Death by RFP: Don’t let it happen to you

A few months ago, a very large public university published an open RFP to re-platform its entire network of websites onto a new CMS.

The RFP was posted in its state’s procurement website and an open source CMS community forum as an invitation to everyone and anyone. The name of the institution doesn’t matter, but I will say their men’s basketball team is very good.

We rarely respond to open RFPs, but decided to give it a shot based on our success with similar projects in higher education. Visions of courtside seats for Final Four basketball games danced in our heads.

The RFP included a comprehensive audit of their current websites complete with screen shots and in-depth requirements for the migration. They wanted an “all-in” bid, requiring a project plan and detailed approach for the architecture, development, migration, training and rollout of dozens of sites. In short, a lot of legwork to review and assess.

Like many RFP processes, this was gated by the ‘great wall of procurement’, determined to prevent any sort of collaboration with the key stakeholders to determine fit and scope. No budget was stated, or provided in the written Q&A.

So like lemmings marching toward a perilous cliff, we wrote our proposal, worked out the budgets, specified five client references, signed a whole lot of official looking paperwork, and did a final spell check. We PDF’d our massive response, and FedEx’d it off hoping for the best.

And then, silence.

After a month, we checked in via e-mail and got a one line response that it was ‘in review.’ Good, we thought. Surely they are soaking in our excellent case studies and reference materials (pages 56-75).

And then, more silence.

After the second month, our RFP Spidey Sense figured something wasn’t right (thanks Captain obvious). We sent another e-mail and received this back:

The RFP was canceled due to excessive cost. All of the proposals came in way over budget so the committee scraped [sic] the project.

Thank you for your consideration.

Losing the RFP wasn’t the end of the world. Our 15 years in business have given us thick skin for the ‘Dear John’ letters of rejection. Some don’t even bother to send notice.

But to have it canceled due to excessive costs that were way over budget? This is something that should never, never, never happen, even in the worst of RFP circumstances. Budgets can fall through, but costs should never be surprises.

I share this story not to vent (although it was cathartic, thank you), but to help others in similar situations. This scenario happens more frequently than it should.

Here are my ‘take them or leave them’ tips for how a more ideal process should unfold.

First, don’t use an open RFP process if you can avoid it. I’m sure the University was hoping to increase their chances of finding the best fit and also get leverage on pricing. And, this being a state university, I’m certain it was a requirement to open the bidding to all comers. This is a massive waste of time for everyone involved (I would guess they received 15-20+ responses), and frankly just a lazy practice.

If you must do an open RFP process, do a high level Request for Information (RFI) to get basic vendor profiles. Then invite the top 3-4 to the next stage.

Don’t rely on the RFI as a crutch for not doing your homework. Research potential partners and talk to peers for recommendations. Many qualified firms will respond to RFPs, but the majority of the good ones refuse because they are so busy with healthy referral-based business. You need to find these firms, not hope they find you.

Next, meet with each of your hand selected vendors for informal meetings (conversations, not pitches) before you issue a formal RFP or project brief. Best case scenario, you will find a firm to collaborate with to develop the scope together. The goal of these meetings are to determine if there is a fit between your two organizations and gather information on how each would approach such a project.

In these meetings I guarantee you will discover things you hadn’t considered and also learn what type of vendors you like. Be transparent with your budget and seek input on what other organizations have spent to achieve the results you desire.

Let’s be clear on this point. It is absurd to not share a budget. Your goal should be to determine how much value you can get for your budget, not play a game of cat and mouse hoping vendors come in under your budget. This also allows potential firms to qualify you out if it’s not a project sized for their firm.

If you truly don’t have a budget, be open that it is an unfunded project and you are in a fact finding mode to determine if you can afford it. Most vendors will be happy to share typical ranges up front. Both parties have failed miserably if the first time the client learns about the cost is on the final page of a 75-page-page proposal.

Lastly, don’t hide behind a procurement office. I realize this is a policy at many organizations, but it’s one that will almost ensure that you get a poorly scoped proposal from vendors who aren’t the best fit. Make the key stakeholders available for conversations.

We’ve been a part of many successful RFP-driven processes and welcome the opportunity to engage with organizations that want to evaluate a handful of carefully selected partners with open conversations.

In the case of this University, I’m sure they will eventually get their budget, followed by yet another RFP. To which we will respond:

Dear University,

Our RFP response to you was canceled due to the excessive costs involved in responding. All of your requests made our sales team over allocated so we scrapped the response.

Thank you for your consideration.

About the Author
Jeff Cram

Jeff Cram is Chief Strategy Officer and co-founder of Connective DX (formerly ISITE Design), a digital agency based in Portland, OR and Boston, MA. As the Managing Editor of the CMS Myth, Jeff is passionate about all topics related to content management, digital strategy and experience design.

More articles from Jeff Cram


7 responses… read them below or add one.

  1. John Coonen says:

    This was SO dead-on-a-gnat’s ass. Thanks for sharing this story. I particularly love the send-off:

    “Dear University,
    Our RFP response to you was canceled due to the excessive costs involved in responding. All of your requests made our sales team over allocated so we scrapped the response.

    Thank you for your consideration.

    I am bookmarking this article, and sharing amongst friends. Enemies shall be banned from reading it. ;)


  2. David Hobbs says:

    Ooph, I viscerally feel your pain. I actually think that part of the problem is that people often make laundry-list or shock and awe RFPs rather than trying to isolate what’s really important. In this case, somehow they should have gotten an overall feel for how much it would cost first (and be willing to cut scope or refine the vision before continuing). Also, thinking in terms of phases or priorities can help break down the problem as well.

  3. Robert Rose says:

    Say it Brother!!

    The RFP for a CMS is the most ineffective way to get to the best solution for the business. What you are actually asking for is not the best solution – but rather who can “take the best test”. A Few thoughts…

    By issuing an RFP – and requiring such a detailed response – the client (or more likely the consultant that was hired to write the RFP) thinks they are going to level the playing field – and get thoughtful responses. Instead, they’ve just ensured that either A) ONLY the most desperate vendors will respond or B) (as it sounds in your case) the ones that have already built something before that they can copy and paste in.

    Question: Does ANY CMS vendor ever check the “Never Have” box in those stupid Feature XLS spreadsheets… No… It’s always a version of “Yes, we have…. ”

    Then – and I’m not sure why any sane person would ask for this… By making it open and getting maybe 20–25 proposals at 30-40 pages a piece – they’ve just signed up for a 1000 pages of reading…. That’s a cost-effective way to select a vendor

    How can they not just “flip to the last page” look at the costs and then once they see the lowest one go… “mmmmm yeah, these guys sound good”…

    And then, my favorite is when they won’t say who the competition is. Great – so you’d like a proposal that differentiates how we’d approach the project against everything…..

    The RFP is an antiquated, lazy and ultimately ineffective way to get the optimal proposal for what you desperately hope will be a differentiated solution than the one you have now.

    I co-wrote a fun 12Most article on RFP’s if you’re interested:

  4. Amber James says:

    Hi Jeff,

    I’ve had minimal experience with RFPs and it sounds like that’s a good thing. One thing about this story that stuck in my mind was the lack of communication the university had with its applicants.

    As a freelance copywriter, I give clients estimates on projects all the time. And, like this university, some of them don’t get back to me because, I assume, they don’t like what I’ve told them. Those clients who do have moderately developed communication skills will dialogue with me about rates and we often come to an agreement that works for all parties involved.

    In your experience, would the university have benefited from choosing their top 3-4 applicants and having a dialogue with them about a more accessible project rate? What are applicant responses to this kind of questioning: to come down or not to come down?

    Like you and David mentioned, they would have done well to do their research before burying themselves under 1000 pages of reading that they probably didn’t more than skim.

    Excellent article.


  5. Jack Kurtz says:

    Great article. Here’s another tongue in cheek article on the same topic:

  6. Richard Lane says:

    Great article – thanks for sharing. I wonder how much time is wasted annually by companies that never had a chance of winning the RFP in the first place.

    I wrote an article on this subject recently –

    (Hope it’s okay to share a link here),

    Thanks again,

  7. Len Green says:

    Really thought provoking article!!. Do you know if the state in which the university is located had imposed overburdensome restrictions on its people so that they dare not talk to vendors to gain that knowledge and improve the process? For example, look at the State of IL SB51 regulations.

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