The Problem with RFPs is That They're Like Dating Sites

The Trouble with RFPs (and Dating Sites)

This is how dating sites usually work. One side writes a profile, the other responds. Communication is limited, information is incomplete, and emphasis on certain things is misplaced.

Here’s a few of the problems with RFPs, and why they are like those you would find in a dating site.

RFPs Prevent Dialog

Dating websites are tools for quick disqualification and are designed to save people the time (and awkwardness) of ending up on bad dates.

But they do so by limiting communication, which ironically makes that great date harder to find.

RFPs have the same problem. In the quest to keep the process fair, they keep design companies and potential clients at arms length.

Yes, limiting conversation helps keep the game fair in many situations where equality is important — such as in the case of the public and government sectors when multiple contractors are bidding on a design project — but also, this makes the process inadequate for selecting the best fit for the project.

Creative services like web design and graphic design are very high-touch and consultative in nature. Communication is crucial.

When the selection process restricts communication, it is far more difficult for both the design agency and the client to qualify each other.

Is everyone listening?

Will everyone get along?

Is everyone on board with the objectives of the project?

With no dialog, you’ll have no idea.

The Content of RFPs Don’t Contain Enough Info About the Project

The web development and design firm I co-founded, Orbit Media, sees a lot of RFPs.

What we did was take the last ten RFPs, combined them, and organized their content into three groups to understand what the average request for proposal contains.

Here are the contents of a typical RFP:

  1. Company background and contact info
  2. Proposal requirements and RFP process
  3. Information about the project you’re supposed to propose (budget, timeline, etc.)

You can see that RFPs don’t focus on the project. They’re mostly about other things.

In fact, what we’ve seen is that the typical RFP has more requirements for the proposal than for the actual project itself.

This reminds me of my old profile. Very little of it was relevant to relationships. It was mostly anecdotal information about myself.

Too Much Emphasis and Focus on Superficial Things

I’m 6′ 2", played football in college, and have a law degree from Stanford.

Not really. But it sounded good, right?

Throw in a picture of a guy with dark eyes and great hair, and pretty soon I’m someone’s soul mate.

The RFP process does the same thing. If the responding proposal lets the client check off enough boxes (budget, timing, experience, technology), it starts to feel like a match.

But, in truth, it might not be a match at all since all the important stuff — philosophy, company culture, company values, internal processes, and other hard-to-quantify but essential factors — aren’t captured effectively in a proposal.

The company issuing the RFP wants to compare all the participants against the same criteria. But in the world of creative services, every company has a different approach.

They want to select a design company that understands subtlety and nuance, but they’re selecting them using absolute, black-and-white criteria. See the mismatch?

An RFP is a Beauty Contest for Writers

Aside from price, all that’s left is the words. Some companies will have better writers than others that know how to include more focused examples, align better with the clients’ mission, and be more organized with prettier formatting.

Obviously, there’s a risk in picking partners this way. Writing a great dating profile doesn’t make me a good boyfriend in the same way as writing a great proposal doesn’t make a great service provider.

Mismatch and Request for Problems

RFPs and dating profiles are both well-intended ways to help people start a meaningful relationship. But they’re both flawed.

Next time you consider sending or responding to an RFP, take a moment to ask if you’re doing justice to yourself and the selection process.

I’m in a happy relationship that didn’t start on a dating website.

And I’m glad for anyone who met Mr. or Miss Right online.

But you won’t find me on or responding to RFPs anytime soon.

  • David Bourne

    Responding to an RFP reminds me of being asked to submit a very long feedback form.

    No thanks. If you approach me for a project like a robot, I will respond like an unplugged robot.

    On the other hand, I’m grateful for RFPs because I know I don’t want to do business with companies that use them.

  • Chad Zenner

    Andy, can you share a sample of the most complete, well written RFP you’ve been provided? (Obviously you can change names for non-disclosure reasons.) Thanks for the post.

  • Amen Brother Andy. You speak the truth.

  • Andy,
    Once again a nice take on a tough subject. If I may play the devil’s advocate…I agree the client may want subtlety and nuance but whose fault it is that they don’t know what they don’t know. They’re typically innocent all the machinations that go into competent design and are unable to make a clear distinction between the effective and ineffective beyond their own taste (which we can agree is no way to base a design). To use your example, it’s as if a person who conflates sex for love blames because they keep getting used by sexual predators. My contention is clients don’t know what’s vital and we as creatives have done a piss-poor job of codifying the distinctions between effective and ineffective design (outside of taste and the whims of what’s ‘hot’ at the time). We may do this individually, company to company, but there is no prevailing standard to which we assign a baseline for the client to begin his process. Since we have not set rules by which a client can rely, creatives are consigned to pitch against each other based on mercurial criteria to which only we are privy. So my belief is, until we as creatives give the client-class a clear base-line for effectiveness we’ll forever be fighting the same battles again and again. The fault, dear Andrew, lies not in our clients but in ourselves.

  • Agreed. If you want a human response, make a request like a human. A website RFP is in impersonal approach to a very person process. It’s really crazy when you think about it. Thanks for the comment, David!

  • I save these, but there are so few that I’d recommend. The ones I like are often very short and open ended. The worst ones are very long and (I’m not kidding here) they include very little information about the project, but a lot of information on how to format your proposal. I have some that have pages and pages on how to respond, but one a few paragraphs about the actual project. Insane!

    Sadly, I can’t think of a recent example that I liked. But the “RFI” (request for information) is generally a better approach…

  • Thanks, Becka. By the way, would you mind sending a few spec designs over so I can decide if I want to call you back? That’d be great. Thanks!

  • This is a great topic for you and your group, Jon. You could probably do an entire event, newsletter, blog post on RFP and how to/not to respond. The crew would love it….

  • I just found this post and I love it. I am working in a different area where RFPs could be more useful, but I have found time and time again that very few people can write a good RFP.

    And a badly written RFP is the surest thing to break the project even before it starts – when the RFP is misleading, how can anyone seriously believe that the price and time frame quoted in the response will have any connection with reality?
    And still RFPs and responses are taken seriously, project plans are built on them, and after the first month, when the vendor finished with the first round of analysis the whole thing breaks down and the teams are standing in the middle of chaos.

    Last time I saw this exact situation was yesterday. And apparently, we don’t learn anything.