How to Get the Best Results from Your RFP


How to Get the Best Results from Your RFP
Illustration by David Grey for Pipeline

Request for Proposal. RFP. Frontline users and vendors alike let out a collective groan at the prospect of a long, cumbersome and painful process. Vendors may opt out of participation or put forth a half-hearted effort. Frontline users increasingly find end-arounds and engage directly with vendors for discussions and demonstrations. There must be better way for all involved!

In some circumstances, a formal RFP may still be a good option, if not required. But the evaluation process needs to have real business value for all concerned. Here are a few guidelines for improving the process.

Fairness and communication are the underpinnings of success. Many of the stereotypes and fears about the selling and buying process come from the lack of these two things. Placing high respect on people’s time will serve as a good guidepost on both sides. Everyone wants the process to go faster and be easier and less demanding. Look for ways to achieve those objectives while still meeting the level of rigor and risk mitigation required.

Another principle is that a little learning on both sides of the transaction can go a long way to improving the process. Everyone can get a better feel for options and fit when they are allowed to engage and discuss the possibilities. Education can help narrow options, allay the fear of missing out (FOMO), and avoid my new most dreaded phase, “Well, what about…?” cropping up much too late in the process.

Finally, get past the marketing messages that come from canned responses (the “typical” RFP response) and dive into “hot button” issues and unique needs and see how they will be met, and in what timeframe (because not everything a vendor touts is available now!). Whether the evaluation process involves written responses or spirited discussions (or more likely, both!), buyers need a clear understanding of what matters most to their decision processes and how each vendor stacks up against them. They need to focus on the mission-critical functional, technical, implementation, support, and financial imperatives and bid a fond farewell to voluminous RFPs and responses that cover everything but the kitchen sink.

Along with these guidelines, buyers and sellers must “walk in each other’s shoes” to get everyone to understand the realities of the evaluation and sales processes.

Buyers have a right to compare options, but they also need to make the opportunity attractive to the vendors so they will bid. Beyond being fair and honest about the process, the buyers need to make it clear that they know what they are seeking. The wider they spread the net (e.g., cloud and premise), the less likely vendors take the process seriously and participate. The burden needs to match the opportunity.

Sellers have a right to assess opportunities to see if they think their chances are good and worth the effort. They are not obligated to bid on everything, and they may not feel compelled to play by the buyer’s rules. (I’ll note exceptions in a moment.) At the same time, sellers need to recognize they can’t control the process. They still need to participate in a competitive process (which is not the same as RFPs) lest they miss opportunities.

An RFP may be facilitated with online procurement tools that require vendors to bid in a structured format. The tool then puts the responses side-by-side and facilitates comparisons. Some may require templates to address a variety of formalities including security profiles, disadvantaged business qualifications, or compliance certifications. These processes typically demand less direct communication with the evaluation team (including IT and the contact center) until short lists or final due diligence steps, and take a long time, with 3-4 months or more typical. While we recognize the need for the formality in these cases, we still emphasize the value of conversations and engagement between sellers and buyers as early and often in the process as possible.