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Andy Rutledge

Professionalism:The Trouble with RFPs

December 26, 2012 | By Andy Rutledge

Originally published in August of 2009, this mildly edited version warrants revisiting today.

Gentlemen do not associate with the kind of woman who delights in compelling men to fight each other to win her attentions. Everyone knows that her choice is not based on suitability and mutual respect, but rather on sheer competitive success in an arena shaped by her wanton ego. Such women are relegated to randy brutes, not gentlemen suitors. Respectable members of the community have slight regard and particular names for this sort of woman.

The crude relationships that come from this kind of scenario have predictable outcomes, as do the similar relationships involving companies who use indiscriminately broadcast RFPs alone to garner bids and the misguided agencies who respond to them.

This article is directed not at design professionals, but rather at owners, CMOs, and managers of companies who are now or may soon be in need of design services.

While RFPs (Request For Proposals) have their proper place, a search for the right design agency is not one of them. If you habitually employ RFPs as the starting point for your company’s web projects, think about the scenario at the start of this article. In your quest find a suitable partner, I suggest that you stop thinking like a feckless floozie and start behaving like a responsible business person.

If you are someone responsible for engaging with design professionals, I hope you take this article to heart. As for your finding it useful, I don’t have to hope; it’s a simple certainty that this information will save you time, trouble, and probably thousands to tens of thousands of dollars.

RFPs are not all bad, but…

The trouble with most people’s ideas about RFPs, pro and con, is that folks tend to judge all of them in all circumstances equally. This is a mistake. RFPs have their place and can be quite effective in the right circumstances. Largely, these circumstances are found in dealings with commodities. In fact, you may have found the RFP to be an essential instrument of your core business dealings. In light of such experience, the proven value of an RFP may lead you into believing that it is equally valuable in your quest to find just the right design agency to redesign your website or build your application. But there’s a hitch.

Professional design service is not a commodity. Oh, design does exist as a commodity, at the proverbial bottom of the barrel. It is not my purpose here to disparage any specific agency, but the commodity design agencies are pretty much the only ones in the habit of answering RFPs. You’ll often find their campy ads in magazines, touting “business solutions.” These agencies are a dime a dozen …true commodities.

Commodity design service
C’mon, take a chance. We’re all things to all people!

Commodity Design Service

It stands to reason that in the context of design commodity, only poor results are possible. As I expect that you’re after something a bit better than poor results, you should not waste your time dealing with design as a commodity. Nor should you seek to enlist the services of professionals but then deal with them as you would a commodity.

Treat any professional as a commodity and you will have effectively destroyed any chance for your project’s success. Just as in the scenario at the start of this article, professionals do not associate with the kind of client who displays little more than powerful needs and a lack of values. We regard this sort of client as suited only to the randy brutes of the design world; those that relish nothing more than butting heads with the other mindless suitors vying for a chance to lay with a new client.

When dealing with professionals, an RFP is less an instrument of efficiency and effectiveness and more a proclamation of myopia and unsuitability. As a responsible business person, you should be rather attentive to how your actions speak for you and for your company. Granted, these contextual problems of RFPs may be new to you and ignorance may be bliss, but it’s also destructive. I can scarcely believe you would willingly invite this sort of damage into your business. So let me offer you some advice.

A professional’s perspective

I think the preceding makes clear the general, philosophically contextual inappropriateness of RFPs for attracting the right design agency, but I want to touch on some specifics and detail some (but certainly not all) of the problems with RFPs. The following is simply my perspective, but I’ll wager that all responsible professionals would agree with these assessments.

No responsible agency can bid a project simply from an RFP.

Bidding a project is based on loads of information that cannot be found in an RFP. This fact alone should preclude any responsible company from employing or answering one. What’s more, asking for a bid in this way is a clear indication that you regard design and development as pure commodities. Only the most irresponsible agency principles will enter into a relationship on such a basis. Also, by using an RFP you’re asking for my commitment before either of us knows anything about the other …and that’s just plain dumb.

An RFP typically circumvents relevant communication.

The first step in any client/agency inquiry should be concerned with getting to know one another in order to gauge mutual suitability. Yes, mutual suitability. Sure, I need to know what your project is about and what you’re generally expecting, but I also need to get to know you and discover if you meet my criteria. I need to know if you’re the type of client I’m willing to commit my team and my brand to working with. You need to know how my team works and what I will demand of you. Only after getting to know one another can we then decide whether to move on to details or to part ways.

An RFP puts the cart before the horse.

RFPs are typically voluminous and filled with loads of information that is irrelevant to a first step. It therefore embodies a waste of effort and reflects poorly on your company.

An RFP indicates you don’t understand professional relationships.

Professional relationships are built on mutual responsibility and respect. An RFP demands strictly one-sided responsibility (from the “vendor”) and indicates a low measure of regard. It also indicates that you are mostly interested in maintaining control of the project rather than asking the design professionals to apply their expertise for your benefit. It is unlikely that you or your staff is practiced at running design projects, so it is unseemly and irresponsible to attempt to seize control from the beginning.

An RFP places emphasis on the wrong things.

RFPs invite competition, not suitability. An RFP basically asks, in spirit or in plain text, that I dazzle you with bullshit …in combination with the lowest bid. None of this has anything to do with our getting to know one another, or anything else that makes for a successful project.

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At this point, you may be thinking about the seemingly endless parade of popular and supposedly successful companies that regularly employ RFPs for their web projects. You read about these companies and their RFPs in trade magazines every week. You may wonder, “If RFPs are good enough for them, why not for us?”

Well, you’ve been fooled by appearances. You have to remember the context involved. Those companies are in the habit of wasting huge amounts of money. They are often large enough and, like a talentless pop star, glamorous enough that they don’t need to behave professionally or adhere to good values in order to garner attention. And, like the wanton floozie at the start of this article, they generally deal with only the brutish sort of design agency; those practiced at participating in tragic projects marked by unprofessional characteristics.

You never hear about how well those projects went. No one ever talks about those things because there is seldom if ever anything admirable or exemplary in the results. And you seldom if ever hear of the company continuing to work with the agency they found with their RFP. “One and done” is the phrase, and it generally indicates failure.
So what should you do?

As a responsible custodian of your company and your brand, you should put forth some effort. No kidding, if you’re not prepared to roll up your sleeves and work toward your own project’s success, no agency on earth will do you any good. With that in mind, here’s a list of suggestions for how to go about finding the right agency.

Do pick your target(s) and know why you did.

Rather than invite the attention of every warm body within the sound of your RFP, pursue only the folks you already strongly suspect are right for your project. Do your research and know precisely why you want to work with the 1 to 3 agencies you have in mind.

If you don’t know where to start, ask someone you respect to give you a recommendation, or simply invade the online design community and see who is getting respect from the others and who is working on interesting, relevant projects. Then visit each candidate’s website(s) and see if it and the work the agency has produced inspires confidence. Generally, put the requisite time and effort into picking the ones that are likely right for you. Then make contact and let them know why you’re pursuing them; it will reflect well on you that you seem to know what you’re doing, and why.

Do call or email with only very basic information and invite follow-up.

There’s no need to make first contact with your life’s story. Let the agency know who you are, what you want to do, and ask if they are interested in talking with you about the project. It would be nice if you’d also let them know how you found them. Do not initiate this first contact on Friday afternoon.

Do have a candid conversation. Or two. Or five.

When you do get to speak, in-person or by phone, be prepared to have an actual conversation. Do so when you have plenty of time and are not rushed. A competent agency rep. will have quite a few questions for you, and you should have quite a few of your own prepared. Know why you’re asking those questions and how they will help you to gauge mutual suitability.

The initial conversations may take more than one meeting or phone call. However, if you have a specific budget, let the agency know right up front. Professionals are not at all squeamish about discussing financial matters. Also, budget discussions are a quick and painless way to qualify against an important element of mutual suitability. Just do it.

Do invite the agency to offer a bid.

But only after both you and they have provided and received answers to the requisite questions. A competent agency rep. will tell you when to expect the bid and will then describe a deadline for your getting back to them with an answer. An incompetent agency rep. will not.

Do respond by the bid response deadline.

And if you have chosen not to accept the bid or have otherwise removed the agency from your consideration, do let them know immediately. Long silence or missed deadlines make you and your company look unprofessional and unsuitable as a client.

In conclusion

I think that what all of this boils down to is that you’re going to get better results if you directly pursue competent professionals and treat them accordingly. Expect excellence, but don’t presume to find it by using less-than-excellent methods. An RFP might be an important component of your general business dealings, but never use one to engage professionals.

A design project involves a professional relationship and you’d do well to consider initiating that relationship the same way you’d initiate any other serious relationship. Otherwise, you and your company will garner the wrong sort of reputation. Word gets around. I know of companies that have abused their relationships with one or more design agencies and now find that competent professionals are unwilling to work with them. Theirs is not a result you want to emulate.

Remember, in business—as in life—you attract what you project. There is no exception to this rule. If you’re after something other than brutish attention, act like it. There are agencies out there that are prepared to commit to your success and there are agencies out there that are committed only to winning your project fee. There’s a difference. Be conscious of that difference. Aspire to be better and to enjoy better results.

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Background photo by Amshudhagar.