Experience and track record matter when selecting a partner for a digital project, whether going through a formalized request for proposal (RFP) process or a less formal agency selection processes.
A formula has developed over time that most in the industry follow by default as part of the RFP-process. Agencies in turn also follow approximately the same format for the resumes and references they submit in response to the near-standardized information requested by customers. All of this standardization creates a real risk of taking a “copy-paste” approach to this process, which can result in an unsuccessful relationship between client and agency.
Your RFP: Evaluating Experience and Track Record
Avoiding that scenario requires careful consideration of how you approach your evaluation of a potential implementation partner's experience.
Typically any selection process considers previous clients of the agency, their experience with comparable projects and the seniority of the team they propose for the project. Agencies with famous references, big case studies and senior teams gain favor as a result. However, we rarely discuss in any depth what this information reveals about how it will be for our individual organization to work with this particular partner.
I recently worked as an independent advisor to help a high-profile public sector client select a new agency and CMS. Because of their slightly unique set of requirements and their special position in the market, we spent more time than usual thinking about the prior experience of the different agencies and when to evaluate these during the selection process.
The discussion carried extra weight because their RFP-process was submitted to the procurement regulations that all public buyers in the EU have to follow. Among other things, this meant that we couldn’t evaluate the same criteria twice during the selection process or use information about bidders to justify the final choice unless it had been explicitly specified in the original RFP announcement.
The following seven criteria emerged from this project to help others evaluate an agency's experience and track record:
1. You need experienced people more than an experienced agency
A lot of the information you will gather to evaluate experience is based on references and case studies. But you have to make sure that the impressive case study list of one agency doesn’t distract you from choosing the agency that will provide you with the most relevant team.
Any agency's abilities are completely dependent on who they employ. Consultants change jobs too so make sure that the expertise you require is actually available within the agency you decide to work with.
2. Credit the consultant's project experience over the agency's track record
A RFP usually asks for the resumes of the consultants assigned to the project, but often their experience from similar projects isn’t considered as important as the experience of the agency. Failing to do so can cause you to miss out on a newly established agency even if the dedication of the leadership and the experience of the appointed team is the perfect match.
3. Evaluate the team close to project kick-off
Evaluating and signing off on a project team should happen as close to the project kick-off as possible. It is often the case that the winning team from the RFP is changed right before kick-off. This happens both because agencies have “dream teams” that they know they are more likely to win bidding rounds with, and also because:
- Consultants change jobs or roles
- Kick-off dates are changed so the consultants who were originally appointed got busy on other projects and thus couldn’t dedicate the right attention to your project.
4. You fall in love with the consultants, but you are married to the agency
In keeping with the previous point, while it is easy to fall in love with a specific consultant included in a four-month old RFP, you cannot rely on that consultant necessarily being part of the final team. So consider the following when selecting an agency:
- What is the average experience of their employees?
- Have they got more than one seasoned consultant with the skills offered to and needed by you?
- Do they seem like an agency consultants like to work for? That influences their ability to replace consultants quickly. To get an indication you can look at sites like “Glassdoor” or similar.
- Employee turnover. Some agencies have an unbelievable churn that will affect how smoothly your project can run and greatly impacts how much time you will have to dedicate to it yourself.
5. Take multiple references
One reference call is never going to be enough to get a good picture of an agency. You want to get a mix. Preferably call both some of the references the agency themselves provides and a few additional ones you find through your own network.
6. Remember: there are two sides to every story
Keep in mind, that there are two sides to a customer relationship gone wrong (or right). If you get a very positive or negative review from a customer always ask about the context of the project. Was the budget under pressure or unrealistic? Was there organizational turbulence on either side of the table? Maybe the selection process in itself had an unfortunate bias?
Look at how the agency tried to deal with the problem and how they proposed to resolve the differences more than the actual outcome.
7. Factor dedication in addition to experience
When asking project owners about the success or failure of their projects, the dedication of the agency always seems more important than the experience of the team. If the leadership of your agency is dedicated to making your project a success, there will be room to make the necessary allowances when the unexpected extra investment busts your budget.
Evaluations Matter: Get a Better Selection Process
Of course the track record and experience of the agency are not the only criteria to decide the best match for a project. But they are both significant, in part because even stakeholders without a deep understanding of your project's requirements can understand them. If you treat the information with care and an awareness of what is and isn’t relevant to your project, you'll navigate smoothly through the RFP process to the right match.
Navigating Other RFP Pitfalls
Of course, agency experience is just one of many elements to consider during an RFP. In future articles, I’ll also look at other factors, including agency dedication and the art of writing requirement specifications. Selecting the right implementation partner for your digital project is incredibly important, so stay tuned.
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