The way you write your Request For Proposal (RFP) already determines the success of your project. Seems a bit harsh right? But after reading, writing, and submitting more than a hundred RFPs myself, I can safely say: the way you explain your project requirements has more impact than the vendor you choose. In this blog, we’ll take a deep dive into the success factors of writing an RFP:
1. Don’t write about what you have, write about what you need
When writing your RFP, it might be tempting to just document what you currently have. Say you have 16 different types of content at the moment, and you describe each one of them with their respective fields and make a hard requirement for all 16 of them. But do you still need all 16 different types? Maybe you just needed them because of how your current CMS is set up. It’s important to explain in your RFP what your needs are and try to separate them from what you currently have.
If you force your new CMS to be set up the same way as your current one, you will end up with exactly the same issues. Also, keep in mind that setting it up this way might not be the most efficient. And thus adding unnecessary costs.
💡 Tip: How do you efficiently set up an RFP?
State your desired information architecture. This allows the vendors to be more creative and efficient in the way they set up your site. Don’t know what your ideal information architecture is? Make it part of the project, most vendors have a specialist in information architecture on their team.
2. Involve your co-workers
It might look a bit contradictory to the previous statement, but being too vague is also a big no-no. I often see this happening when an RFP has been spearheaded by a single department in the organization.
For example, when IT writes the RFP, they often focus on security and integrations but forget the needs of their marketing colleagues. The same thing happens the other way around. A full document describing how the UI of the webshop should improve customer experience but not a single description of where the product data will come from or to what system the orders need to be pushed to…
Ask your co-workers for help, and allow them to add their part of the puzzle to the project. However, watch out for inconsistencies. More often than not I see contradictory statements in a single RFP.
💡TIP: Invest in an application landscape
It might be worth it to invest in creating an application landscape. This visually explains to the vendors what they are about to step in too, so they can budget for it appropriately. It’s especially important for big organizations with lots of different systems that need to interact with the new project.
3. Have a clear budget
Lots of projects start with a loose idea or frustration. At that point, you most likely have no idea yet what the solution will cost. You might think this problem solves itself once you get some offers in. At the end of the day, each offer will come with a number. You'll be able to pick the correct one based on your careful quality versus cost analysis. Unfortunately, you might be in for a huge disappointment. And that's simply because most of us don’t have an unlimited budget. When writing up all your requirements, it does not cost you anything more than the time you spend on writing it. However, implementing that requirement will cost a whole lot more. To know your budget, you need to know your requirements. But to write down your requirements, it’s also nice to have a budget in mind… So yes, chicken or eggs kind of situation.
💡 Tip: Make a business case
Luckily there are some strategies you could employ to avoid ‘the unknown budget’-issue. If you make a business case for your project, you should be able to determine what you can spend and how much budget you need.
💡 Tip: Get a ballpark figure
Pitch your project to someone from the industry, preferably multiple people. They might be a bit reluctant to give you a number, but most should be able to give you a broad range of the budget for such kind of project. Most of the time they'll ask some extra questions. Make notes! They'll ask about things that have the most impact on your budget. A classic is: “Are there any integrations?” or “Where is this data coming from?”. This will help you determine what to ask for in your RFP and gard you for the infamous “Phase 2”.
💡 Tip: Share your budget
Write your maximum budget down in your RFP. It will save you a lot of time reading submissions that are 10 times your budget. But it also allows the vendors to think of solutions that will fit your budget. Won’t it make the offers more expensive? Nope. If you have a 500K budget and a vendor thinks he can do it for 200K, they are going to send you one for 200K. And that’s simply because of competition: if one vendor can make it for 200K, their competitors most likely can do the same. So they won’t take the risk of being too expensive.
4. Accept that an RFP is a two-way street
More often than not an RFP is presented as final and unchangeable. Most organizations seem to think this is necessary to keep the RFP objective. However, isn't the reason why you’re sending out an RFP that you don't have the knowledge to do the project in-house? So, it’s almost inevitable that you discover new things you wish you had put down differently the minute you start conversions with potential vendors. Instead of frantically trying to avoid change, embrace it. Ask for comments instead of trying to deflect them. After all, as long as you share the changes with all parties, your RFP will remain objective.
💡 Tip: Add a ‘Request for comments'-section
Most RFP processes have some form of asking questions. In my experience, the answers to those questions are often defensive and usually not informative. I strongly believe you could use this round of questions to get a better RFP and ultimately a more successful project.
Here is my suggestion: rename the “Questions” to “Request for comments”. This way both vendors and your co-workers will have a less negative approach.
5. Use a framework to work against
By now, I hope you understand that writing an RFP is a balancing act. You don’t want to be too vague but also not too specific. Besides, make sure you focus on writing down your problems instead of listing the solutions you already have in mind. When clearly defining a problem, each vendor can solve that problem in their own way. If you already propose a solution, then some are going to squeeze their answer for the problem in this solution, while there probably was a better way of solving it.
You want to be prepared but also leave room for creativity and innovation. We've seen countless projects being delayed during the RFP process because they end up comparing apples to oranges and you certainly don’t want that. You can avoid this by using a clear framework. This way, you can compare the different tenders easily.
💡 Tip: Use the RFP guide
Our RFP Starter Kit can help you set the right framework. It clearly shows want kind of capabilities you can expect from your new platform and allows you to easily set your priorities so the potential vendors will know what to focus on.
6. Get help from an outside party
It's often also smart to involve an external, independent party when setting up your RFP framework. They’re not biased and are often specialized in writing down your problems objectively.
💡 Tip: Need help? Ask for it!
I indicated earlier more than 100 RFPs passed through my hands, and I'm happy to go through yours as well. Need help? Let me know. My team and I are here for you.