Jeanna Goodrich Balreira and Stephanie Enoch of Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.
Many web projects are destined to fail before they begin, hampered by an ineffective “Request for Proposal” process. Often the culmination of months (if not years) of build up, an organization’s RFP defines the nature of the relationship with the chosen web vendor and how the project will be administered.
Over the past year, ImageX and Trinity University have been working on several web development projects. In initating these projects, both Trinity and ImageX stepped outside the usual box of university procurement procedures to pursue what both sides felt was a better way of managing an RFP process.
The following is an interview ImageX conducted with Jeanna Goodrich Balreira and Stephanie Enoch of Trinity, who talk about how and why they decided to take a different approach to RPFs - and the results!
Why does Trinity as an organization use RFPs to procure web services?
Jeanna: Even though we’re a smaller school, we still find ourselves with the same sorts of needs as a larger group. We have a pretty solid team for front end and content management, but having back-end experts really his helps us understand the feasibility of projects and the time commitment of seeing projects through to completion – and maintaining them.
What would you describe as some of the pitfalls of the RFP process from your perspective?
Stephanie: Communication isn’t streamlined, so you end up with situations where a client is seeking a vendor but they really don’t know what they’re asking for. That can lead to rework and unexpected customization, which means more time and money.
Another issue is that clients tend to overlook the nitty-gritty parts when describing their project needs and focusing on flashy and fancy. Flashy and fancy can be good, but it doesn’t necessarily fulfill the needs of the user or address the business problem.
With these pitfalls in mind, what suggestions would you have on how to approach the RFP process more effectively?
Jeanna: We did fairly intensive research, asking our key end users, contributors and stakeholders what do you want to see from this project, what are some challenges you’ve faced in the past and how could this project overcome those challenges. How can you see this project fulfill your wildest dreams of website development or content management?
We also wanted to make sure education was a fundamental goal of our vendors. When we did run into issues that required troubleshooting, we had the knowledge and the vendor understood we wanted to increase our knowledge.
With these two aspects in mind, we moved away from a more traditional approach toward diving in to the nitty gritty, and hoping a vendor would dive in with us!
It sounds like this approach led to a better, more informed engagement with vendors. How did you practically approach the data-gathering? What activities did you undertake?
Jeanna: There were lots of stakeholders involved – everyone was there, everyone from 16-year-olds potentially looking at Trinity as a place to go to school, to 80-year-olds working on their personal faculty website.
We talked to users face-to-face, in the same room. We didn’t want to leave anything to email or chat.
Stephanie: Just having everyone in the room, that was important to make the right decisions. It made people feel very involved from the very beginning. I think they felt inspired by contributing their ideas, the inspiration that people feel hearing from one another.
Once you had this information together and consolidated it into a digestible form, how did you approach vendors?
Jeanna: One of the things our office has begun to pride itself on is the availability of really good data to back up our requests. In collecting this data, we were able to create what were essentially pre-requirements documents.
We were able to take these documents and do some of our own research beforehand. One of the issues of an open RFP is wading through the static. There will be people who respond to the RPF who are maybe nowhere close to the requirements.
To avoid that mismatch, we did research on vendors up front. For example, ImageX had bid on the initial website redesign project for Trinity.edu and had made a very good impression, so they were at the top of our list for more complex web projects, along with a couple of other vendors. So we picked up the phone and called them!
We knew we wanted to be comfortable in communication, especially in verbal communication.
You can tell a lot about the fit from the way someone will listen, or offer opinions or honest feedback, which we in our office truly value.
You’ve clearly seen dividends in taking this more engaged approach. However, there are some groups who are constrained in some way. For example, they might not be allowed to contact vendors ahead of time. Do you have any advice for those whose organizations have fairly strict RFP guidelines?
Jeanna: While I realize not everyone will be able to do all these steps, I would put a call to all RPF managers, to suggest that the time spent beforehand makes it up tenfold. The time spent researching, and talking, is time well spent.
The work you are doing is, in the long run, opening up honest communication, so that, when things aren’t going right, you’re able to put the brakes on and look at the issue as team, instead of as a client telling a vendor what to do, or as a client, having to accept what the vendor has put in front of me.
Thank you both for your insights. As a final question, if you could think of one takeaway, one piece of advice for those undertaking a procurement process for web projects, what would that be?
Stephanie: Focus on your end user, on the goals and making sure everything is aligned, and keep tight communication between stakeholders. And make sure everyone involved in the project is aware of everything they need to be.
Jeanna: I would say to RFP owners that however long you think it will take, it will take twice as long, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Use that opportunity to continually refine and go back to the goal. Make sure, as the project builds and develops, you’re able to go with the flow and understand this is where we’re headed, this is where we’d like to go and here’s how we’re going to use this time to get there.