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