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Writing a CMS request for proposal? Avoid these pitfalls.

Illustration for "Lesson 12" from the book "Things You Should Know" by Deane Barker. Man with his elbows on the desk and with his hands behind his head at desk in front of laptop.
Writing a request for proposal (RFP) is not an easy job. And it doesn’t get any easier when you’re writing an RFP for a content management system (CMS). Getting it right is important, however, as HOW it is written can have a crucial impact on the outcome of your final project.

While I do not cover the best questions to include in your RFP , I do provide you with essential tips on what to do – or rather, what not to do – when creating your RFP, so you can find the best CMS vendor match and start your project off on the right footing.

The following chapter is excerpted from my book, "Things You Should Know: 25 Lessons I’ve Learned About Selecting Content Technology and Services". Download the full version of the book.

Lesson #12

A request for proposal can sometimes be abusive and this doesn’t help anyone

If there’s one thing that infuriates me, it’s an abusive RFP. You see these every once in a while – an RFP written with no regard to the people who have to respond to it, and sometimes even openly contemptuous of them.

Often, this is reflected in ridiculous timeframes. While responsiveness is important, and vendors certainly want to make a sale, they have other projects they’re working on. They need time to respond to your request.1

Other times, we see lists of hundreds of questions, many of which are obviously never going to be reviewed and were just thrown in because someone had the power to ask them. A lot of this is systemic to the organization,2 but sometimes you can imagine a bad actor at the customer organization demanding responses to pointless questions as a way to prove their own value to the organization or derail a project they don’t want to see happen.

And sometimes, it’s not timeframes or bloated size as much as it’s...tone. I’ve seen RFPs full of specific admonitions and punitive requirements that sound like they were written by someone with a mile-high chip on their shoulder who’s just looking to slap down a respondent to make themselves feel better.

I’ll speculate on a few reasons why this happens:

  • Sometimes people are just unpleasant. They’re on a power trip and enjoy being in control. They view themselves as the puppeteer who holds all the strings.
  • Sometimes respondents get dragged into turf wars. Certain factions inside a customer organization might not want a project to happen, and these groups have influence over the RFP, so they intentionally make it unpleasant.
  • Sometimes there’s a vendor or integrator that the customer wants to select (they have someone “in their back pocket”), but policy dictates they have to issue a public RFP. They write the RFP in such a way to dissuade anyone other than their preferred vendor from responding.
  • Sometimes people are terrified that they’re going to get taken advantage of. They’re afraid of the respondents – sometimes rationally – and this manifests itself as a punitive process. They’re going to show you that they’re in charge, because they’re secretly worried they have no idea what they’re doing.

These situations are difficult for the respondent. Yes, we’re in sales, but we’re also human beings. We have feelings, we take pride in our work, and we have lives outside the office. We don’t like working on things that sap our morale.

Your ongoing relationship with your vendor and integrator is different than when you buy consumer products. You have to live with both them. You are entering into a critical relationship with both of these organizations. The quality of that relationship matters. It can be more or less productive, based on intangible factors like how it was conceived.

This is especially true with the integrator. We’ll have an entire chapter on this later3, but know that you are, to some extent, selling your project to the integrator. 

Good integrators are in demand and often have little unused capacity available to sell. They have to pick their projects carefully. 

The opposite is also true. Bad integrators aren’t in demand. They need any project they can get their hands on, and they’re willing to be abused in exchange for revenue.

If you find that you can completely manhandle an integrator during the proposal stage – you get them to agree with anything, and cut an insanely good deal for yourself to their detriment – perhaps ask why this integrator is so willing to tolerate your abuse? The answer should scare you.

Vendors and integrators are not the enemy. Occasionally, you’ll work with one and realize they’re not being totally honest or reliable with you, but don’t simply assume this. If you set up an antagonistic relationship from the outset, the results are not likely to be what you want.

I’ve simply discarded several RFPs because I took one read and realized I’d never in a million years want to work for the people who wrote it. Call it wishful thinking, but my gut tells me that most of those projects didn’t end well.


1. For a large, comprehensive RFP with scenarios and demo requirements, at least four weeks is a fair amount of time to turn something like this around. If you want it in a week, the quality will be poor, if it’s returned at all. 

2. Government agencies are famous for this. I once reviewed an RFP for a  government agency that ran to 50 pages, 49 of which were instructions on how to respond to the RFP. The description of services the agency wanted a vendor to perform consisted of one single page. Every vendor and integrator can tell you similar stories. 

3. The chapter "An adversarial relationship with your integrator is never helpful" is available in my book "Things You Should Know: 25 Lessons I’ve Learned About Selecting Content Technology and Services". Download the full version of the book. 


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