The Problem with RFPs and What to Do Instead

Business Outcomes

Let’s say you need to hire an employee to fix a specific problem in your business. To find that person, you post a job – but it turns out that the perfect candidate was looking for a different job title, so they didn’t find your posting. What a huge loss for your organization!

This same issue – missing out on the best solution for your organization because of sourcing missteps – can rear its head when it comes to hiring someone to build your web app or mobile app. In turn, that miss often leads to failed software products, costing you time, money and internal resources.

Let’s talk about how to avoid all of that.

The problems with RFPs

Most companies think about hiring a digital product vendor in the same way as hiring an employee. They put out an RFP, accept a whole bunch of responses, and then have to sort through the responses to find a couple of providers that sound good before meeting them.

The issue is that proposals aren’t 1-2 page resumes — they are usually 20-100 page documents and they don’t actually tell you if someone is good at the work, just that they can most likely accomplish a list of items at a specific price and timeline. They also don’t let you know if you’ll like working with that firm or if they have a different idea that could help you meet your goal.

RFPs help you hire someone that can tick off the boxes on a piece of paper. They don’t help you hire a partner that can help you find boxes you didn’t know exist.

Ideally, you should be looking to hire an expert to help your organization meet your goals. You want to use everything that expert has to offer – and that includes their strategic mindset on how to solve the problem (not just check off a list of requirements).

You also want to hire a company that you want to work with for several months, maybe even years. This comes down to more than just values written on a piece of paper. It will boil down to the every day things that company does — how they organize their projects, how they communicate, if they are huge jerks, and so on. A piece of paper won’t really tell you that.

To be blunt, RFPs are a disservice to both the client and the agency. Over the years, we’ve learned there are better ways to hiring a web or app development firm that creates better results for both parties.

What can I do instead of an RFP?

Instead of using an RFP, we recommend using the process below. We find that this process not only takes less time overall, but also results in client-firm relationships that are a better fit for the project at hand — and are better suited to becoming long-term partnerships.

There are two critical items you want to think about when picking a vendor:

  1. Can this company help us meet our goals?
  2. Do I want to work with this company intimately for the duration of the project and then in an ongoing engagement?

While the RFP process can sometimes partially answer these questions, the process we suggest below will answer them more completely — and give you more peace of mind as you make your decision.

Do some research

Figuring out if a company can help you meet your goals can be tricky, especially if you don’t build software products on a regular basis. Luckily, most companies provide a portfolio on their website. This is a good place to start. You can look at the type of work that company produces, the clients they work for (this might help you evaluate if your budget is in their price range), and if the company links to the live product, download it or view it on the web and play around with it.

A key thing to look for when reading portfolios or case studies revolved around what the company is focussed on. Are they discussing cutting-edge, innovative design solutions? Are they focused on the results of the work? Or do they dig into the difficult development problems? Consider which of those things is most important to your business. You can want a little bit of all three, but one of them has to have the most value to your organization.

people having a conversation around a board room table

Have conversations

Much like you would interview a prospective employee, the best way to evaluate a vendor is by talking to them. This can take place over the phone, in person or on a video call (we recommend having at least one in-person or video call). This can also take place across a couple of conversations.

Reach out to vendors that seem like they fit what you are working on to schedule a quick phone call. You should be ready to explain your project goals, timeline and budget (a digital project brief is handy here). This allows your potential vendor to disqualify themselves if they can’t deliver on your project, if they don’t do the type of work you are looking for, if your timeline or budget doesn’t fit their work, or to opt out for other reasons if your project just isn’t a good fit for their business. This is a good opportunity to see what kind of questions the firm asks you about your project and what they are excited about.

The conversations you have with the company will let you get a good idea of who the company is and the values they carry through and — more importantly — how they communicate to their clients. Is your main point of contact blunt and direct or do they flower up their language? Do they always respond to every email right away or do they sit for a few days? There isn’t a right answer to these questions. The right answer is what fits with how you want to work and be communicated to on a day-to-day basis during the project. This is less of a decision about if you like the company involved and more of a decision of if you like how that company works — although it doesn’t hurt to hire companies that you also like.

An important conversation to have with any vendor you are considering is how they work and the expectations they have for you throughout the project. They should be able to clearly take you through their process and where you will be involved. For example, how do they uncover what precisely to build within your budget – what features your product should contain? It’s even better if they can show you a project in their project management software and walk you through what you will see and what you should expect as a client. If your vendor doesn’t use project management software, it is a red flag as it might indicate a lack of organization and prioritization within the vendor’s team.

Not sure how to evaluate a prospective digital firm? Use this checklist.

There are good questions and bad questions when it comes to evaluating potential vendors for your next digital project. Make sure you're asking the right ones using this free checklist of 10 questions, and help ensure you choose the right firm for your project.

Speak to references

Once you’ve started a conversation with a couple vendors, you should also ask them for references and contact them. A key focus of your conversation with references should be on how the vendor works. You can see their work in their portfolio but you can’t always see how they delivered that work. References have finished a project with the vendor, so it’s time to ask your hard hitting questions about how that work came to be. You might want to ask about how they handled application security, or reviewing work in progress, or how disputes were resolved.

What if I don’t know where to start?

There are a number of ways you can find some potential firms to contact. The best and easiest way is to reach out to your network for referrals. With this approach, you can discuss your contact’s experience with the agency directly and get a good feel for the process. It’s always good to use someone that comes highly recommended.

There are also a number of directories that are searchable by project type and include client reviews. The best one for digital products is Clutch (see Paper Leaf’s Clutch profile here). If you want to work with someone local, you can filter in Clutch by location or you can look at your local industry associations that support the digital industry. For example, in Alberta, most vendors will be part of an association like Digital Alberta so organizations like this can be a great place to start.

If you still aren’t sure where to go, you can put out a Request for Information (RFI). Keep it short and simple. Describe your key goals, your budget range, and ask vendors to write you a letter (maximum 3 pages) about their business and the kind of work they do. This will help you see who wants to work with you and can do work in your budget range without overwhelming you with 30-50 page proposals. I would recommend picking your top 3-5 responses to start a conversation with.

What if an RFP is required for procurement?

Sometimes an organization requires an RFP, and that’s okay! There are ways you can work with an RFP and still find a company that’s a great fit.

First, see if you can do an RFI-based approach as mentioned above. This can be a good intermediary and can allow you to find a small group of vendors to continue the conversation with. This process would look something like this:

  1. Issue a public-facing RFI and receive responses. Something similar to the previous section is ideal.
  2. Choose 3-5 companies you would like to consider more seriously. Here is where you can give them the RFP. This way, the vendor knows they have a 1 in 3 (or 5) chance on the project and you know you only need to read 3-5 proposals. Give those companies the opportunity to meet with you individually and ask questions about the RFP and the project. This will help make sure they understand what you are looking for and are a good fit.
  3. The 3-5 companies will send in proposals and then you can make a decision.

If this isn’t possible and you absolutely have to do a public RFP, keep it pretty high level. Your RFP should state your budget, what kind of digital product you are hoping to build and that you want a company to help you develop a product that will fit in your budget, meet your goals and be good for your users – this way you can work together to find the right solution.

Never forget the intent and goal of hiring a web or app development partner – it’s to make sure you are hiring the right firm. One with a track record of execution, and good relationships along the way. While RFPs are sometimes mandated by policy, the alternatives mentioned above will do a much better job of fruitfully accomplishing that goal. Good luck!

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