During my two decades as a design and strategy consultant, I’ve seen countless requests for proposals (RFPs) in my inbox. We consultants are honored and LOVE when potential clients reach out about exciting new projects. (Thank you!) That said, sometimes my delight at reviewing an RFP is tempered by anxiety; will this be another one of those RFPs?

We certainly don’t expect clients to walk up to Coopers’ doors with a bag of money and a blank piece of paper for us to dictate how we will work together. That said, RFPs can be an obstacle between a firm and the client, making it hard for both parties to evaluate whether we’re a match.

From a consultant’s perspective, here are ten recommendations for making an RFP a highly effective tool for finding the perfect design and strategy partner:

(1) Define the Problem, Rather than the Solution

Design firms specialize in seeing problems from new angles, which is probably one of the greatest benefits of working with an outside partner. If you clearly define the problem you’d like us to solve, and describe the key parameters in which we’ll be working, you’ll receive the best, most creative, and impactful solutions and approaches. Being overly prescriptive inhibits a design firm’s ability to think creatively; if the solution is too narrowly framed, it eliminates the opportunity for exploration, which could lead to a very narrow project approach.

For example, if you ask potential design partners to bid on updating your outdated customer portal, you’ll most likely end up with a new customer portal at the end of the day. But if you ask potential partners to help you increase customer engagement, the potential outcomes become much more interesting and valuable. 

That said, it’s critical that you provide insight into the current direction or current thinking, as well as constraints that your partner must adhere to.

(2) Think about Culture

While it’s important to request information from potential design partners that allows for side-by-side comparisons about capabilities, costs and approaches, you should also discern whether a firm is a good philosophical and cultural fit.

Providing firms with space to tell their story will help you evaluate the best fit for your project, team, and organization. That’s easier to do when you meet people from the firm face to face or via videoconference. Also, allow the firm to deviate from some of the RFP specifics, if they feel it will provide a better outcome. 

I remember one highly competitive RFP process for a traditionally conservative financial services company. At one point, we participated in a design-like meeting with their team to discuss our approach for the project, and our consultants weren’t dressed in full suits, but in more design meeting-like business-casual attire, where we could roll up our sleeves and get covered in whiteboard marker. We asked a lot of probing questions, and dug into the “why” behind some of their assumptions. They ultimately hired us because we didn’t look or talk or think like them, which was something they were looking for. Had we just tried to ape their culture and not be ourselves, we would not have won the work.

(3)  Spec Work Can Mislead

Asking design firms to perform on specification sounds like a great idea, as it seemingly allows you “try before you buy.” However, If you request spec work, you are not likely seeing the firm’s best work, or experiencing what it would actually be like to work with them.

It’s not that firms don’t want to work for free (well, okay, that’s part of it). Rather, because paid client work is always prioritized, and because the firm won’t have the full context of your project, spec work can lead to shoot-from-the-hip designs, uninformed by research, and be the exact opposite of how a firm would approach the project if they were paid.

I remember responding to a lengthy RFP that requested spec work for a customer-facing web portal. Instead of drawing portal sketches (which probably would’ve looked like any other portal sketch, due to a lack of detailed context), we took a risk and instead described the kinds of challenges we envisioned addressing, and our perspective around those perceived challenges. We wound up winning the work. After conducting research and identifying other opportunities, the client determined that a portal wasn’t the right thing to build.

I also remember other RFPs where we elected to submit spec work, invested a lot of time and effort, and wound up not winning the work. It was hard to discern from limited feedback how much of a role the spec work played in the final decision, but it was hard to see how it helped (or didn’t help) our client find a good match.

(4) Define Your Relationship with Procurement

Procurement is a valuable partner and ensures compliance with your organization’s rules and regulations. However, I encourage you to be intentional and careful about how you deploy procurement in the RFP process.

We sometimes find ourselves in a tricky RFP process where procurement acts as a protective shield for the product team trying to hire a design firm. Procurement can add jargony language to the RFP, making it difficult to tease out what is boilerplate versus the specific questions the client team really needs answered.

Also, getting too focused on price and contract terms early in the process can impede on what’s best for the client. We want to get you the right information about the project to make sure we are coming up with an appropriate plan and really hitting your end-client’s goals. 

(5) Connect Us With the Product Team

Top consulting firms are evaluating product teams as potential clients, to ensure we can serve their needs. Our most successful engagements occur when our goals are aligned with our client’s goals, and where we have access to stakeholders to ensure we truly understand their needs and deliver on them.

To do this, we want to spend time with the product team we’ll partner with and hear their vision, goals, culture, and perspective. Even detailed RFPs can’t convey all of that, and context is lost by not getting a sense of who we’d actually work with. RFPs can make it difficult for us to ensure we’re touching on the critical points of the engagement in our response. This in turn makes it more difficult for potential clients to evaluate us as a partner. 

(6) Engage More Deeply With Fewer Firms

Answering RFPs is labor and resource-intensive (or at least it should, if the firm isn’t just providing a canned response). You’ll receive the best proposal when we know we’re a serious contender, and when we can ask deep and clarifying questions about your vision and the project.

You will also receive the clearest responses when you speak with us individually. When multiple competing firms are on the phone at the same time, it sanitizes what content we share and formalizes the tone of the conversation.

I remember one phone call that included eight design firms, and we had one shot to ask questions about the RFP. We were all under strict orders to not mention our firm’s name; Cooper was “Vendor Number 8.” Needless to say, the cloak-and-dagger atmosphere made for an awkward call, and not many topics of substance were discussed.

Also, you shouldn’t be anonymous -- if you can avoid it. We want to develop passion for your project and are more likely to do so if we know who we are working with. 

(7) Progressive Disclosure: Don’t Ask Us to Do it All at Once 

Like design, scoping is an iterative process, and best done with collaboration and feedback. It’s difficult for a design firm to get the final approach and resource plan completely right the first time, so the process should account for refinement based on an ongoing dialogue. Likewise, we don’t expect the client to have everything figured out in the first stage of the RFP process.

Ideally, the initial RFP response should allow for ranges and questions and assumptions, but provide enough detail for the client to be able to narrow the field. Then, the client can use subsequent interactions with candidate firms to refine the scope and provide more detail where necessary.

I recently worked with a potential client who was very upfront about needing to solicit proposals from multiple firms, and wanting us to only submit something high-level to start with (in fact, he was adamant about it). He told us that if he wanted more detail, he would ask for it, and would only do so if we were in more serious contention. It was a great way for him to not get overwhelmed with responses that were clearly not a good fit, and to not waste the time of prospective partners.  

(8) One-Size-Fits-All Process Steps

We sometimes see RFPs where there are requests for massive spreadsheets about data security, or how we store development code, or how we host websites. These may be relevant questions, but I have responded to several RFPs that ask these questions even though we aren’t being asked to supply any code, and will never have access to client personnel or customer databases. The time and resources it takes for firms to collect or create this information may halt a great firm from submitting a proposal.

(9) Consider Us a “Partner,” Not a “Vendor”

The word “vendor” implies that the RFP author is looking for a resource to fulfill orders and send out pre-fab artifacts. Creative agencies do their best work when we work WITH a client, and partner together to solve things. Give us the license to speak truth to power. We consider it our our obligation -- and professional hallmark -- to tell our clients when we think they are headed in the wrong direction. (Though, of course, we follow orders once a final, informed decision is made.)

(10) Magic questions

Always ask these questions:

  • What makes you/your approach different from your competitors?
  • Who will I be working with?
  • What happens if we change course mid-project?
  • What should I be asking that I’m not?