Creative Exploitation and Speculative Work in the Context of the Client-Vendor Relationship Read more...
What is an RFP?
An RFP is a document that a company (the Client) makes and publicizes when it wants to get something built. Lots of other companies (the Vendors) make detailed plans about how they would do the job, and the Client gets to choose which Vendor they want to hire for the job. In this case, we're talking about building websites and software, although RFPs traditionally were used for procuring goods, rather than services.
RFPs and the American Dream
For a Vendor, an RFP can look appealing and desirable. It's a chance to compete with your peers, and an opportunity to bid on a piece of work that could be very lucrative. It's a lot of work, but when it pays off, it can be really sweet. Winning one big RFP can get the ball rolling for a new company and establish a reputation for success. It's sort of like the American Dream: if you work hard enough, anyone can make it to the top. If you sweat and bleed enough while making your RFP, there's no telling what account you can land.
For a Client, an RFP is an all-around good deal. Lots of companies jump at the opportunity of landing a big account, and Clients get lots of Vendors to choose from. They even get a range of possible solutions to their problem, and Clients benefit from each and every response they receive. They get to choose the Vendor they work with knowing that the firm they chose has an undeniable advantage over their competitors. Finally, Clients are afraid of getting ripped off, and "shopping around" using the RFP process ensures that the Client is getting the best deal.
Exploitation and the RFP System
We do not respond to RFPs, and we think the world would be a better place if our peer companies made the same decision. Here's why:
Writing an RFPs is based on the assumption that the Client knows what they want, and how they want their problem solved. Clients end up trying to solve problems outside of their domain, where they are less effective. Therefore, the sense of protection an RFP is supposed to give the client is actually an illusion. It doesn't matter how well a firm implements the wrong solution to the wrong problem.
Responding to RFPs takes a long time and a lot of resources to do properly. When a Vendor takes the time to respond to a new RFP, who pays for that time? The answer is that an existing Client pays for it. Wouldn't those resources be better spent on providing better service? Wouldn't providing better service lead to more referrals? Wouldn't more referrals reduce the need to apply for RFPs? Doesn't that mean that responding to RFPs is similar to ripping off your existing clients? (Carl from nGen Works wrote about this recently).
There is a commonly-accepted belief among Clients that Vendors should work for free. This sense of entitlement exists because we as Vendors propagate a mismanaged Client expectation. The reason some Clients frown upon the concept of wireframes and iterative design is because we as Vendors give them reason to do so. We give away production-quality work for free. No wonder people think what we do is easy. We make ourselves look cheap.
Clients benefit from work they do not pay for. If a small Vendor responds to an RFP with an amazing creative idea, there's nothing stopping the Client from hiring a different agency (or worse - building the project in house) and handing over the small Vendor's great idea as "inspiration." That's just cruel, and it happens all the time.
Responding to RFPs is not democratic. Vendors with the biggest portfolios and the most money to spend on the RFP are generally those who win the new business. Ironically, the Vendors with the biggest markup (in order to spend more on RFPs), and the worst value proposition, are the ones that are rewarded with new business. The Client who thinks they have scored the best deal because of the prettiest RFP is actually suckered into paying more so the Vendor can respond to the next RFP. It's a cycle of ripping people off.
Emerging from the Dark Ages
The alternative to the RFP process starts with us, the Vendors.
We must stop responding to them. We must stop taking money from our Clients to respond to RFPs. We must take that money and provide better service to the Clients that trusted us in the first place. We must find a better way to ensure Clients are actually spending their money wisely and getting good value. We must hold ourselves to standards. We must belong to standards-based organizations that guarantee we are offering quality service and value.
Clients can help too.
Clients should understand that the RFP process does not work for buying services like it works for buying goods. They should stop putting out RFPs altogether for services. They should start building relationships with the Vendors who provide the most value. They should also maintain staff members who have the ability to properly evaluate different Vendors. Once they have found a Vendor who they trust, they should allow that Vendor to participate in defining the problem to be solved, as well as the solution to that problem.
In this ideal case, the Client pays less for a better service. They solve the problem that actually needs to be solved, and they'll learn that working with small Vendors can actually be a strength, and not a weakness.
DISCLAIMER: This article was not written out of spite or bitterness. We have not recently lost a bid on an RFP. We've never responded to a public RFP.
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