Three Ways to Improve RFPs and Proposals

Recently I had the opportunity to facilitate a discussion with AIGA members in New York City at a meeting called Redesigning the RFP Response. The event was actually inspired by my wife, who works as a project manager at a large philanthropic foundation in New York. A few months ago she wrote and sent out a request for proposal for a redesign of the foundation’s website. Comparing her experience to mine as consultant each evening over dinner was revealing, to say the least. In between stories of mis-interpreted requests and process snafus, we were able to distill a few ideas that clients and consultants can do to improve the RFP-Proposal exchange:

  1. Educate each other. Clients writing RFPs have a difficult task: they know they need outside expertise, and yet they have to describe what they want without having the needed expertise. It’s a chicken and egg problem. Both the client and consultant can help by exploring which requests are firm and which are open to discussion.Conversely, consultants are experts, and sometimes we speak in rarefied terms. We can improve communication by simply applying the same customer-centered approach we use when designing for customers when we’re working with our clients. With a little research and help from the client, consultants can learn more about business goals, organizational structure, financial condition, experience level, and so on, and apply this understanding to the creation of presentations and documents.
  2. Provide vision. An ongoing debate around proposals is how to describe the proposed work. Actually doing and showing some of the work (called “spec work”) can amount to a wild guess on the part of the consultant, and is considered unethical by organizations like the AIGA. So how does a consultant discuss their ideas? We can instead show concepts of how the customer experience will be different when the project is done, as well as how certain key performance indicators will be measured and achieved. In other words, discussing the very specific benefits is close to but not quite giving away the answer.Vision for clients is essentially their strategy, and not surprisingly many people aren’t comfortable exposing their business strategy in an RFP. Short of this, an understanding of the business model is critical to proposing work for the organization. For example, some consultants pitching my wife didn’t understand that the foundation wasn’t hoping to increase donations as a revenue source. Foundations usually have an endowment; they do the donating! Both parties should ensure the business model is clear.
  3. Have fun too. Finding a successful match of client and consultant boils down to two essential criteria: One, does the team have the right skills for the job? And two, do we like working with them? This second point is talked about rarely if at all, but is always a factor. By the second or third round of the selection process chances are all of the consultants are somewhat qualified, but may be wildly different in helping the client feel comfortable and attending to their questions. In the past relationships might have been forged over golf or drinks, but in today’s business atmosphere we need to be more creative at finding ways clients and consultants can enjoy the work.