RFPs are ruining your business.

Letting “fair” get in the way of “good”

Ryan Anderson
Sep 25, 2013 · 3 min read

You have a big project to complete, and you need a contractor, an agency, or a freelancer to help you bring your vision to life. So, you do what almost every business does in that situation — you issue an RFP, the document and three-letter-acronym that makes every agency cringe.

It’s not because designers are afraid of competition that they hate them. Truth be told, we refuse to respond to RFPs unless we’re specifically asked, and even then it’s a rare occasion that we do. The reason we hate RFPs is that they’re designed to have the “fairest” process, rather than to give the best results.

Part of the role of an agency or a designer is to ask questions. That’s a huge part of the job — you ask the right questions, and you get a better product. Ask bad questions, you’ll end up with something that doesn’t hit the mark. The role of the RFP is to eliminate questions, and if any questions arise, the answers must be given to everyone, because that’s the fair way to do things.

I once responded to an RFP from a business I hadn’t worked with. I wanted to meet them, to ask them questions, to introduce myself. I was told that it was a “blind RFP,” so they would not meet me, and as is usually the way, questions could only be submitted to the procurement person, and the answers would be sent to all respondents. I’ve never been in a situation where I would hire someone I hadn’t met, much less would I make it a requirement. To me, this is the rough equivalent of trying to meet your future spouse through a glory hole.

So what do you get for all this fairness? First, many agencies I know will not even consider responding to RFPs because they are often skewed and always arduous, so you’re counting what could be qualified respondents out. Second, you eliminate one of the most important steps in any design or agency. That’s the one where they sit down with you, ask you questions and get to the bottom of your problem. Questions are only asked by email, usually to fill in holes in your own document, and you eliminate any possibility of discovering a new insight about your problem, like “it turns out I don’t need an app, I need a better mobile experience on my site!”

Finally, and this is the big one: it assumes that you know the solution to your own problem. It further assumes that you know enough about the solution to prescribe the steps to achieve it in the proper technical language. Maybe you do, but most of the time design or digital RFPs are written by people with little to no design or digital experience, and prescribe things that anyone with expertise can see will actually work against them.

There’s obviously nothing wrong with having a detailed list of requirements for a project. It’s the only way that you could ever ask anyone for a proposal, but the problem comes when we try to standardize something that is often circuitous. If you outline the project, meet people interested in working with you and with whom you’re interested in working, tell them your problems and work toward solutions and then choose the one that asks the best questions and gives you the best solution. Otherwise, all you’ll succeed in doing is finding the agency with the best proposal writer.

    Ryan Anderson

    Written by

    Futuristic digital man and Chief Strategy Officer at Northern Army.