On the surface, a request for proposal (RFP), seems like a methodical and rational method to find a vendor to work on your project. You create criteria, assemble a pool of possible solutions, and choose the best one.

But there are three serious problems that occur when you apply this approach that make its effectiveness mediocre at best.

“No way,” Tison laughed, “They’re trying to outsource their homework to a hundred agencies and it’s not going to work.”

Tison runs a web development agency that serves manufacturers. I met him at an agency workshop and I asked him, “Do you respond to RFP’s?”

RFP’s are the standard of the association space and it’s often the first big step an association takes when they’re planning a website redesign.

On the surface, a request for proposal (RFP), seems like a methodical and rational method to find a vendor to work on your project. You create criteria, assemble a pool of possible solutions, and choose the best one.

But there are three serious problems that occur when you apply this approach that make its effectiveness mediocre at best.

Who Spins the Roulette Wheel?

The dream of the RFP is that you get a bunch of qualified vendors to compete with each other. In the process, they give you a bunch of good ideas for free, like Tison alluded to above. But this isn’t the way it actually works.

Consider it from the agency’s perspective. With a RFP, you’re asking them to gamble.

You’re telling them that they will invest hours, maybe days of work, and then they have a 1 in 10 shot of getting paid for it. Or a 1 in 20 chance of getting paid for it. Those are worse odds than blackjack, craps, or even roulette.

Because of this, instead of carefully evaluating your project, they invest as little as possible. They put their cheapest employee on your RFP to regurgitate your language back to you in a beautiful, but cookie cutter, proposal with the minimum amount of work.

They know the odds are against them so they mitigate their investment and respond to as many RFP’s as possible. They think, “If the chances are 1 in 20, let’s gamble one hour twenty times.”

What happens when they win though?

I asked this to Jen, an agency owner I met who serves non-profits and specializes in RFP’s.

“What happens when we win a RFP? What do you mean?” she asked me.

“Well, you don’t know the project," I told her, "There’s a huge amount of risk for both you and your client when you just churn out proposals without understanding what’s really needed.”

“Oh, that,” she laughed, “We just convince the client they don’t know what they’re talking about and we need to change the scope and price. It’s not hard. We’re the experts, they’re the amateurs.

When you employ a RFP process for a website redesign, the comparison you’re making is not going to be a choice among agencies equally invested in your success. It's going to be among agencies that you've incentivized to gamble and who will shift things to work in their favor if you choose them.

Which brings us to the second big problem with RFP’s.

Amateurs Selecting Experts

If you’re not an expert in a specific field, can you recognize someone who is?

Consider hiring an employee. Organizations have a huge problem with people who interview well and then turn out to be bad hires.

As human beings, we’re not good at recognizing competence outside our expertise.

But if you’re not an expert in a specific domain, all you can do is assess based on what you do understand.

And that is what it comes down to with a RFP process. It is, by design, an evaluation of superficial qualities. You’re going to make a big decision based on surface level information.

You evaluate proposals using criteria defined by “best practices”, by how attractive the proposals are, and by how close an agency’s portfolio lines up with your organization.

Even if you bring in a technical consultant to come in and run your RFP process you still have someone who doesn’t work in that domain helping you to evaluate people who do.

It’s no surprise then that you choose someone who checks all those boxes and “interviews well.”

Agencies and employees are not commodities. You can't compare apples to apples, even with an analytical looking rubric. Everyone brings different perspective, commitment, knowledge, and skill to the table. And you can't see those differences by sifting through proposals.

This amateur versus expert problem is one we're all familiar with.  If you've chosen a doctor, a mechanic, or hired a general contractor to remodel a house you've run up against it.  The problem is that with doctors and mechanics the investment is relatively low and you can replace them after a bad experience.  With a general contractor or a website, the investment is much larger.  Fortunately, there is a way to overcome this obstacle and I'll share that at the end of this article.

The above problems of trying to recognize good candidates after you’ve incentivized them to work your own process against you isn’t the worst of the problems with RFP’s. I’ve saved the best... worst? for last.

Do You Crowdsource Medical Advice?

The last RFP I thumbed through was terrible. I remember reading it and groaning. I felt bad for the association. I could tell that they were doing their best to redesign their website into something more effective, but there were huge holes in what they were asking for. Jen would have won that project and then had a field day picking apart the scope.

And to be honest, it would have been in their best interest that she did so.

A RFP sets the scope of a project so that vendors can bid on it.

And the scope of a project is foundational to your success in making impactful change. To quote the great business thinker Peter Drucker, “Doing the right thing is more important than doing the thing right.”

If the scope is developed in house, like the RFP I read, committees are formed, advice is solicited in and outside the organization, and all the ideas are consolidated into a big laundry list of requirements for agencies.

This is like saying, “my stomach hurts,” and rather than going to a doctor, you form committees and have them think about all the medical articles, news, and past experiences they’ve had in the health system to determine what you should do. They think you have celiacs disease, so you write a RFP for a nutritionist to create a gluten free diet for you. If they get lucky and are right- great! But if you have an ulcer, acid reflux, stomach cancer, a food allergy, or the hundred other possible maladies then you’ve wasted everyone’s time and money.

Even when you bring in a consultant, if they don’t have both the strategic and digital skill to analyze your goals and generate solutions, the best they can do is facilitate this same process of generating consensus.

Consensus is good and I’m not discounting your association’s tribal knowledge. It just needs to be part of the process and not drive it.

You may not be website experts, but you are experts on your association, goals, and obstacles.

With that stomach ache, you are the expert on your symptoms and the doctor is the expert on figuring out why it hurts. It takes both of you to come to an effective solution. If you clam up, she can’t help you. If you come into the office self-prescribing solutions from Web MD, she can’t help you.

What Should You Consider Instead?

If a RFP is a bad process for making effective change, what is a good one?

The way businesses are evolving how they hire employees is a smart change to imitate. As I mentioned earlier, you can’t really know how an employee works until you’ve seen them actually work. Because of this, many businesses, Steward included, have chosen to invest more in the hiring process by contracting potential hires for small jobs to see how they perform.

As a business owner, it’s worth it to me to spend more money up front in order to find the best person because an employee is a long term investment with huge ramifications. It’s insurance against wasting a lot of money over the next several years.

Similarly with a big investment like a website redesign, the best place to start is to research an agency or consultant who is a strong candidate for your project.... and hire them.

More specifically, hire them for a small strategy project to help you identify the scope you’ll need for the bigger project. This will help address all three of the big problems with RFP’s:

  • You invest more in them and they invest more in you. No one is gambling and people are accountable because money is changing hands. And you’re not risking your entire budget hoping you selected the right company because it’s a small piece of the overall pie.
  • You may still be evaluating someone with different expertise than yours, but you’ll have a much deeper understanding of what they bring to the table in their recommendations- what data they use, how well they communicate, and how well considered their plan is.
  • You start with strategy and identifying the project scope that will best support your goals using expert help to lay the foundation.

Like hiring a potential employee for a small project up front, if they don’t measure up, you can always move on.

At Steward, we believe that to start any project without a strategic engagement is to do a disservice to our clients. Because of this, we always start with a Membership Offer Blueprint and/or Intuitive Architecture Design. These two strategy engagements address two common and crucial needs that we see in associations and their websites: better recruitment and better engagement.

If you work with another agency, check to see if they offer a discovery engagement. Discovery is a generic strategic engagement, but it still fits the bill in that it is the development of a strategic plan with an expert.

John Hooley
President, Steward

John is a graduate of 10,000 Small Businesses, a certified Customer Acquisition Specialist, and a Zend Certified Engineer. He speaks and writes on connecting digital strategy to association goals. Outside of work he's an avid traveler, climber, diver, and a burgeoning sailor. He also volunteers with Rotary and Big Brothers Big Sisters.