This article originally appeared in the March/April issue of Mailing Systems Technology.
Recently, I participated in an online discussion about the Request for Proposal (RFP) process. It was similar to the conversations I have with clients when we recommend using an RFP to select a new vendor for equipment, software, or services. In both cases, the argument revolves around whether the results justify the hard work and time required.
To be clear, a well-executed RFP requires substantial effort. At a high level, the process includes the following steps:
1. Conduct research
2. Hold meetings inside and outside your company
3. Assemble an RFP team
4. Draft and publish the RFP
5. Conduct vendor reviews
6. Call references
7. Compare the bids
8. Award the bid
9. Receive and accept the equipment or service
For many projects, it may take between three and six months just to get through the first eight steps. The schedule can be impacted by competing priorities, the need for site visits, and addressing concerns raised by senior management. Considering contracts generally average about five years, the investment upfront pays dividends.
The Arguments Against — And Responses to Each
The number one argument against RFPs is that they’re just a mechanism to get to the lowest possible price. From this point of view, the questions, scoring, and presentations are merely smokescreens. The process is being followed because it’s mandated, but at the end of the day, the lowest price wins.
If the company’s goal is just to “race to the bottom” with pricing, then I agree, don’t waste your time with an RFP. Use a reverse-auction instead. This commoditizes whatever you’re buying, and removes the need for any in-depth analysis. Beware, however — you get what you pay for.
The goal of the RFP is not to get the lowest possible price, but the best possible price for the best solution for your company. Through the process, you’ll discover which vendors are able to meet the technical, service, and support requirements for your project. Sometimes, the lowest priced vendor will be able to provide the right solution, but not every time.
Which leads to the second most common objection — the buyer has already selected the vendor and is only going through the motions. Vendors may complain that the RFP was written in such a way that only one company can meet the requirements. In other words, “the fix is in.”
This complaint often has some merit. During the research phase, a buyer may have received a lot of good information from one supplier. They may even have been given a list of requirements to include in the RFP. Unless they include additional prerequisites, then the document is probably skewed in favor of the “helpful” supplier.
This underscores the importance of getting information from more than one source — other people in your own company, peers in the industry, consultants, and multiple vendors. Read articles and case studies in publications like Mailing Systems Technology. Taking the time to perform research will result in a better RFP — for the vendors and your company.
The last dispute to overcome: an RFP restricts the opportunity for vendors to promote the best solution to your problem. The strict requirements might limit the responses to a specific product or service. In some cases, the buyer may have asked the questions in such a way that the seller is forced to quote a hammer. However, the customer could be better served with the purchase of a screwdriver.
There are two ways to avoid this problem. The first is to eliminate overly precise requirements for the solution. Clearly spell out minimum standards for information technology, security, and response times. But don’t include machine speeds, process rules, or similar specifications. Ask questions to find out solutions, not limit responses.
Which leads to the second method — include a section for alternative solutions. The language is very simple: “Based on the intent of this RFP, please recommend any other (products, software, service, etc.) that will help (the company) meet our objective.” Smart vendors will seize upon this opportunity.
Lessons from Success
A common saying is that “We need to learn from our mistakes.” That’s true; however, we should also learn from our successes. When something works well, we should try to replicate that accomplishment. Our most successful RFPs have had three elements in common: a solid RFP team, a culture of promoting diverse points of view, and keeping costs analytics separate.
The importance of having a good team of people working on the RFP can’t be understated. Depending on the policies of your company, procurement may take the lead role on the project. If equipment or computers are involved, get people from facilities management and information technology on the team. You should also invite the key internal customers impacted by this project, including customer service, sales, marketing, and the business units.
The team members need to know that their opinions are valued. Feedback and scoring systems need to collect the information so everyone can provide input. During team meetings, the facilitator must ensure that all members have the opportunity to express their point of view.
When scoring an RFP, the grading and the financial comparisons should be done separately. Before sending the responses out to the team, remove the pricing data. This safeguards against people’s opinions being impacted by a lower bid.
Mini Case Study
We recently worked with an insurance company on an outsourcing RFP. The project manager brought together a team that included purchasing, information technology, claims, customer service, document management, and sales. Not only did we meet as a group, but the team members were interviewed one-on-one to gather their requirements.
The entire team reviewed the RFP before it was published, drafted the scoring chart, and participated in the vendor conference. When the responses were received, the pricing section was removed before sending out for the team to grade. After people had the opportunity to grade individually, the team came together for a two-hour meeting to discuss grading and select the finalists.
There were 12 team members in attendance at the meeting. More importantly, all 12 people actively participated. Every person expressed their opinion about how key aspects of the proposals impacted their unit. The other members actively listened, asking follow-up questions to clarify concerns. Only after the team selected the finalists was the pricing disclosed. The lowest bidder for one service was not selected, but the vendor with the best solution was chosen instead.
At times, the RFP process may seem long and tedious. But by creating an RFP team and following the process, you'll increase your chances of success when purchasing equipment, software, and services. When done correctly — it works!
Mark M. Fallon is President & CEO, The Berkshire Company. You can read his blogs at www.berkshire-company.com/the-berkshire-company-blog and www.markfallon.com/blog. Contact Mark at 508.485.9090 or firstname.lastname@example.org.