(Updated for 2022!)
It’s the nature of the beast. In the website design business, you’re bound to get invited to respond to Requests for Proposals (RFPs). And after 20 years of doing this, we get a good number of requests. But we turn down many more than we respond to.
Interested in creating the perfect RFP for your website redesign project? We shall do our best to help.
First, Ask Yourself: Do You Really Need One?
We get it. I’ve seen website proposals from scores of companies, and they range from curiously vague to “wake me up when it’s over” comprehensive. I’m in the business, and I’ve read proposals where I can’t make heads or tails out of what they are quoting. We don’t blame folks for trying to better quantify what they need in order to get comparable quotes.
And if you are in need of an enterprise site with strict requirements, an RFP does make sense. Huge ecommerce store running on Magento? Check. 10,000 page college site built on Sitecore? Check. Projects like these exist within definable boundaries, and lend themselves to the constructs of an RFP (like it or not).
As for that 150 page corporate marketing site, the niche Shopify project or the reskin of an established WordPress site, the need is certainly questionable.
Diving for the Bottom
My biggest concern regarding the RFP process is this: It encourages respondents to find a solution that just meets the requirements at the lowest cost possible. After all, your response will be judged primarily on cost, so why include added value? Oh sure, every RFP allows for company background, history and previous work samples, but we all know that getting to the next step in the process is heavily dependent on cost. So, when responding, we have no choice but to quote services, work and components that aren’t the best – merely the cheapest. Imagine building a house this way. Sure, it might look great at first glance, but when the roof fails in the first storm, the windows are drafty and the cabinet doors fall off, you might question the choices you made.
Typically, a company will send out its web development RFP to 5-10 (sometimes more) companies. After all, once they’ve created the RFP, it’s no extra work to send it to as many firms as possible. And when they start pouring in, it’s easy to narrow the field. The old adage is painfully true: Get a handful of quotes, toss out the lowest and the highest, then muddle through the rest. The problem with that approach? Well, that lowest quote might have had an innovative idea to deliver what you wanted efficiently. And conversely, that highest quote might have identified a need that no one else – including you – realized you had, and it would have saved you thousands in the long run.
So, appreciate the position this puts the agency in. Most RFP processes start with the blind response, then a number (usually 3) of bidders will be selected for in-person presentations. We all want to get to that step, since it’s the biggest opportunity we’ll have. Here we get to show our personality, our competitive differences, how our solution is innovative, etc. But we know to get here, we’ll have to be competitively priced – which never addresses whether the solution is the right one.
We Have Created Our Own Problem
I’ve griped for years about the low barrier to entry within the digital marketing industry. It literally takes less than an hour of YouTube to learn how to download WordPress, install it and configure a theme. Folks do that 2-3 times, maybe even build a site for a paying customer, and next thing you know, they’ve proclaimed themselves a website developer. SEO and paid search are very much the same – stumble your way through a project or two, and the Dunning-Kruger effect kicks in. And then we get to compete against folks shouting from the peak of Mount Stupid.
There is not a governing body for the web development industry. There are no general practice guidelines, no competency tests and very little consequence for terrible work. As I mentioned previously, it can be hard to parse website proposals, even for those of us in the industry. So I completely understand why folks want to formalize the process. Make everything apples to apples, toss out the oranges and make an easy decision, right?
Well, that works when purchasing commodities like traffic cones or reams of paper. It doesn’t translate so well when you’re talking about creative services.
Bad News #1: The RFP Process Discourages Creative Solutions
The RFP process usually includes a short period for bidders to ask questions. The answers are usually shared with all the bidders to keep everything on a level playing field. This makes sense, until you consider that truly innovative firms don’t want to tip their hand on creative ideas.
One of the things we pride ourselves on here at ForeFront is our ability to uncover unique needs. We go through a very thorough initial interview, and sometimes 2-3 more meetings, before getting to the proposal stage. And when we provide a proposal, it’s an estimate based on what we think we know. For complex projects, we won’t even provide a firm number; we’ll give a budget range, then price out a Discovery session (typically 8-14 hours). It’s only after that session that we can provide a hard estimate. Why do we go to that extent? Well, for one thing, I can’t think of a single project where we haven’t uncovered a need or a want – or an innovative solution – that the client themselves didn’t think of.
Think about that process. We go through all those steps before providing a final number. With most RFPs, at best, we get to ask some basic questions that we know everyone else will see as well. Not only don’t we get anything close to the full picture, but we also have to play our cards close to the vest so others don’t try to benefit from our potential solution.
So in an effort to level the playing field, RFPs actually lower the playing field to a point that creative solutions are lost.
Bad News #2: The RFP Process Encourages Obfuscation
Let’s go back to the house scenario. Low bid wins? OK, well then, let’s use the lowest-grade shingle we can find and sub out that roofing crew I saw looking for work outside Lowe’s the other day. After all, you’ll never go on the roof to check it out, right?
If there’s a way to cut corners and save money, it will be done to keep the numbers low for RFP responses. And it’s not always easy to pinpoint where that is happening. Here’s another example:
Let’s say you have a need for simple event registration on your new site. Well, an agency could certainly build that as a bespoke solution that fits what you want exactly, but that would add 20-25 hours (at a minimum) to the project. Or they could use third-party software, and simply mention that their solution might be subject to “ongoing monthly costs.” It’s only after you start using the site that you get hit with hundreds of dollars a month in fees and a generic platform that doesn’t even suit your needs. But it fit within the RFP parameters!
Do You REALLY Want To Issue An RFP?
Remember this: If you ask bidders to adhere to a generic list, you’ll get a generic response. And I have yet to meet a client that comes to us and says, “I’d like a really generic website, with nothing unique and zero creativity.”
But coming full circle, how do you get comprehensive quotes that you can adequately compare?
Well, here’s what you really came here for. Here’s a great, step-by-step process that should get you to a happy conclusion. I’m not saying it’s the only way to get it done, but I do know this works.
Step 1: Get quality advice from someone you trust.
This might be the toughest step, but it’s absolutely worth it. Unless you have extensive knowledge (and aren’t just residing on Mount Stupid), you’ll need someone to guide you. There is no such thing as one solution that fits everyone; websites are custom beasts created specifically for each organization. You cannot treat them like a commodity.
Most digital marketing agencies will offer this as part of consulting services. For the most part, it’s what we do during our discovery sessions – ask a ton of questions and try to determine what the difficult aspects of the project are.
From this, you should walk away with a better idea of:
- What platform you need (WordPress, Shopify, etc.)
- A general idea of the number of pages you need
- A general idea of what pages you need
- The “hot points” (areas of most importance)
- The “risk points” (areas that will be most challenging)
- A good idea of content strategy – who is writing what?
- What other services you need, such as social media management, SEO, SEM and branding
- A plan for hosting and what hosting services you need
Step 2: Do some research.
Even if you weren’t able to complete Step 1, you can still do some vetting of the plethora of small business web design companies out there. A great place to start is simple: just spend some time researching websites. Some strategies:
- Always check portfolios. If their style doesn’t match what you have in mind, or their examples are old and outdated, walk away.
- See if they have a staff or employee page. A lack of one could indicate a one-person shop, or that they outsource, or both (but not always!). These may not be deal-breakers, but you’ll want to know.
- If SEO is important, see how the company ranks for obvious keywords. If they are truly proficient, they’ll show up on the first page. Don’t believe the BS that “we’re so busy doing SEO for others that we haven’t had time to focus on our own SEO.”
Step 3: Create a list of questions to vet prospective agencies.
Admittedly, this might be a selfish step. Within most RFPs, there are typically requests for company background, portfolios, experience and the like. But if you have strict requirements, why make an agency go through the entire process just to be tossed because they don’t have X years of experience? At the very least, you’ve saved yourself the time and trouble of going through an RFP just to find out they don’t qualify.
Things to ask:
- How many years in business/years of actual experience with a project of your scope do they have?
- How familiar are they with your industry or product? I wouldn’t rule someone out with this, but certainly it helps when a company has similar experience. And it would certainly factor in when weighing costs.
- Staffing structure – how many people, and what do they do? If they have 6 salespeople, 3 customer service reps, one designer and one developer, there’s a problem.
- How long have people worked there? High turnover is a giant warning sign.
- Will any aspect of your project need to be subcontracted, and if so, what work? And to whom? Again – this isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker, but definitely something to know. We have strategic partners that we’ve used for years for niche elements. But if the answer is that we sub things out to Fiverr … well …
- For an overall, big picture view of their project management process.
- What is their discovery process like?
- What is their design process? Do they have designers on staff? UI/UX specialists?
- Do they have content writers?
- What is their experience with SEO, or do they sub that work out?
- Any other qualify/disqualify questions.
If there are wishlist items or aspects of your project that you aren’t 100% sure about, list them! Describe what you are trying to accomplish, and ask the agency for their ideas on how to solve them. This is a great method to get an idea of internal capabilities and creative solutions.
Step 4: Create your “RFP”
Once you’ve narrowed your list, create your RFP. Or better yet, call it something else, like a Budgetary Estimate. Look, it does open up the possibility that someone will “lowball” the quote just to get to the next step, but that will become pretty obvious and easy to dismiss. Legitimate contenders are going to submit a realistic budget and list the primary variables.
Note: RFPs do not need to be 50-page documents! For the most part, you’ll simply provide the list that you created in Step 1. If you have wishlist items or nebulous requests, allow bidders to quote or list these separately. It can be extremely tough to accurately describe everything in ways that everyone will understand. You don’t want to disqualify someone simply because of a misinterpretation.
Depending on how much you were able to narrow your list, you may want to consider scheduling individual meetings or calls with each bidder before they submit. Not only is this a great way for agencies to get a better understanding of what you are looking for, but you will also get a good sense of what their experience level is and how qualified they are to build what you want.
Step 5: Evaluation and Selection
Hopefully, by now, an agency or two has risen to the top. There are still many warning signs and things to look for, but there are too many factors to list here (looks like we have a topic for a future post).
Scott Kasun started ForeFront Web in 2001 and specializes in strategy, design and UI/UX. He still likes to dabble in programming, and our actual developers have locked him out of more websites than we can count. You can follow him on Twitter @scottkasun.