Why your website RFP is probably wrong

Paul Boag

What follows is an open letter to any prospective client who is about to issue a website RFP (Request for Proposals).

Dear prospective client.
Before I come to my concerns about website RFP (Request for Proposals), let me acknowledge how hard it is to find a good web design agency. I appreciate that identifying agencies to invite to tender, sorting through their proposals and interviewing the short list, is a time consuming and at times frustrating experience.

To complicate things further, I understand that many of you work within large organisations that have processes in place for the selection of third party suppliers. Some even have a procurement department dedicated to this role.

Unfortunately I have come to believe that in many cases the very processes put in place to protect against bad buying decisions, are actually preventing organisations from making the correct selection of web design agency.

Excessive website RFP paperwork

One issue is the documentation required from a potential supplier. Many of the questions asked are just not the kind of information a smaller agency is able to answer. For example, many web designers do not have a policy for sustainability or financial records for the last 5 years.

At Headscape we have become used to completing this kind of detailed documentation. However, I know of many agencies that simply feel unable to complete this kind of paperwork and so do not respond to such RFPs.

These are agencies that produce excellent work and are more than capable of delivering a website that fulfils the organisations needs. It is unfortunate that organisations are missing out on their skills simply because of excessive paperwork.

Although this is a serious problem it could be argued that if an agency is not capable of completing this kind of paperwork, they are not suited to working with a larger organisation. I can understand this perspective, but I do not believe that is true. Furthermore, that is not the only problem with many organisations procurement process.

A moratorium on questions regarding your website RFP

A far bigger issue is that many invitations to tender specifically prevent any agency from contacting the prospective client with questions.

Some organisations will not accept questions at all, while others limit questions to email so that answers can be copied to all agencies to ensure fairness.

Whatever the case, limiting the communication between agency and client seriously reduces the quality of proposals. It also makes the selection process considerably harder.

No questions leads to bland responses

The production of a website is a collaborative process between client and agency. It is not something that the agency can do in isolation. No matter how good a website RFP, it is certain to leave the agency with many questions. In fact if it does not then the chances are the agency has misunderstood the brief in someway.

Without asking questions as part of a two way conversation (in preference to a stilted email thread) you are considerably less likely to receive proposals that exceed your basic requirements or impress you with their innovative approach. The supplier is restricted to providing nothing more than the bare minimum you have specifically requested.

The fairness argument is flawed

I also strongly believe that the “fairness” argument is fundamentally flawed. This argument suggests that if one potential supplier is given information that another is not, this makes the process unfair. As a result all questions and answers must be available to all parties.

Although I understand the logic, I suggest the opposite is the case. Sharing questions posed by one agency with all is undermining the process.

A big factor in selecting the right agency is to find a supplier who knows what questions to ask. Creating a great website is about understanding the organisation and its users. This involves asking the right questions and knowing what best to do with that information.

By sharing those questions and answers with all suppliers, you remove one of the best ways of separating the wheat from the chaff.

An ability to assess chemistry

Finally, a big part of selecting an agency is chemistry. Because of the collaborative approach that lies at the heart of the web design process, it is vital that both parties work well together.

If you cannot speak with the supplier until the interview stage, it means that many suppliers maybe dismissed when in fact they would have been the perfect cultural fit. Many of the best websites are born out of the lively, impassioned conversation between client and designer. If those conversations do not take place early it becomes increasingly hard to introduce them later.

I understand that you probably have little control over these processes, but I would encourage you to do what you can next time you write a website RFP. The unfortunate truth is that if you do not, you will end up with a website that ticks all the boxes, but is unlikely to inspire anybody.

“Woman In Red Tape” image courtesy of Bigstock.com