How We Picked a Web Design Agency (Hint: We Threw Away the Usual RFP)

by Christian Knoebel

Chickens scared by a torpedo

Chickens scared by a torpedo by Muybridge, Eadweard, 1830-1904 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

RFPs for web design and development make talented people aim low. Writing, responding and reviewing consume more time than most of us can spare. And what do we get for the effort? Mediocre work that costs too much. That’s why we banished the traditional RFP from the web redesign project.

I’ve been on both sides of the RFP. As a consultant I pursued website RFPs as if my life depended on it (my life was just fine without them). As a client I tortured many good (and a few not so good) agencies with them.

Looking at RFPs from the vendor side, they’re typically thin on reflection and heavy on direction. Most don’t disclose a budget, and if they do that budget is a number in the form of a commandment: Thou shalt not come in higher than this.

The vendor also has to read the client’s mind. Great designers and developers can make magic but they don't have clairvoyance. So what’s an agency to do? Guess at the requirements while saying as little as possible. A lot of boilerplate about process is written into the proposal and price is padded for inevitable contingency. No two vendors will quote the same price because no two vendors guess the same way.

Poorly written RFPs also create financial stress. Proposals take time to write and these hours are unbillable. Like baseball players, no vendor hits a thousand, so the expense of failed proposals gets baked into the price of successful ones. But it’s actually worse than that, especially for small agencies, because people are taken off billable work to write the proposal. The financial bee stings twice.

If the vendor is driven by uncertainty, the buyer is driven by fear.

Web management is typically not the project owner’s only job. Yet to manage a web design project you have to know at least a little about project management, procurement, contracts, content management and strategy, all sorts of web technologies, systems integration, digital business fundamentals, user experience, design and sometimes ecommerce. When faced with a project like this, “the site” isn’t just a bunch of web pages, it’s the monster that lived under your childhood bed.

Finding a vendor looks challenging, finding one you can trust looks impossible. Add to that the very real challenge of getting buy-in from people throughout your organization who have conflicting visions and expectations for the new site and the project owner feels squeezed.

Finally, how do you even write an RFP? What should it say? How much should the project cost? How do you evaluate the dozens of proposals that come in? Google is no help here. There’s no RFP wizard.

No good digital product was ever built on uncertainty and fear so we worked hard to remove them from our project. Here’s what we did instead:

Create a Vision. We treated the website as a product with a lifecycle, not a project with a discrete beginning and end. We spent a lot of time asking ourselves and our stakeholders about goals, problems, standards and operational realities. We made sure to steer clear of solutions and did our best to keep the process free of bias. We will use the Vision throughout the project as a touchstone to be sure we build to our goals, and we allow it to change as we learn along the way.

Define the project and the skills needed to do it. Finding the right vendor starts with defining required capabilities. We used the Vision as the basis.

Prequalify vendors to find ones that meet the required capabilities. Instead of sending a request for proposal, we sent potential vendors a request for information. We asked questions about the industry and their approaches to technology, design and project management. We carefully crafted questions to encourage vendors to go deep and give us insight into how they think rather than what they’d do for us. We did not disclose our budget in the RFI.

Send an RFP to the most competitive vendors. We wrote our RFP from the Vision and included our budget expectation as a range. We sent the RFP only to vendors whose RFI responses best matched our needs.

Visit the competing vendors. This was a critical step. We wanted to be sure each vendor had a chance to probe us for information we neglected to include so they could write the best possible proposal. We wanted them to evaluate us as a client and we wanted to be sure they were a legitimate organization with employees and an office. We spent two hours with each vendor.

Invite the top vendors from the RFP round for a pitch meeting. This is the typical dog-and-pony show after which we awarded the contract to one team.

We aimed to replace ambiguity with respect for each vendor’s business needs. The time vendors invested in pursuing us was directly related to their fit for our project. For the finalists, we gave them the information they needed to write solid proposals with realistic pricing.

We also had a manageable review process that didn’t drag on, confidence that the vendors in the final rounds were right for this project and pricing we could live with. As a byproduct, we have a roster of prequalified vendors we can recommend to colleagues. (We want to help connect agencies and colleagues where there might be a good fit.)

I do have one regret: I wanted to debrief every vendor who didn’t make it to the RFP round. I underestimated the effort needed to prepare the RFP and was not able to get to everyone.

In the end, by articulating a clear vision and project requirements, prequalifying vendors and visiting the top contenders, we put the RFP in its place: at the end where it can do a project good instead of harm.

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