RFPs: My 3 Requests For Vendors Responding to Them

Posted on March 9, 2011 Under Management

To follow up from my earlier post giving three lessons for people issuing RFPs, here are three requests I’d like to make of the people answering them.

1. Read everything before you ask questions.

I know, I didn’t think I’d have to say this, either. But here are a couple questions we’ve gotten recently:

  • “What is the budget for this project?” If you read my last post, you know that I believe in including budget ranges, and yes, our budget was in that RFP.
  • “We can possibly include an option to do XYZ if you think that’s a direction you would like to take? Let us know what you think.” The RFP was less than a page long and our requirement to do XYZ was in the first line under the heading “Deliverables.”

To the people who do read carefully — thank you! You pose thoughtful questions and help us toward better results. Any question that starts with a reference to our proposal is promising. Here are a few that launched productive conversations:

  • “We’re concerned that the deadline you’ve set is very ambitious. What is driving it and how flexible is it?”
  • “How fixed are you on your request for multiple design concepts? We have good results with a more collaborative approach, where we iterate rapidly on one design concept every couple of days.”
  • “It seems that a big part of this project is likely to be stakeholder management. Could you tell us more about the key decision-makers and the sign-off process?”

2. Follow the process outlined in the RFP.

Again, these are based on real-life examples within the past year.

  • If we ask you to email your questions, don’t expect me to be happy when you track me down through the receptionist and ask me questions by phone. I’m sure you thought you were being diligent and personal, but I was in the middle of something else and this is not a good way for me to give you a thoughtful response.

  • If we ask you to include specific information in your response, please supply it. We asked for it because it will help us make a decision. Here’s a response, in its entirety, that we had hoped would contain, among other things, a proposed project schedule:

    I’d like to be considered in the mix. Here’s a link to my website: [omitted to protect the guilty]

  • If you use a template for your response, tailor it. I know that templates make it possible to respond to RFPs efficiently, and I appreciate the need for them. But, if our RFP asks for design only, please delete the paragraphs about coding HTML from your template. (Or, leave them in but acknowledge that those services might be out of scope.)

3. Choose wisely whether to respond.

This request is the main reason I wanted to write this post. Here’s a story of a good decision:

For our full site redesign, we were asked to share the list of all the firms replying. A firm I’ll call WiseThinkers looked over the list and saw competitors who were better qualified to deliver what we wanted. The principal called me and graciously excused WiseThinkers from the process. He explained that we were clearly in good hands and they wouldn’t be able to add a better option to our slate of choices.

This was exactly the right move for him. It showed me that he knew his firm’s strengths and that he valued their time and ours. It also let him reiterate to us the kinds of projects that WiseThinkers is best suited to delivering for us.

I wish all the firms had been as thoughtful. Two other firms, which I’ll call LeapQuickly and SureWeDoThat, reviewed that same list of vendors and decided to forge ahead with their responses.

They delivered proposals that were clearly outside their core skills, and both their proposals were weak and off-target. LeapQuickly declared about a third of the project to be “out of scope.” SureWeDoThat didn’t even acknowledge that part of the project. In both cases, I was left uncertain about their judgment and unenthusiastic about working with them on future projects.

You might wonder whether we could have done more to target our invitations, which is the last of the three lessons I shared in my previous post. Yes, probably. But there’s also no way that a potential client like me can know your company as well as you do. We should try as hard as we can to get RFPs into the right hands, but if we misjudge, it’s an excellent chance for you to show that you are like WiseThinkers.

To wrap up…

Some people hate RFPs, and it’s true that they’re not the right tool for every project. But when RFPs work, they are great for focusing a conversation. And when they haven’t worked for us, I can generally point to sloppiness, vagueness or unrealistic thinking from either us or the vendor, and occasionally both.

If we each do our part well, we get what everyone wants: A good match between a vendor and a job, and a project we can all be proud of. Again, thank you to all the vendors who read carefully and respond thoughtfully.

Whether you’re a vendor or a client, please share your lessons and stories here. I’m curious to know what we still have to learn.