Request for Proposals (RFPs) have long been the bane of my existence. Not because I’m lazy or just don’t want to write, but because I’m philosophically opposed to the notion that we should give our 12 years of experience (over 100, cumulatively) away for free. And, participating in that game sets the precedent that everyone else in our industry should, too.

I take deeper issue with the concept of the RFP as well. I acknowledge that there are better RFPs, worse ones, and a world in between. But, the majority of what I see are terribly flawed and misguided documents being prepared by people unqualified to prepare them.

My deeper issue is that the RFPs I see so often tell me precisely the desired solution and at what cost. Which means that either the client is self-diagnosing or has hired a consultant of sorts, very rarely the person, or persons, qualified (great–if they are) to implement the work. This is bad. For everyone.

I want to clarify that the kind of RFP I’m talking about in this article is one in which the problem that needs to be solved is more complex than a basic website. Ecommerce sites in and of themselves embody a certain kind of complexity, but Shopify has made a previously extraordinarily complicated world, oh so much simpler.

So, the kind of website solution I’m talking about here, is beyond slapping a pretty theme on and going live. What I’m talking about is the kind of problem that requires an in-depth understanding of the client’s business and operations in order to solve. One that involves multiple integrations and multiple stakeholders.

The problem

I understand that we, in the digital industry, are selling more than a commodified, cut and dry, relatively the same, service or product. That as a company seeking a vendor, there’s a lot on the line and more than just a few bucks. But doesn’t that, in and of itself, make a case for an alternative process that would better ensure the outcome is more along the lines of what’s hoped for?

I have actually used this response before, more than once:

“To respond to this RFP with a proposal for this project would mean that we have to essentially put in as little time as possible, to get enough of a sense of what this project entails. And throw a number at you that will cover our bases amidst the inevitable and significant unknowns that are a result of not having a thorough technical discovery and strategy in hand. And, I guarantee you that is what every other agency you are getting bids from, is doing.”

It’s harsh and there’s a risk of losing the project right off the bat, but by some sort of grace, I have reached the point in my career in which doing things of value that I’m philosophically in alignment with, has outweighed pushing dollars and other numbers through the door. That is not to say that taking this approach has weakened the financial or cultural health of my agency in any way shape or form, it hasn’t.

The problem is that so many of us are just accustomed to doing things the way we’ve seen them done before. This is human nature and I get that. But this is a challenge, a call to action, to us of the digital industry, paving a whole new industry one day at a time, to rise above what’s been done before and do something the right way, the better way, the fairer way that elevates us all.

The solution

The right way is a paid technical discovery. By paying for expertise up front, by paying to actually have several firms dig deep into your business and the potential ways to solve your problem, you are acknowledging what is true: that there is no one way in today’s technological landscape to solve any particular problem.

The more complicated the problem, the more variable, plausible solutions. By spending the time and money to do this up front, to study the ins and outs of your unique operations and to compare various options different teams come up with (by being paid to dig deep and be diligent), you are taking out an insurance policy on your investment. It is the obvious way, the smart way, the wise investor’s way of getting the best possible outcome.

We do not respond to RFPs that come without a thorough Technical Discovery. We’ve been evolving our technical discovery process over the past several years, and will continue to iterate on it each time we do it. We break the process down by phases according to the scope of work at hand.

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