The most important question to ask internally as a company considering issuing a request for proposal (RFP) should be, "Is this really what we as a company want/need to do?" Writing and managing a RFP is time-consuming and can be expensive. A good rule of thumb is one percent to 10% of the solution should be budgeted for writing and managing the RFP process.
The RFP document itself is the end result of key decisions and research, not the starting point in the process. Below are a few key questions to ask internally before issuing a RFP:
Do you have a budget defined or a sense of the final cost already?
Using the RFP process to plan a budget, manage an internal project or to justify or build a business case wastes everyone's time and money, including the RFP issuer. It won't take long for word to get out if you're that company. Determine what you can or are willing to spend. If you can't afford the solution, there is no sense in describing it in detail.
Do you have management buy-in or clearly defined goals?
Many RFPs are long on tactical objectives (requirements) but short on strategic goals (results/desired outcomes). Spend quality time and resources defining goals of the RFP before defining requirements that may not be in line with those goals. Sounds logical, but many times, the "goals" section is a copy and paste of a "dusted-off" Mission Statement, followed by 50 pages of requirements, only to have upper management scrap the entire project because it does not fit any strategic initiative.
Do you have the solution already?
Vendors answering an RFP need to know if there are incumbents providing for you already. They still may decide to bid, so it's important the RFP is not being used to justify a decision that has already been made. It won't take much to ruin a good reputation if this is a company practice. Vendors talk, even competing ones, and you may find it difficult to get meaningful, outside vendor input when you really need it.
What will the criteria be for a successful proposal?
Set some parameters and stick to them. Nothing is worse than not awarding a contract to the low bidder if it's a cost-based decision. This is why requirements and goals are so important to be well-defined and connected. RFPs should be written in a way that compares "apples to apples." Regardless of the driver, i.e., price, capacity, efficiency or savings, the winning solution should be the best fit to the parameters defined. Some companies simply "go with their gut" at the decision point. If that's the case, don't waste your time and money going through a formal RFP.
What if I don't have the answers or don't know where to start?
Keep it simple and informal to begin. Use your existing vendors, consultants, etc. and bring them into a discussion. Typically, they are looking for ways or reasons to talk to you and happy to spend a few hours on a potential revenue source, even without promises. Create a brief document and explain the problem, whether its budgeted, including some guidance on a range, and what the timeline is. Then include a few bullet points that are factors in the project. Be up front, open, honest and tell them you're not sure exactly what is needed. Ask them to be creative or propose solutions at a high level. Spend some time doing independent research reading trade magazines, attending conferences and learn as much as you can.
Next, establish a qualification round. Send out a letter to a wide array of possible vendors, including those that helped you, in more detail, based on the findings and answers above. Let them know, based on their responses, the list will be narrowed to three or four to participate in the formal RFP process.
The purpose of the formal RFP is to minimize risk, make the best purchasing decision based on defined parameters and allows the winning vendor to produce the desired outcome of the customer. At the end of the RFP process, if the decision isn't clear, the RFP has failed, not the respondents. Get some help if you have never executed and managed an RFP. Keeping associated costs down is in direct correlation with experience and a well-written RFP, and there are multiple companies able to provide this service. A good RFP service provider will be a net savings both in cost of the RFP process and, more importantly, the solution chosen.
Assuming the RFP follows best practices, formats, components, other questions, etc. that can be found on a simple Internet search, there are some key questions to ask in a RFP that are surprisingly absent many times, even in a well-written and managed RFP. Depending on your current situation, you may want to ask some of the hard financial questions in the qualification round.
Is your company currently expanding or contracting its workforce?
It's been tough all over for everyone, and this isn't a disqualifier, but it's a good indicator on their ability to service your account long-term.
Is your company privately or publicly held? What is the source of financing, and/or who are the major investors?
The purpose here is to determine the "depth of the pockets."
What is the percentage of revenue from the application you are providing relative to the size of your company? Describe the structure of the organization by product or service and partner dependencies that provide component products or services.
Here you are trying to determine how diversified the vendor is and who will be providing major components of the solution, as well as how much stress on resources your project will be.
What percentage of your clients are in this vertical?
Does your vendor understand your industry? Sometimes it's good to get a fresh perspective, but typically you are low on the priority list of understanding and attention.
Can you provide a detailed case study of a similar project in size and scope?
The purpose of this information is to check on best practices used in project management, customer satisfaction and experience.
The hardest questions to ask about the vendors are typically the most important. Dig as deep as you can on their "business," which is the most telling on the products and services delivery capabilities. Most vendors will have plenty of great information about their products and how well they will solve your tactical issues from a sales perspective. Vendors that win contracts, however, should be financially stable, work to develop strategic solutions, experts in the industry and not afraid to share information.
Finally, be ready to answer some hard questions from the vendors as well. A good RFP is a two-way street of information flow to determine the best solution. Good questions from the respondents are a sign of professionalism and expertise. The answers to them are, as they say, another story.
FRITZ BUGLEWICZ has 20 years of experience with project management, procedural analysis and business development in print-to-mail and document management operations. He serves as the executive vice president of business development at CapStone Technologies, a business engineering firm. For more information, visit www.captechno.com.