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Can an RFP Get Your Organization What It Really Needs? Or Just What You Ask For?

Ali Zamanian September 1, 2022

Many associations default to writing a request for proposal (RFP) when it comes to choosing a professional firm to help them rebrand their organization or redesign their website. And while it’s easy to assume RFPs are the way to get the job done fairly, effectively, and economically, this assumption tends to reduce a complex problem down to a simple matter of where to get the best deal like you would when buying a car. 

The reality is that when you’re ready to buy a car, you start by evaluating your needs (car features and benefits) and then your constraints (your budget). Eventually you find the best option and then a dealer offering the best price. Then, you buy that car. 

But it’s not that straightforward when it comes to complex, high dollar value, and customized solutions. When you rebrand an organization or redesign a website, you need to do much more than search for the firm with the lowest price. You’re looking for a firm that has solved the same problems as you’re facing in your industry. Working with a firm means entrusting them to correctly diagnose the source of your problem areas, and have the experience and expertise to solve those problems in your industry.

RFPs aren’t the only way to select a firm to do your long-awaited rebranding or website project. The RFP process doesn’t typically lead to the best qualified expert, solution, or even the best value. There’s a better way. When you use qualifications based selection (QBS), you’ll get a fairly-priced, customized solution from a true expert.

RFPs Have Their Place — But Not For Complex and Customized Solutions

RFPs do work in cut-and-dry scenarios when: 

  1. You don’t need an industry expert to help you understand the problem or the real cause of it. 
  2. You don’t need a conversation with firms to make sure they fully understand your association and its challenges, diagnose the source of them, before proposing the correct custom solution.  
  3. The lowest price is all that matters to you. The RFP process identifies which firm will provide the best perceived value — not which firm will provide the most innovative, valuable solution, at a fair price. 
  4. Opportunity cost is not a concern. If you truly know the source of the problem, and the deliverables are simple and identifiable. You’re not worried that you could have missed a major insight or opportunity and spent your valuable resources on the wrong (or half baked) solution.

When your association takes on a rebrand or a website redesign, you’re attending to a critical part of successfully moving your member-driven organization into the future — not a simple, cut-and-dry issue like the above criteria would cater to. Again, in order for the RFP process to work, you need an accurate self-diagnosis. But what happens when you take on writing an RFP and incorrectly define the source of the problem? 

It’s not only writing the RFP that’s a challenge. It’s also identifying an expert vendor. Naturally, vendors who respond to an RFP will want to win the project. They’ll make promises based on your prescribed requests for the lowest price they can offer and bind themselves to it. 

More and more expert firms won’t even bother participating in the RFP process. That’s because RFPs offer no incentive for firms to spend the extensive time necessary to research and diagnose the real cause of the problem or to generate custom and innovative solutions that best address it. After all, that would be a waste of their time and effort if and when you choose another firm. 

Don’t end up selecting the wrong vendor or the wrong solution because you were lured by the lowest price or perceived value. By the time you figure out the solution you paid for is half-baked, you’ll have no budget left to start your project over. So skip the RFP and begin with QBS.

Use Qualifications Based Selection (QBS) To Get Your Association the Best Results

RFPs often don’t reflect an association’s true needs. Why? Because even those who do know the project best — and who have perhaps begged and pleaded to have it approved — are too close to the project to see all the variables. It’s easy to see the car needs fixing, but knowing what parts to replace or if you need a new car altogether? Those decisions take the know-how, experience, and eyes of an expert.

When you need expert solutions for complex problems, qualifications based selection (QBS) makes sense. The process was established by the Congress in 1972 as a method to ensure government agencies hired the most qualified architecture and engineering firms rather than the cheapest. Since then QBS has been adopted as a procurement method in the private sector as well.

The QBS process ensures:

  • You can select a firm based on their competency and expertise rather than price or specific deliverables.
  • The expert firm drives best value into your budget.
  • Best value is measured by the quality of the solutions at a fair price.
  • You’ll collaborate with the firm you choose about the best approach to your project and its scale and scope, and determine the best path forward and the appropriate deliverables to give you the desired outcome.

QBS gives you an opportunity to collaborate, to ask tough questions — and be asked tough questions. You can have conversations with the firm that builds a mutual understanding of the problem and the real cause of it, before determining the most appropriate solutions, costs, and deliverables.

3 Easy Steps to Hiring a Vendor Via QBS 

It might be tempting to stick with the RFP process to select a vendor for your project. It’s human nature to choose the familiar — despite evidence that the familiar isn’t the best for the desired outcome.

You can still lean on something familiar as you begin QBS. Treat the process like you are making a new staff hire and follow these 3 steps:

  1. Determine the qualifications a firm must have for you to hire them. Rather than starting with an RFP, start with an “RFQ” presenting your project’s objectives to vendors offering the services you need. Don’t focus on finding a pre-defined solution or rate — look at each firm’s capabilities, approach, and their ability to communicate with your team. Be sure to confirm they have extensive experience working with similar organizations and have solved similar challenges for them. 
  2. Shortlist the top three firms, interview them, and rank them. Review qualification responses and consider each firm’s experience, capabilities, and personnel. Spend time researching each firm’s website and their past clients, thought leadership, and results. Interview each firm about the project and rate the candidates for their understanding of the project, their approach, and how they communicate with your team.
  3. Start the collaborative process. Select the top firm and start the collaborative process of identifying the real source of your problems, the most optimal budget to solve them, as well as the solutions and deliverables to drive into that budget.

Your Association’s Project Deserves a Better Procurement Process

When you’re finally at the point of firm selection for your project, you should insist on one who has these two qualities:

  • Industry expertise 
  • An understanding of your organization’s unique challenges and having solved the same challenges for other similar organizations

Aren’t you looking to hire a vendor in the first place because you don’t have the expertise yourself? Old school RFPs simply aren’t designed to help you access top industry experts.

Instead of sinking time, energy, and budget in a process that proves inefficient at best, invest in a more effective selection process. QBS springs from a firm belief that only experts should do your work and that your engagement with them should be focused and productive. It makes way for you to hire the best available firm to build your association’s custom ride — empowering you to take your members where they want to go.

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