RFPs - Are They Effective?

In certain circumstances, RFPs (Requests for Proposals) may be unavoidable. Government organizations, for instance, are mandated to use them in an effort to promote fair and open competition. A web design and development firm just starting out may feel responding to RFPs is the only way they can get their foot in the door, and junior developers stand to gain knowledge and experience through the proposal-writing process. However, for the average business owner attempting to acquire creative services, the RFP’s effectiveness is questionable. The RFP brings with it a set of limitations that are difficult to circumvent, and this can be detrimental to your company, producing inferior end products. Moreover, frequently relying on RFPs could potentially jeopardize your professional image as a client of the web development industry, and along with that, your relationships and standing with the bigger agencies.

Let’s take a look at some of the obstacles RFPs present to the web development process:

Lack of Communication and/or Miscommunication about Project Requirements

Often times, an RFP will contain stipulations that bar candidates from contacting stakeholders directly, which either means there is no communication at all, or if there is, then it is relegated to formal written exchanges (like e-mail). This prevents the open dialogue that not only informs the development and design process but is also very integrally a part of it. In many cases, a competent web developer can establish direction more firmly from a 10 minute conversation than he/she could from 100 e-mails back and forth. (In person or over the phone, the web developer can also gauge reactions/receptivity from non-verbal body language cues and voice inflections.) Dialogue is an absolute necessity in order to glean the needs of the client and the subsequent course of action—which may be entirely different from the original vision outlined in the RFP.

Lack of Clarity

An RFP tends to over-emphasize the mundane or inconsequential details of a project while lacking clarity on the true objectives. For a web developer, filling out an RFP can be a tedious hoop-jumping exercise, which does not benefit the outcome, especially in the cases where the clients do not actually know what they want and are hoping for ideas. This is a legitimate juncture to arrive at and absolutely the appropriate time to onboard a web development agency; however, the RFP should not be your vehicle to establish direction. If you are still this unclear, then what you need is a consultation to clarify your goals and determine the web product that will best suit your needs.

Time and Resources Consumed

RFPs are not the most productive use of time, for either side of the fence. For the bidders, there is no guarantee of business, regardless of the hours and resources invested in the proposal, and for the soliciting company, time is lost combing through detailed responses, most of which are not pertinent to the initial stage of project development anyway. RFPs cost everyone time and manpower. You may also inadvertently burn bridges as the web development agencies that were not selected are less likely to bid in the future and may resent having had their time wasted.

RFPs Block Opportunities for Creative Insight

You won’t get a web development agencies' best work through an RFP because an RFP doesn’t allow the flexibility or open mindedness necessary for true creativity. It pigeon-holes designers into filling out a series of boxes for a project that they may already know won’t work as first conceived. Remember that development services are being sought for a reason. If clients had all of the answers, they wouldn’t need developers in the first place. It therefore behoves you to let the developers do what they do best: solution architecture. As a client, what you are purchasing is not just the website or design project itself but access to the knowledge and expertise of development professionals. Take full advantage of their insights. Step back and let them show you some options or directions you hadn’t considered. Design and creativity are fluid. The best results come from the dynamic exchange of ideas between client and designer.

Protect Your Own Reputation

While this may sound harsh, the use of RFPs telegraphs a degree of disrespect and misunderstanding of the development process. For this reason, many established web design and development firms avoid them altogether and will decline to bid, even after receiving a personal invitation to join the competition. This should tell you something... Unfortunately, it is often the most junior and desperate of web developers that will throw their hats in the ring as RFPs encourage competitiveness rather than innovation and reward agencies that will undersell their development work (or worse—they lack skills and experience and their work truly is worth less than their competitors’). It is important to note that consistently participating in RFPs reflects on all parties involved. This includes you, as the solicitor. Remember that acquiring creative services is a two-way street. You don’t want to give the top-quality web development professionals a reason not to work with you in the future (based on the image of your company you are projecting). Protect your own professional image by conducting all business interactions with decorum, respect, and integrity.

Take-away Tips for Acquiring and Using Web Development and Design Services

  • Do your research before requesting bids.
  • Ask around for recommendations.
  • From research and recommendations, create a shortlist of web design & development agencies.
  • Consult with agencies to determine possible solutions.
  • Utilize developers’ expertise and knowledge to guide your course of action.
  • Don’t take up too much of their time until you can commit to one agency.
  • Be courteous and respectful; you are establishing a business relationship as well as your own reputation within an industry.
  • Don’t give anyone a reason not to work with you!