouldn’t be doing an RFP if you didn’t need help. Let them help you!
Our team also requests that you meet with us, face-to-face, before you select a partner. During your RFP, build into the timeline an allocation for in-person, on-site formal presentations of the RFP response.
The cultural fit of an organization and a digital service provider is just as important as the solutions a service provider will build and create. Before spending six figures, look your new team members in the eye. It’s even better if you can visit the digital agency you’re considering, and see “where the magic happens.” Walk the halls, kick the tires, shake hands, and kiss the babies. You’ll never regret spending more time up-front with a partner you’ll possibly work with for years to come. And we bet you’ll have a little more fun along the way, too.
So, what's the point?
RFPs are usually a red herring. Organizations are not looking for just a proposal, they’re looking for a partner. The team who is going to collaborate with a digital partner day-in and day-out should not be interested in an arranged marriage, hastily forced upon them by procurement.
You would never hire someone without meeting them first. Nor would you offer them a position if they lead with a salary requirement before first describing their skill-set, demonstrating they have relevant experience, and are deemed both a cultural and competent fit for the job. This same logic applies to an RFP. A well-crafted RFP response is a massive time commitment for an agency of any size with no guarantee. Many agencies won’t consider answering RFPs at all, and your team could be walking away from the best partner for the job without even meeting them. Organizations are not going to find the best fit for their project through this process.
For the third consecutive year, marketing budgets are on the rise. And 24% of marketing leaders expect their digital advertising budget to increase in 2017. Marketing professionals are building a top-notch team of talented external resources.
But in the end, picking a solution provider is less about selecting what’s going to be built and how much it will cost. It’s more about picking the right players to add to your extended team and making sure your organization vets them correctly. Simply put, you’re not just buying a product; you’re entering into a relationship.
Ntara still participates in RFPs, but not every one we receive. We’re selective. This is because we are sympathetic to the companies within our target client base. Some of our preferred customers HAVE to go through this time-consuming process in order to bring a valuable new player to the table. These companies often have the greatest need for a digital partner, and we want to help.
If your team is considering the development of an RFP, call us first. We can help you determine if you really need one and, if so, define clear, objective parameters to find the best fit possible for your organization.