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Write an RFP that is going to get you the quality proposals you want

Operations & Management

Mason Carter wrote this article


Companies that draft a Request For Proposal (RFP) for agencies to respond to are looking to define their project scope and timeline clearly, and they hope that in return agencies will come back with a proposal that meets their exact needs.

At its very best, an RFP serves to outline the expectations that a company has when working with an agency.

Far too often though in RFPs that we come across, that goal isn’t achieved due to unrealistic expectations in the project budget and timeline, a lack of specificity in the project requirements, and asking agencies to spend time on answering questions that can be easily researched by the company.

What we’d like to do here is guide you through what we look for in RFPs at Chop Dawg. Many of these qualities are ones that other agencies are looking for as well.

The Quick Version

• Bad RFPs don’t get you the responses that you’re seeking.

• Don’t make agencies do busywork with questions that can be answered through quick research. Focus on listing your requirements and being specific on what YOU want. That’s what matters.

• Businesses that aren’t open about their budget and usually intend only to evaluate proposals based on cost and end up attracting low-quality firms to respond to an RFP. The process becomes a race to the bottom.

• RFPs are first impressions that businesses give to agencies. Agencies want longterm relationships and if they don’t see that you desire that through your RFP, they’ll overlook you and move on.

PS: Before you begin reading, we’ve created a template for you to replace with your own details, using the framework and context that we provide below! Click here to access the RFP template we made.

Have a Transparent Budget or Budget Range

If you don’t share your actual budget or budget range, most agencies by default do not take you seriously because they already know you’re looking for the lowest cost (lowest common denominator).

There is a known fear that companies that submit RFPs are afraid that if they give a budget range, the agency will either try to maximize that range or try to go even higher. If you work with an agency that is honest, this shouldn’t be a concern.

1. Legit agencies aren’t going to fill your budget or exceed it purposely. They are looking to find out what your expectations are, and if they can deliver it.

2. A lot of agencies use this figure to determine if your budget is something they can accommodate, so they can politely decline if necessary, saving both of you valuable time.

3. The more honest you both are from the very beginning about cost, the more time you can spend writing out a scope.

4. There is one other fact that you need to be aware of. If you put out an RFP with a budget and agencies are bidding near the top of your range, ask yourself if maybe that is simply because the project requires that amount and you low-balled the range to start with.

As we’ve already mentioned, if you find potential agencies that you feel you can trust, you should know that even in bidding they are looking for a fair arrangement.

If you show a history of repeatedly soliciting RFPs and then not selecting an agency…

Agencies will begin ignoring you and not take you seriously. This reputation can also spread around the industry; which is why being open and transparent on what you are looking for saves not only time but also the relationship in case it is needed in the future.

An example of a client reaching out to us with an RFP and going UNDER their requested budget

While we can’t give any names due to NDA, I’d like to share our story about a client we had who gave us a requested budget of $150K-$200K in their RFP back in 2014.

Given the scope of work required once we went through their requirements, we figured out that they had overshot their budget. We came in at $130K.At a minimum, we came in $20,000 from what they were expecting to spend. At a maximum, $70,000. Most companies in our industry that take our craft seriously we never take advantage of you. We all pride ourselves on our reputations, and most importantly, building long-term relationships with our customers. We rather save you money now, and see you reinvest it back with us later on more projects!

Avoiding The Questionnaire of Bullshit

Many terrible RFPs ask dozens of questions about the app or website development firm itself. This doesn’t sound too bad on paper, but the problem is that most of the questions that are asked are ones that can be found through research or talking on the phone.

9 times out of 10 answers that can be found on the agency’s website and elsewhere online – agencies are answering questions 99.9% of the time on their website such as, “what are some projects that you have worked on?” and “how many years have you been in business?

All you’re asking is for agencies to repeat themselves, and the reality is, you should know the baseline about companies you’re asking for an RFP from by researching this in advance. The caveat here is if you are sending an RFP, not to a specific company, but are posting it for anyone to respond to. In that case, rather than asking a bunch of questions, ask the agency to give links to their information pages, such as their FAQ and Portfolio.Trust us; any creditable company will have these pages already on their website.

Some companies seem to think if you put an RFP out and are soliciting responses from anyone, the agencies will come to them

Though this is true, you’re attracting EVERYONE, which means, quantity over quality.

A lot of good firms have a constant flow of work and people asking for their own services. We do not scour the Internet looking for RFPs. What we’ve seen is that the ones searching for RFPs are traditionally the lowest quality of firms or those who need work desperately.

You SHOULD be the one researching companies of interest and inviting them to do an RFP. It will cut down YOUR OWN HUNT to vet different companies, and automatically begin getting you closer to finding the right fit, in a quicker timeframe, with less labor and less hassle.

Some companies will select a few vendors to participate in an RFP, and to stand out, will include incentives.

For example, a popular convenience store on the east coast of the United States selected six app agencies for the possibility of redoing their mobile app and paid each of them $10,000 to create a formal proposal, and a few concept screens to display their expertise + vision for their app. The upfront costs (though minimal) allowed them to stand out and attract the best of the best to compete for their business.

Instead of the Questionnaire Of Bullshit…

A few reasonable questions at this stage to ask are:

1. Who is my main point of contact in this planning phase?

2. What do you need from us?

3. Does this sound like a good fit for you all? Will you be interested in submitting a bid?

Here’s what to do when communicating the Desired Project Timeframe

There are TWO rules to listing timeframes. Either allow agencies to bid and include their own timeframes, OR you list your timeframe. What’s great about asking agencies to bid on THEIR timeframes is that you’ll get a variety of responses that you can then use to find patterns.

1. Where are most timeframe responses coming in at, which ones sound too good to be true, which ones seem way too long?

2. If you list your own timeframe, be conservative. What this means is in the planning process, give yourself time to pick a company, finalize a proposal, finalize and negotiate the contract, start the project, work on the project, complete the project, QA (quality assurance) the project, launch the project, etc.

3. Most RFPs that list timeframes themselves, are unrealistic. This scares away most companies because they know they can’t achieve what they are looking for. With timeframes that are too uncompromisingly narrow, you’ll end up with only those agencies who are willing to overpromise and then under deliver. This results in delays, more costs, and a broken relationship which is the last thing you want when picking a development partner. 

Listing MILESTONES leading up to receiving the proposal IS okay!

It is okay to share when you need proposals by, when you will vet, when you select, and when you’re “TARGETING” to start. Give realistic milestones. Don’t ask for proposals to be submitted 24 hours after sending out an RFP. Some companies like us (wink wink) will take 2-3 weeks to detail an important document that defines everything from the scope, process, payment, logic, etc. Good things take time!

Writing a project scope in an RFP

Nothing worse than an RFP that generalizes what you need (e.g., we’re building the next Amazon and new iPhone, Android, web, TV, space station, gas station, etc.) and then asks for a formal proposal. Companies need to be able to tell agencies what they are doing. We can’t scope out your project at all if you aren’t explicitly communicating what you want and speaking in general terms.

1. Detail your project and don’t be afraid to get on calls with prospective companies you’re interested in. Think about everything you’d like to be featured in the project. You don’t need to be technical when writing this, but be specific in what you want when it comes to features. The more details, the better!

2. It’s a great sign to the agency when a company asks to get on the phone with you to dive deeper. That way, before the agency submits the bid, they know EXACTLY what you want.

The Book of Genesis

When you’re asking an agency to interpret what it is that you want and then communicate it back to you with a project proposal, leaving things open to interpretation lengthens the process. We go through the same process with our direct client leads and ask them to write their “Book of Genesis.” We’ve spoken about the Book of Genesis in our series about how clients can best work with agencies, but here is a quote from that.

The most important thing is to be as detailed as possible. One of the examples we give all of our new clients here at Chop Dawg is to write this as if we didn’t know what a web app or mobile app is.

This is your Book of Genesis. You take the basic concepts and then add as much detail as possible.

Leaving room for interpretation can cause confusion and is something you want to avoid, especially at this stage of the project planning process when you’re trying to find a partner to work with you for the next several months. These are big investments in time and costs, after all.

Don’t half-ass it. Go through an internal exercise. As you begin listing every single detail out, begin asking yourself, over and over, is what you are writing truly necessary?

Remember that the more you give a company like Chop Dawg to work on, the more your costs and timeframe will grow. However, not including it as part of the scope and then trying to add it later will cause delays and increase costs. So be honest with yourself on what needs to be included in the first version of your project.

You CAN and SHOULD ask for certain things to be included in the proposal

Always ensure an NDA is sent and make sure you are clear on the process (meaning whether you have milestones related to calendar dates or deliverable completion). Most of the time companies like us include this by default, but this is the time to ask in the PROPOSAL ITSELF for certain important information needed to make a big business decision.

You should be open about how you’re expecting payments, and if this is a deal-breaker for you

Some agencies offer set-rate, services (e.g. project costs $50K) and some are hourly (e.g. $150/hr for 20 hrs per week), and some are entirely deliverable-based. And others base their services on the waterfall model (this tends to be among the less iterative and flexible approaches, sprint-based, and the list goes on and on).

Most companies are pretty SET IN STONE how they handle payments; therefore if any are a deal breaker, be candid to save YOU TIME and THEM TIME. Not only is it about how you will pay, but you are buying in the way that an agency works. So make your preferences clear.  It’s that simple.

Writing about your company’s BACKGROUND – why are you doing this and who are you?

Good firms want to know your background, who you are, why you are doing this, who your audience is for if you already have existing infrastructure, and WHO they will be working with. This gives the agency the information that they need to determine if they want to work with YOU. It’s a two-way street – don’t be afraid and skimp on SELLING yourself!

Just like we think that companies should do preliminary research on agencies, the agencies can also do some research on your business. You do not need to tell your whole company story in the RFP. Tell the things they can’t find on the website such as what people/departments they would be working with, behind the scenes dynamics they should know about, etc.

If you want the best agencies to bid on your RFP, they will want to know who you are, that you are serious, and also gives them a better background to create a better proposal/bid for you.

ASK YOURSELF – Do you need to do an RFP?

A lot of companies can reach out to development firms individually, and have them walk through the process if they need a more personally-tailored experience. You’ll still get the proposal that you’re looking for, but you’ll be skipping a step. You can still have a template of your project requirements too, as that is one of the most useful elements of an RFP anyway.

RFPs are created to save time and get to the point quicker, but ask yourself: is that what your business NEEDS? For most clients, these are BIG investments and require relationship building. For many, an RFP does not make sense. It just “seems” like what you are supposed to do. The reality is sometimes they can take longer than the traditional method of just going through an agency’s normal discovery process.

Are you ready to create your own RFP? We’ve created a template for you to replace with your own details, using the framework and context we’ve provided you above! Click here to access this.

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