11 Thoughts on RFPs

The inescapable dilemma of business development through the black hole of procurement.

While the Request For Proposal (RFP) process is designed to encourage fairness and competition in the market and ensure a level of fiscal accountability, for those us in the design industry, RFPs have become a costly and all-to-common burden of business development that removes the human element and commiditizes our craft. Increasingly, the process is built on digital tendering platform, leaving you to navigate source documents and addenda full of confusing, duplicate or inadequate details, to then submit your custom response into the same online black-box whence it came. If you’re lucky, you might land one out of every five you submit. How did it become like this?

1) How did we get here?

Whether it is directly or indirectly the fallout from the 2009 eHealth Ontario fiasco that saw $1B of tax money wasted, we have seen an ever increasing demand for design services been handled through procurement departments. 

2) Cost of submission is the vendors responsibility

Since 2009, we have seen a twofold increase in the number of proposals that we have submitted, not to mention ever-increasing page counts for each. Since every proposal needs to be a customized response, the underlying time and effort invested in RFP impacts a firms overhead. It’s overly simplistic to say that it is merely the cost of doing business. While that specific submission cost may not be applied directly to a successful bid, the overall impact is averaged out across all service fees for all clients. If you are fortunate enough to win 20% of your submission, it still means that 80% of the proposal effort is spread out across all other work you take on.

3) It’s not just the public sector

Early on, most of the RFPs originated from the public sector buyers like higher education or government agencies where tax dollars are used to fund the work. Over time, whether through cross-pollination of hiring or business dealings, the private sector is increasing using RFPs. While these tend to be less of a cattle call than public tendering efforts, the private sector will invite a wide swath of vendors rather than pre-qualifying appropriate candidates. 

4) Fill out my forms… but don’t use my forms (they’re locked)

Designers by nature are precise and take care to prepare submissions that look, well…, designed. My assumption is that Helvetica is a lot easier to decipher than my handwriting. RFPs, mostly in the public sector, are stuffed with forms that MUST be submitted as provided or risk being eliminated before anyone reads a single word. So here we are expected to prepare and submit the form you provide in the RFP, but the buyer locks the original document with a password so that we can’t actually use their form. Really? Why can’t you just give me the actual forms you want me to fill out?

5) Who’s writing these things?

RFPs are the domain of the procurement departments to execute and manage. While this might be ideal for sourcing commodity products like printer paper and toner, sourcing professional services is a different ask. Design solutions are usually complex, strategic initiatives. Perhaps the department responsible for the design project initiates the RFP request, then the procurement department will turn a three page scope of work into a sixty-page tome of conflicting requirements, contractual jargon and exhausting forms. The contract terms are the same for designing a website as they are for building a pedestrian walkway.

6) Ask for pricing precision based on imprecise details

How long is a piece of string? While you’re at it, please provide a binding all-inclusive fee for that. Perhaps an exaggeration, but often the scope of work includes “design of brochures, templates and collateral” without any quantification of how many, how big, or what is required. By some miraculous crystal ball gazing, we are to arrive at a binding maximum fee for every aspect of the work required. Typically this means you ask a zillion questions on a public forum and/or make assumptions of scope that could completely sink you. 

7) We’d love your ideas… for free

Countless RFPs ask for a detailed workplan for the project that is broken down to the most granular level. Often that is accompanied with a need to provide strategic recommendations on how we will solve the problem for them. Perhaps that is a way to vet candidates capabilities, but there is no way to ensure that they won’t just take your proprietary insights and provide them to their chosen vendor. Strategic thinking IS part of the project they are supposed to pay for.

8) Into the void

Procurement automation services like MERX, Bonfire or other tendering platforms have streamlined the process for both the buyer and vendors by centralizing access to receive RFPs and submit proposals. That said, the process has become a prescriptive dehumanized black box where questions are an open forum and submissions must conform to a presciptive checklist of required documents. You log in, and then slice up your carefully crafted proposal to match the submission checklist and hit send. In return, you get a perfunctory receipt email to ensure that you didn’t just waste your last 3 days. After that – crickets. Often there is a long wait for any hint of a decision and certainly no recognition for taking the efforts to respond. If you fail to win the project, the reasons are rarely provided in any sort of useful feedback.

9) How many hard copies?

While the process is gradually becoming paperless, there are still hold outs that want hard-copies provided; and almost always multiple hard copies. If the average submission is pushing 30 pages (often more) and they want 1 original and 3 copies, I’m cranking out 120 + pages of colour output, adding a cover and wiro (it has to look good). Don’t forget as well to include the entire submission on a USB key and entrust it to a bike courier to hit the deadline. But let’s be clear here… you are doing this on your own dime.

10) Trying to standout, but be the same

RFP process for creative services is an oxymoron. Your firm is being asked to provide creative differentiation within a presciptive set of rules run by a department you won’t ever meet or work with. If you break the mold and really craft a creative and bespoke response that addresses all the requirements, it may not pass the procurement gatekeepers because it doesn’t follow their submission checklist. So trying to be different might just get you eliminated before the eventual client can see it. 

11) Is there a fix?

While procurement RFPs serve a purpose for ordinary commodity buying, professional services don’t really fit that mold. In the same way you would consider a staff hiring, purchasing professional services should be more targeted and iterative. In doing so, it would be less onerous on the vendors and more targeted for the buyer. Here are some steps we feel would help the process:

Pre-qualify vendors through simpler Requests for Information – Vendors can provide sample projects and enough basic information of their operation to narrow the list of candidates to ask to respond to an RFP.

Provide a budget-range – The same way a staff position has a salary range, buyers should have a good idea of the budget limitation they face. If you have budgeted $10,000 for a website redevelopment, then say so. The value of a project will immediately narrow the list of candidates. Similarly, a six-figure budget is going to weed out a individuals without the right level of capacity.

Create a shortlist to interview – You’re entering into a business relationship, so it only makes sense that you get to know a bit more about the personalities and their approach before you just hand the project to the vendor that had mechanical win on a score-sheet. This provides the opportunity to ask more questions and clarify content in the submission, rather assume the vendor has included the most minute details that matter. Think about it; would you hire someone to work with you that you never met?

Plan for the future – Buyers should provide terms for future renewal of contracts where projects are serial. This encourages vendors that are focussed on building working relationships over time, rather than being a mercenary for one-offs.

Tailor the RFP – Vendors are expected to customize their response, yet the buyer will use the same RFP terms and conditions whether for a brochure or a new roof. Is there not a simpler set of requirements depending on the nature of the purchase?

Give me the forms – If the buyer has specific forms they want back a certain way, provide them as separate editable documents in PDF or Word. I’ll send them back nicely typeset. Promise.

Provide tangible feedback – Great care and effort goes into submitting a strong proposal. No one expects to win them all, but for those that are not awarded the job, the least that can be done is provide insight on why the submission wasn’t successful.

For industry, the quality and care that go into the RFP process directly impact the quality of the response. For vendors, the RFP process is inescapable, but more of us are increasingly selective about the opportunities we consider worthy of the investment – and that is based on many factors. A bad RFP will likely be ignored by the best vendors.