Are you experiencing challenges in finding a solid partner to help you with your new business endeavor, rebrand or website? You may not be asking the right questions up front.
You are in the market for a strategic web solution with many moving parts and all you know is that you don’t have the internal resources to pull it off. You have weighed all the options and decide that you are going to create an RFP and send it out to the masses. Please allow me to introduce the “Request for Partnership,” an alternative approach to the traditional RFP. In the spirit of full disclosure, we are a company that is on the receiving end of traditional RFPs and so are in fact biased. With that in mind, we have done our best in writing this article to think about this process from your perspective. After all, if we cannot see your perspective then we might as well close up shop right?
In our initial conversation with a potential client, the conclusion is almost always the same. They are hoping to find the best solution, from the best partner and for the best price. That totally makes sense and we genuinely want to achieve those goals but in relation to an RFP, that can be tricky. In our experience, an RFP does not seem like the best way to get there. There are at least two major flaws with this approach that can corrupt the output and derail what should be a strategic project for your business.
(1) An RFP asks the respondent to create a quality, intentional solution based on incomplete information and then assign a fixed cost to that solution. As the bidder for this kind of project, I am forced to assume the worst to avoid losing money on the project. And for a large project, the potential is to lose big.
(2) The best solutions are creative and intentional and those come out of idea sessions that should be attended by thought leaders and specialists. In my experience, only paying clients get that kind of attention. Outside of this “funded approach,” the bidder is forced to come up with mediocre ideas that will make an RFP response look good but fail to create a complete solution. In a sense, the bidder promises the world but is limited when it comes time to actually delivering the solution. If I am lucky enough to win the project, we all go back to the drawing board to create the right solution based on a solid process, and the hope is that the right solution is within budget. Otherwise, I have a frustrated client. In any case, the RFP process does not meet any of the needs shared by most of our clients as outlined here…
The Right Price
The right price is for the right solution, not the one requested in most RFPs. The right solution will usually cost a little more, and that should be discovered in a proper budgetary process with a partner you can trust, based on pre-determined criteria that will help you pick the right partner.
The Right Solution
The right solution comes from interactive sessions with a trusted partner so that executives can share their vision and department stakeholders can express their needs. The next step is creating a project specification description that outlines all of the requirements in one place. The right partner will discuss your business goals and map functionality to add value and help you achieve those goals. The more complex the site, the more this process becomes critical, and it simply does not happen in the process of creating the typical RFP response.
The Right Partner
The right partner is the one that is able to satisfy criteria that your organization has agreed upon in advance. Price is usually low on the requirements list when you realize how other criteria can negatively impact the overall success and true costs of a project.
A complex project that goes poorly can be a very painful experience with far reaching consequences. The following steps should prove to be a better approach to accomplishing ALL of your goals, including the best overall value, which is a far better focus than the lowest price. You may find that you are able to avoid the RFP process altogether if a partner is able to rise to the top at the beginning of this process. If that happens, you can save many hours in the selection process and spend those hours with the right partner who will build the right solution.
Step 1: Establish Decision Criteria
It is critical that all of your stakeholders agree on what criteria will be used to select a design partner for your project. There are perspectives and needs that will be expressed in this process and the stakeholders will take more ownership if they feel their voice will be heard. Don’t worry about dreaming too big at this stage. When it comes time to establish a working budget, the right partner will be able to guide you through what should be included in the first phase, what should be moved to future phases and what should be removed from the scope altogether.
The tendency is to think that the budget will get out of hand with all of these wants and desires being expressed, but remember, you are in control of this process and it is a lot easier to phase the project than try to justify additional expense. Once decision criteria is established and documented, you now have a trusted guide as you seek to evaluate the fancy proposals and interactive presentations. Your eyes are wide open and everyone is in agreement. Your questions will cut through the façades and raise flags where they need to be raised. Some suggested criteria are:
• Strategic Process & Approach
• Design Skill & Portfolio
• Longevity in Business
• Project Management & Organizational Structure
• Communication Methodology
• Approach to CMS & Options
• Third-party Integration Experience
• Technical Capabilities
• Professional References
• Experience in Your Vertical
Step 2: The Request for Partnership
You may not know it yet, but you really do not want ten, thirty page proposals to review in detail. The truth is that there are many proven solution providers who simply avoid the RFP process and you don’t want to miss the right one for this reason. Remember also that there are many poorly run organizations who are great at creating proposals and presentations. Don’t be deceived!
No, what you seek is a partner and this document should communicate that right out of the gate. It is to your advantage to communicate that you are seeking the right partner and that you are looking to evaluate options based on the merits that they have worked so hard to establish. Craft your language in a way that communicates to a vendor that they have been identified as a potential partner based on some key criteria, and that you desire to get to know them in order to determine proper fit. Next, tell your story. Discuss some challenges and goals that are on your radar. You might also outline major functional elements and ask for a price range for the project. A good company who is worth their salt will feel much more comfortable providing a development range over a fixed cost bid. This is your opportunity to communicate your expectation for interactive sessions to discover the right solution.
It might also make sense to communicate an intention to pay a reasonable hourly rate for a block 20-30 hours of consulting time so that they can bring in the right people and create a web specification that will prove to be valuable even if you choose not to work with that partner. All of these elements communicate that you are looking for a true partner and your responses should be much more meaningful and enthusiastic. If time permits, you may also allow for a 30-minute call with each partner to ask questions and then publish selected questions and answers if that will provide useful data that will benefit the project overall. This will also help the partners to be more precise as they provide a cost range.
Step 3: Partner Evaluation
It is critical that you agree on a scoring methodology as a team so that you will be able to start with an objective evaluation. The evaluation team should also understand that subjective elements are important but must be set aside initially.
Step 4: Partner Selection
You may choose to select a single partner or a group of finalists at this point. If the latter, the goal will be to fill in the blanks wherever they exist as you interview each firm and meet their teams. The more information you have the better so plan to invest some time in this phase. The firm you choose should become a long term partner and long term partners add more value. When a final partner is selected, make a big deal of it. If they are local, invite them for a reception so that they can get to know your team. Encourage them to bring along technical and back office people that will play a role in the project. Remember, everyone does their best work for the clients they like and have a good working relationship with. The intangible benefits will flow over the life of the relationship so milk it for all you can get. Of course, make them understand that your commitment is not binding, but will remain if all goes well as planned. This will empower the chosen partner to invest in brainstorming sessions in order to create a real solution that meets your needs.
Step 5: Discovery & Budget Planning
Even before a formal proposal or contract is written, start with discovery sessions where you can work out the details of what will be in scope. In the initial steps of this selection process, there are some good questions to ask: What is your approach for collaboration and planning? What tools do they use in that process and what will the Client see? If the discovery sessions are fee based, what is the deliverable and make sure that you have full rights to use the deliverable to execute against (?). If the discovery process is done well, a budget should be the next logical step. Allow the partner to walk through revisions and ask for more than one budget option. This step is critical to making sure that you have a good plan and something to refer back to if things get hairy.
Step 6: Contract Review
Make sure to have counsel that understands intellectual property rights and business-to-business transaction law. Consider scenarios even if they are not likely. What if your company is purchased, what rights can be transferred to the new owners? What if the partner goes out of business or is purchased by someone else? You’ll want to make sure that you are protected from future events.
Step 7: Retainer Agreement (optional)
If you are able to, avoid frustration by arranging a retainer agreement that you can both live with. This will prevent the feeling of being nickel and dimed for needed changes. Remember that a retainer agreement allows the partner to plan for staffing needs which means that you should get priority service. If the firm has multiple offerings like print and identity services, a retainer agreement can really help you grow your business by providing the equivalent of 3 or 4 highly skilled specialists for one low cost manageable fee. Imagine having to hire a project manager, a skilled designer, a webmaster and a software developer and cover their benefits as well? If you start small and ratchet up the monthly commitment as needed, you should get real value from a retainer agreement if you have found a great firm to work with.
If you have followed the steps in this process then chances are, you have created a meaningful relationship with a talented firm who is now a real business partner and not just a vendor. This new partner knows who you are and desires to help you meet your business goals. When you call, they respond positively and everyone in their organization is on the same page. How do you put a price tag on that?