Document industry professionals face a Request for Proposal (RFP) process before investing in printing systems, document systems software and professional services like disaster recovery and outsourcing. Such initiatives can easily hit six figures, so an RFP is absolutely critical in order to make solid decisions.


An RFP is a tool used to evaluate potential vendors and service providers by initiating competitive proposals among suppliers. In the process, suppliers offer a wide array of potential solutions and prices and compete with each other to win your business. Buyers evaluate and select the vendor that most closely fits their needs and budgets. An RFP is a vehicle that allows both buyers and suppliers to establish a dialogue and to work from the same set of rules, requirements, schedules and information.


The components of a successful RFP process include partnerships, internal teamwork (both to create and to respond), evaluation criteria and budget. The process can quickly overwhelm even seasoned professionals. The time and effort to do it right will be worth it because the clear, open communication of a thoughtful, well-researched RFP is the foundation of a strong relationship between you and your vendor.


To Team or Not To Team?

RFPs are best handled as a team, and an important part of the process for both vendors and customers is identifying the expertise to define or respond to a complex project. "Assemble an internal team of experts from different business areas at the beginning to avoid problems later," advises Elizabeth Gooding, president of Art Plus Technology and an experienced player on both sides of an RFP.


The internal team isn't the only one a customer should consider. You should also spend time getting to know the vendor teams. If more than one supplier is involved, meet each vendor independently. Be sure to meet the "real" team.


Clearly Define Your Project

An RFP is not an easy document to assemble, and some aspects are more difficult than others. Budgets and project management costs, for example, can be hard to accurately assess and require careful attention. It is also common to struggle with understanding and defining all the evaluation criteria for complex digital systems and services.


Stay Objective

Naturally, some team members will write RFP requirements subjectively, so someone must be responsible for seeing that input is written as actual requirements, not personal preferences. When creating evaluation criteria, it's easy to slip into vague parameters such as "training adequate for 50 people," but what does that really mean? For the best results, be specific.


Take care not to "gild the lily." For example, one department wants color printers, but the project doesn't really require them. Off-target requests like these make it hard for vendors to respond to your real needs. It may fall to you to challenge these requirements.


One frequent complaint is that vendors tend to include too much marketing hype in their RFP responses. Vendors may resort to marketing spiel when customers provide unclear requirements and vague information. Avoid this problem by including as much "real need" detail and specificity in the RFP as possible. And make sure your RFP focuses on where you want to be tomorrow not where you are today.


It is important to request references from potential vendors in order to establish their credibility. Ask for three "like and similar" jobs, then try to visit reference sites and talk to people who actually use the solution. For better results, make the visit without the vendor sales person tagging along.


To head off issues with vendors down the road, bring up contractual requirements as early as possible in the process. Send a sample contract with your RFP so that potential vendors can tell you early on if there are any showstoppers. While you won't be negotiating the contract during the RFP process, this helps uncover red flags so that you avoid taking the time and effort of selecting a vendor and then are not able to complete a viable contract.


Be Upfront About Your Goals

 "Don't send RFPs with any objective other than a purchase. If you need specific information, vendors will often provide it at no charge, but you may want to buy a couple of hours of their time as you conduct your due diligence." And vendors should not be shy about qualifying a proposal. "Use Q&A sessions to find out if a potential customer is really looking for information or if there is another motive," suggests Gooding. "Vendors may consider establishing an internal bid/no bid process to determine if they need to respond to an RFP instead of scrambling and spending money and time for every opportunity, even when it's not a good fit."


"One of the most important rules for a successful RFP is to let vendors know on what your final decision will be based, then don't change your mind," says Bob Trager, Pershing vice president. "However, it can be very tempting to justify selection on cost alone. If you and your vendors understand what you are looking for, the process is made much easier and more effective."


The Right Questions

The RFP process should give vendors a chance to really respond with ideas about how to accomplish your project. This requires the right questions at the right time. RFP guru Bud Porter-Roth cautions not to structure your RFP so that it inhibits how vendors can respond. "If you limit your responses by requiring your vendors to simply answer specification questions, such as basic compatibility or capabilities, you're really not getting the most out of the RFP process."


Vendors are sometimes reluctant to answer questions they feel are inappropriate to the RFP. The experts recommend answering such questions anyway; the customer included them for a reason. Lack of response can create a negative impression, so vendors should always make some effort to reply.


People misjudge the time required for the RFP process. Give vendors ample time to respond, at least 30 days, and let them know your selection criteria. Some RFPs, especially for print/mail systems, require vendors to find partners, and they need time to establish these relationships.


Making the Decision

Create a decision matrix before sending out the RFP, and stick to it. Critical weighting should include factors such as customer service, technical support, account management, innovation and overall customer satisfaction. When all RFPs are in, don't do the evaluation by yourself. Get the team back together.


Once you have made your decision, notify other candidates, and remember to say thank you. Consider producing an evaluation report that explains who won and why. This can be helpful to justify your decision to others, such as management, or to inform vendors that did not win the bid.


Carro Ford specializes in the document industry. Please contact her by email at or by calling 859-737-2816.


For helpful tips to construct your decision matrix, read "A Guide to the Optimum Choice" at