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10 tips a consultant can give to a company issuing an RFP

In my days, I have seen a lot of RFPs, RFIs, and RFQs.  I’ve seen RFPs that are simple, complex, small, large, strict, well-executed, and no-so-well-executed. In my experience, there are a lot of things you can do to ensure you get the best possible response.  If you are considering issuing a Request for Proposal (RFP) for your next project, consider the following before issuing your next one.

1) Set realistic dates

When you issue an RFP, it takes a heap of time for a consulting firm to mobilize a team, get the right people on the call, and prepare a response.  The more complicated your RFP response requirements are the longer it takes to prepare a response.  I’ve received RFPs which want a turn-around in less than a week.  When this happens, often one or more of the bidding firms will push back on you or simply decline to respond.  This often causes multiple extensions to the RFP deadline which honestly doesn’t make your company look good.  When your RFP process is not organized, it makes me question whether we want to do business with your company.  If you can’t run an RFP without a lot of issues, you may not be able to successfully run a project initiative or pay your invoices on time.

Also pay attention to the dates you set.  Setting an RFP to be due the day after Christmas or during the Thanksgiving break is not cool.  You don’t want to work on the holidays. Your respondants don’t either.

2) Don’t ask for references in your RFP response

When applying for a job, I am not going to give you a list of references before I have even talked to someone at your company.  When responding to an RFP, it’s not any different.  It’s not that we don’t want you to vet us out and know our qualifications.  You have to understand references are difficult.  You are asking for us to ask our previous clients to take time out of their day and talk to you about a project on our behalf.  Chances are you aren’t the only RFP we are responding to at a given time either.  That means that client could be receiving multiple calls.  Think about it.  If you select my firm and we successfully implement your project, are you willing to be a reference for any number of random callers?  I doubt it.  Reference calls need to be scheduled and prepared for in advance.  I can’t just have you calling them blindly.

Instead of asking for references, ask for qualifications.  If you have questions about the qualification ask the respondant to talk about it when you down-select vendors and go to orals.  At that point, it might be acceptable to ask to set up a reference call.

3) Don’t require answers to questions that aren’t relevant

You know what makes vendors question if they even want to respond to your RFP?  Required responses to a bunch of questions that aren’t relevant.  I once had an RFP for an Office 365 implementation ask questions such as “Does your product included printed manuals?”.  My response: “We plan on documenting your implementation.  We can print if off for you if you would like.” In the question period, I even asked about these irrelevant questions and the company insisted they all should be completed.  Make sure you are asking the right questions.

Don’t ask too many questions either.  Keep in mind, that every vendor you pull in is going to mobilize a team of people to put together a response.  This likely includes time from the account manager, a vice president or two, an architect, and maybe an offshore team.  It’s not uncommon for the team to spend several hundred hours combined in their response.  For smaller companies that often means using resources such as the architect that are billable.  For that person they either are billing less or working overtime

4) Respond to questions in a timely manner

Potential vendors ask you questions to clarify their understanding of your needs.  Your answers are often crtiical to building their response.  If you don’t reply to answers until two days before the RFP is due, that is going to strain the respondants.  It also means you might not be getting the best response possible out of your bidders because they didn’t have adequate time to prepare it.  Try to get your responses back at leaast a week before the RFP is due.

5) Stop asking for fixed-bid

So the project you are working on is risky with a lot of unknowns?  Great, let’s slap a fixed-bid requirements on to the RFP.  That way if there is an issue, you can blame the consultants! 

Do you not realize what happens when you do this?  You are automatically paying 20% more at the minimum.  The winning firm is going to do everything they can to lock in scope and assumptions so they don’t end up losing money on the deal.  Not to mention, that there is rarely enough detail in terms of requirements in the RFP itself to make an accurate estimation.

If for whatever reason the consultant can deliver on the fixed bid, eventually you are going to hit a point where you are straining the relationship with your consulting firm.  This is when talks of lawyers come in and then neither of you want to do business with each other ever again.

Your best bet is to fixed bid a scoping engagement to properly map out the requirements and technical design.  From there, you can get a more accurate estimate on the implementation and you will likely end up paying less.

6) Don’t include too many vendors

Keep the number of vendors down to a minimum.  Keep in mind, you are asking a lot of people to jump through a lot of hoops at every firm you contact.  You’re just creating more responses that your RFP team has to read through and rank.  They will all start to look the same after a while too.  Definitely, don’t let one more vendor in because some sales rep got wind late in the process that you were having an RFP.

7) Stop asking for active and past litigation

Are the lawyers at your company going to provide a list of all law suits you have ever been involved in to someone random?  Why do you expect us to?  Companies get sued all the time, especially the larger ones.  I don’t see many firms providing you this information.  If you really want the details, you can go dig it up.

8) Don’t be so picky about the response format

I think it’s ok to ask respondants to limit the length of their respose to X amount of pages.  It’s not cool to have phrases like “adding a column to this spreadsheet is grounds for being kicked out of the RFP process”.  I understand you have to review multiple RFPs and you are trying to keep things consistent but specifying which font or a maximum file size of an exhibit is just silly. 

9) Don’t ask for hard copies

I’m looking at you government and health care companies.  In this day and age asking for a hard copy to be delivered in person or by courier is just silly.  Why don’t you just have us chisel it out the response in stone tablets?  Let us deliver the response electronically via e-mail or through and RFP response portal.  If you just want to print it out because you want to scribble notes on the paper, may I introudce you to the Surface Pro 4.  You can use digital ink to mark up or highlight the response as needed.  If you really do need paper copies, print it out yourself as needed.  Are you just trying to save on printing costs?  If you are that might be a bad sign you don’t need to do this project. 

10) Don’t issue an RFP if you are just going to pick the encombant

Again, be mindful of all of the time you are using of people.  RFPs often require sizable teams and late hours to meet the deadline.  If you know you are going to pick the encombant before even starting the RFP process, that is absolutely bad form.  There is a special place in hell for companies that issue an RFP and then just pick the vendor they already had.  Work out whatever issue you had with your vendor and just go with them and skip the RFP process.  If it is procurement pushing you to issue an RFP so that you will get the “best deal”, time to get a new procurement department. :)  At least, let the respondants know that there is an encombant at play.

Do you really need to do an RFP?

You have smart people at your company, but maybe you just don’t have enough of them.  That’s why you are issuing an RFP right?  Maybe you are looking for a certain skillset you don’t currently have?  Before opening up an RFP for your next project, ask if you really should.  Your smart people should already have established relationships with a handful of vendors.  Call some of them, tell them what you are trying to accomplish and just ask for a proposal.  Setting up an entire RFP process is long and overly complicated.  If you already have an established relationship with a few vendors, why shop it out?  If they have done good work in the past, they probably will in the future as well.  If anything you know what you are dealing with.  Do you really want to go with a different vendor for every project just so you can ensure you get the best price?  I understand there are other reasonse to issue an RFP, but you really have to ask yourselfif it’s really worth it?

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More Stories By Corey Roth

Corey Roth, a SharePoint Server MVP, is an independent consultant specializing in Cloud technologies such as Azure and Office 365. He also specializes in mobile development. Corey serves as the product manager for two cloud-first mobile app platforms: BrewZap and HappenZap.

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