Corporate RFPs are supposed to have a specific structure, but clients don’t always know how to write these detailed documents. If you’ve done any work with RFPs, you’ve probably seen your share of vague and nebulous requests that create more questions than they answer. In response to my advice on how to respond to corporate RFPs, a Builder member asked how to respond to one of these more challenging proposals.

The member wrote, “Your article makes sense, in a scenario where the client knows how to write an RFP. We are a small/midsize Web development firm, and often receive RFPs that may be two to four pages long and talk in general about ‘wanting a presence on the Web,’ or a ‘simple redesign.’ And when the job is actually won, they begin talking about a feature here and a feature there that either results in scope creep or dissatisfaction.

“We try to interview the client and ask them questions that help them realize there is probably more to what they want than what they are stating in their RFP, but that doesn’t always work. Do you have any tips on how to handle such RFPs and clients?“

If you have an RFP like this sitting in your inbox, these tips will help you form a basic approach for dealing with it.

Things to look for
I usually define a nebulous RFP as one that is imprecise in its requirements, vague in its objectives, and, in general, nonspecific. Essentially, such RFPs occur for one of (or a combination of) the following reasons:

  • The company that provided the RFP doesn’t know how to write a proper RFP.
  • The company doesn’t know what it wants.
  • The company is fishing for ideas to try to figure out what it needs.

There are a few common nebulous RFP statements that seem to show up time and again, especially in Web development RFPs. I’ve learned from experience what it is those vague statements really mean and what your prospect is trying to say.

What the RFP says

What it could mean

Want a presence on the Web
• Don’t have an existing Web site
• Need to extend the brand online
• Not getting enough impact/return or revenue generated from existing Web site

Simple redesign
• Existing site needs to be completely redone (this includes design/content and structure)
Not platform language/ vendor specific
• Don’t have staff on hand that can recommend specific technology
• Don’t have an existing host or server setup
• Looking to respondents to recommend and research proper options

Want it to be easily updateable
• Need some type of content management system
Fast loading graphics
• Users have slow connections and old systems
Interactive and intuitive
• Are not just looking for an HTML design layout. Probably would like some interactive technologies such as Flash, DHTML, JavaScript, etc.
• Navigation and content structure are important and need to make sense
• Consider usability testing as part of your response

Want to be able to use some internal resources
• Internal “techies” want a piece of the pie
• Consider a co-development approach or a content management system

Don’t have a budget
• RFP process may be a “pencil sharpening” exercise
• Are using you to figure out how much things will cost

Tips for dealing with a nebulous RFP
The way to deal with a client who’s provided you with a nebulous RFP is to be upfront, honest, and as precise as possible in outlining the deliverables. One of the best (if somewhat bold) solutions that I’ve found is to help the client write a proper RFP.

If your client hasn’t yet written the RFP but is in the planning stages, seize the opportunity and offer to write the RFP yourself. Even though the company may still send out the RFP to multiple vendors, you already have the inside track.

If the RFP has already been written, write addendums to the nebulous statements and spell out what you see those requirements to be.

The member said that his company also tries “to interview the client and ask them questions that help them realize there is probably more to what they want than what they are stating in their RFP, but that doesn’t always work.” The unfortunate reality is such that if a client provided you with a nebulous RFP, the client may simply not know any better. In such cases, I’ve found that showing comparative examples is extremely effective. It doesn’t matter if the example is from that industry or not. Sometimes it’s better to show than to tell, and sometimes it’s easier for clients to identify what they want by making their want as tangible as possible.

Checklist for taking the mystery out of vague RFPs
Follow these steps to create a document that describes what your client wants to create, a real plan for you to work with:

  1. Initiate a conversation with your client to define what the vague requirements really mean.
  2. Write a new, more detailed RFP.
  3. Include specific examples to illustrate what the project involves.
  4. Be honest about the amount of effort the project will require.

I’ve always thought of a nebulous RFP as a cry for help. It’s an opportunity to differentiate yourself from all the other development firms out there that don’t know the difference. Your new clients are looking to your knowledge and expertise to tell them what they need. So, tell them what they need and then give it to them!

Dealing with nebulous RFPs (and the clients who produced them) isn’t as easy as dealing with those who know exactly what they want. However, it does provide an opportunity for you to show off your strategic ability to understand their needs and create more valuable and loyal clients.