Challenging the RFP, and yourself

Becky Taylor

Becky Taylor

UX designer, digital project manager and founder at Deckchair.


Written by Becky Taylor

The RFP, or Request For Proposal. We all get them and often they are a primary method of getting in new work. The trouble with the RFP is that most agencies treat them as a box ticking exercise, by which they respond accordingly to the RFP and end up working on a project they don’t necessarily want or even understand. Not a nice position to be in, especially if it cost you 5+ days of spec work to put your proposal together.

Imagine if the RFP was merely a starting point for a conversation. The client was open to meeting and discussing their challenges with you and you spent time with them to define what their need really was. Out of this you produced a tailored, concise response based on clear understanding, that you were happy to turn into a real project. Or, you realised the RFP wasn’t for you, and you dodged the bullet early and politely.

Fear not, this is possible!

Regardless of what a client sends you, I propose that no RFP is defined enough for you to be able to prepare an effective response.

“WHAT?” I hear you say…

Let’s quickly outline what’s good about the RFP…

  • It’s likely they’ve asked you specifically to propose, which hopefully means they at least like the look of you – so you are starting off on a good foot
  • You have something to work with rather than nothing
  • They’ve recognised they need outside ‘expert’ help

… and what’s bad about the RFP

  • It’s unspecific, subjective and solutions-focused
  • People get hung up on it
  • Not everyone has been involved in writing it
  • It will be sent to a number of different agencies, so it’s debatable how much the client values the work involved in responding

I believe, in order to really help an organisation, you need to get to the bottom of what their challenge or need is.

An RFP rarely shares this information. The key thing to remember here is that often what a client says they need, is usually not what they or their business actually needs. Either way, this assumption needs to be tested.

So by providing a proposal based purely on what the RFP may say, you may be completely going off in the wrong direction which can be problematic for everyone.

Becky Taylor

Becky Taylor

UX designer, digital project manager and founder at Deckchair.


Written by Becky Taylor

So how do we approach the RFP in the right way?

Rather than making assumptions and jumping off in the deep end to get resource working on your proposal, there are some key, yet simple steps to do first.

Get the A Team on the job

Challenging an RFP isn’t a lone cowboy exercise, in order to explore and respond to the RFP in the best way it’s critical you involve any team members, contractors or third parties immediately. These should be the people who would work on the project if you won it.

By getting developers, designers, UXers, account managers, project managers, content writers etc involved, they will bring deeper questioning and insight than you can on your own. They all have their own view and project expertise, and if they aren’t involved in interrogating the RFP, you’re likely to make some dangerous assumptions that could cost you later.  The team need to share the same knowledge as you and respond with you.

Get in the same room as the client

For me this is the no.1 all important part of responding to the RFP. These days we will never respond to an RFP without this stage of the process. Despite how clear the documents may seem, there is always more to find out, and the best way to do this is to chat to the client.

Book time to assess the brief early, then come back to the client quickly with a request to talk further. At worst, you have to email across a set of questions, at best, you’re given a time slot to meet them in person. Email is good because you still get to delve into detail, but there’s little opportunity for trust or relationship building.

If you can land a phone call or face to face, your relationship begins. Suddenly the human element comes into play – we are all real people who want to solve a problem.

  • You can react on the spot and even ask more questions
  • It gives you the opportunity to find out much more about the brief, but also about the client (see our article How do you avoid working with the ‘wrong’ client)
  • It’s reassuring for them to see that you are a real, normal person and they can also find out more about you
  • This is a fantastic opportunity to build chemistry and trust, or, realise that you’re not going to get on

So once you’re with the client, what do you do? Simple – talk through the client’s key points and ask:

  • Why are they doing this?
  • What do they hope to achieve? (Get specific goals if you can)
  • Who’s the audience?
  • What is their internal resource for the project?
It’s Ok to ask questions

Through asking questions, you are demonstrating your expertise. Be sure to challenge them (nicely) – how do they know their customers want this? Why do they want to get X sales? Do they have the internal resource to cope with this? This is your opportunity to not only get some real, deeper answers, but also for you to get them thinking about their project more objectively.

Clients often don’t know what language to use, and are very fearful about getting it wrong – so by asking them to explain, it allows everyone to be clear. If we had £1 for the different answers we have had to “what do you mean by ‘dynamic’?” over the years…! But thank goodness we asked those questions.

From our experience, this kind of questioning rarely goes down badly – you are showing the client that you genuinely care and are interested in getting to know them and their business. It gives you a chance to feel and demonstrate real empathy towards them.

Leave your ego at the door

Some agencies tend to find questioning the client uncomfortable – as if as an agency you should know all the answers and be able to understand every client’s language. It actually reassures clients when we ask them questions – it shows that we’re interested and want to get this right. And if you gently challenge or probe about something, it often reaps huge rewards because it shows your thinking and gets them to really consider why they want something a certain way.

Other agencies feel the need to harp on about themselves and their credentials – it’s essential you understand that this isn’t about you, it’s about them and their needs. The more you can tailor what you do to their needs, the more successful you will be.

Forget about the solution, it’s all about the “problem”

Most RPFs focus on a solution. Clients find it difficult to articulate the real problem, but more likely, they aren’t objective enough to look at their business in this way, and it’s far easier for them to talk about solutions. To get your response right, it’s your job to cut through all the talk of solutions and unearth what’s really going on, so that you can ensure any solutions you do talk about, are fit for purpose.

  • Are you clear on what the problem is?
  • Does the client really understand what the problem is?
  • Is your interpretation of the problem the same as theirs? I.e. when you respond, will they agree?

In your response, talk to their problem, not the solutions:

  • You can’t possibly know how to solve their particular challenge right now, even if you think you do. It’s dangerous to promise solutions before you know all the details
  • By all means you should refer to the requirements and needs mentioned in their RFP but without telling them how you will specifically answer these. For example “We understand your need for a content management system. We often use WordPress but are system-agnostic and will help you to work out the best system for you, that offers high permission levels, flexibility and delivers the other requirements you have mentioned…”
Do you even want to do this project?

Armed with the information you’ve gathered, and hopefully the contact you have had with the client, you’ll be in a much better position to decide if you want to respond to the RFP.  Ask yourself all the sensible questions …do you want the job, can you do it? Is the budget right, can we get the skill, will we enjoy it, are they the right client, does it have a good feeling or not?

If your decision is “No, unless they change X”, communicate this with the client. We’ve previously had an RFP with an unrealistic budget and timeframe but we were frank with the client about this, and they agreed that this could flex and be open to interpretation. It’s worth a try.

“This still sounds like a terrible project, why are we even doing this?”

If you effectively challenge the RFP and bring your best team to help, you should avoid having to ask yourself this question ever again. We all need to see the RFP, not as a dictatorial document, but as the starting point of a conversation. Challenging the RFP appeals to the client in a more meaningful way, you unearth the real problem and bring your team on-side, showing them you value their input. Ultimately it helps you win better digital projects, and that can’t be a bad thing!

Sonja Jefferson

Sonja Jefferson

Content marketing strategist & Pub School teacher at Valuable Content.


Written by Sonja Jefferson

“Get in the same room as the client…These days we will never respond to an RFP without this stage of the process.” Yes! Couldn’t agree more Becky.

One of my favourite business development thinkers Charles H. Green (author of Trusted Advisor and Trust-based Selling) advises us to ‘Write your next sales proposal with your client’.

“We normally think of the sales process as something that precedes having a good customer or client relationship. First we get the sale, then we can be all trusting and collaborative. Writing the proposal together, with the client, changes that. It creates trust and collaboration before the sale. It models those attributes in the proposal process itself.” Charles H. Green, Trusted Advisor

The same applies with a more formal RFP. A great way to build trust and collaboration through the sales process, and deliver the best possible proposal for both parties.

Great article. Thanks Becky. Loving UXTail Soup! Keep the conversations coming.

If you’re interested read Charles Green’s articles on this approach:

A penny for your thoughts...