I’ve Looked at RFPs from Both Sides Now

Reposting this (slightly edited) Thanks for Playing classic, because this topic has come up recently on ASAE’s Collaborate online community.

In 18+ years in association management, I’ve been on both sides of the Request For Proposal process more times than I can count. My very first Big Task at my very first association Real Job way back in 1997 was to complete an association management software system selection. Which, of course, included writing an RFP (after I met all the vendors, but that’s another post). As a consultant from February 2007 – May 2009 and running Spark since August 2012, I’ve seen it all: the good – the bad – the ugly. You name it, I’ve written it, seen it, or responded to it.

I’d like to think I’ve learned a few things along the way. The MOST IMPORTANT THING I’ve learned is don’t do an RFP unless outside forces (i.e., your boss or board) are conspiring to force you. If you’re on board with that, you’re done. Skip the rest of this post and go get yourself a margarita, with my compliments.

Much like a heavily scripted demo, RFPs take a lot of time and energy to write, you invariably forget important elements, and you make it too easy for vendors to make it appear like they fit your organization and needs, whether they actually do or not.

However, if you disregard my warning or can’t opt out and go ahead with an RFP anyway, there are some steps you can take to make the process less painful for everyone involved.

RFP Dos & Don’ts – For the (Potential) Client:

  • DO allow vendors a reasonable amount of time to respond. If you send out an RFP and demand a response in 3 days, non-desperate-for-business vendors are probably going to pass. That’s not nearly long enough to read and absorb all your information, talk to the internal team who would be involved in your project to get their input, schedule a call with you to confirm that we understand your needs, and write and edit a coherent response. So the only responses you’re likely to get will be from vendors who aren’t busy. You know how they always say, “If you want something done, ask a busy person”? Same thing holds for choosing a vendor.
  • DON’T send out a 50 page RFP. Give your prospective vendors some background on your organization, the problem you’re looking to solve, key requirements of the solution, your time frame, your decision-making process, your ballpark budget (more on that below), and your contact information. Finito. If that takes 50 pages to convey, you have bigger problems. And DO make your proposal easy to read and process. You love bullet points? EVERYONE loves bullet points.
  • DON’T forbid vendors to contact you. You’re just shooting yourself in the foot. The best vendor/client situation is a partnership that develops into a long-term relationship. “You aren’t allowed to call me, and if you try to, I’m going to disqualify you,” is a fairly adversarial way to start. And you’re going to receive lower-quality largely boilerplate proposals as a result. Or a bunch of proposals that completely miss the point.
  • DO share the questions that one vendor asks with all the vendors who received the RFP. Just because one vendor didn’t think to ask it doesn’t mean knowing the answer won’t help them create a better response.
  • DO focus on your needs and problems, but allow the vendor to propose the solution. This will help you evaluate how well the vendor thinks through your problems rather than just parroting your solution back to you.
  • DO your homework. DON’T send your RFP to 37 vendors. There’s no way 37 different vendors are even potentially a good fit. Send it to four to six carefully chosen vendors who are REAL candidates. Yes, that means you need to pre-qualify your vendors. Yes, that also means you’re actually going to have to talk to people. But if a given vendor starts pestering you mercilessly, doesn’t that tell you something important about her? And wouldn’t you rather know that now than six months into a project that’s rapidly going south?
  • DO be realistic about your project time frame. Maybe that means you have to stand up to your board or take some heat from your boss, but vendors really have done enough of your type of engagement to have a good sense of how long it will take. If a vendor tells you it’s going to take six months to complete your project, she probably knows what she’s talking about. Trying to force it into three months only results in a sloppy process, shallow research and thinking, and rushed decision making.
  • DO acknowledge the responses you receive. How else will your prospective vendors know their carefully crafted documents didn’t get stuck in your spam filter?
  • DO be up front about your process and keep your prospective vendors informed. If you’re running behind in your specified schedule for vendor selection, let them know (that way they don’t start pestering you if the vendor notification deadline comes and goes and they haven’t heard anything from you). If you chose someone, let the losers know (that way you don’t stay on their weekly tickler list FOREVER, with the result that you end up afraid to answer your phone). Yes, these can be difficult conversations to have, but we’re all supposed to be grown ups here and this is business.
  • DO try to provide a ballpark budget. And if you don’t and a prospective vendor asks you about it, DON’T get huffy. She’s not trying to cheat you – she’s trying to make sure the level of effort she’s proposing matches your expectations. “Research” can mean two hours on Google, or six months flying all over the country to meet in person with all your members. Those don’t cost the same amount of money. Sometimes, she’s even trying to figure out whether she should propose at all. If her normal budget for a particular type of engagement is $20K, and your ballpark is $100K, you’re probably looking for a bigger firm. This isn’t an attempt to spend every last penny of the budget you’ve allocated. Really.
  • DON’T just automatically throw out the low bid and the high bid. Yes, that is a decent guideline, but before you discount those vendors, talk to them and see if there’s a good reason they’re high (you were thinking Y level of effort and they proposed Yx2) or low (they really want your particular organization as a client and are discounting their normal rates).
  • DO make sure your team is lined up in advance. Most vendors don’t have a huge bench of staff just sitting around waiting for your project to go/no go. They have to schedule their people, too. And if you’re telling a vendor you’re going to start a huge project on October 1 and you want to move fast and get it done, she’s going to reserve time with all the relevant staff and turn down other work for them. And if you then on September 30 tell her that, oops, you forgot to check schedules and three of your four core team members are going to be out of the country for the next three weeks and then after that, your key internal stakeholders will be fully booked because it’s four weeks from your annual meeting, she’s going to be annoyed. That is not a good way to launch a partnership.
  • DON’T hide information. Yes, you want to represent your organization in the best light and you don’t want to air dirty laundry before strangers, but if there are significant internal political considerations or there’s about to be a major re-org, your prospective vendor need to know. You’re not going to want to put that in the RFP, but it would be a great topic of conversation when she calls you to discuss your RFP and your needs. And DO include baseline information, particularly if the engagement is about more (members, website visitors, volunteers, donors) or less (processing time, costs, use of staff resources).
  • DON’T make vendors jump through dumb hoops. Don’t tell them what fonts, margins, etc. to use. If you really need five printed, bound copies of all the proposals FedExed to your Executive Committee, fine. But don’t make vendors do that just to see if they will.

Got anything good I missed? Leave it in the comments.

6 thoughts on “I’ve Looked at RFPs from Both Sides Now”

  • Elizabeth, this is a great summary of DOs and DON'Ts. My favorite is “DON’T send your RFP to 37 vendors.” I've written about this in the past. (http://www.effectivedatabase.com/blog/2009/02/24/blindly-sending-rfps/)

    Too many believe that if I cast a really wide net, I'm sure to catch the right fish. Unfortunately, a wide net catches EVERYTHING, including a lot of seaweed, flotsam, jetsam, and detritus that one then has to sort through. A highly targeted list of five vendors will ALWAYS serve you better.

    Thanks for posting this.


  • Very good post. I particularly like your “DO” focusing on the problem and not on the solution. Frequently the solution is something that the potential client may not have thought about to solve the problem.

    I also agree with not making vendors jump through hoops. Before asking a question in an RFP, I recommend that the client really think through how the answer will make a difference in selecting a company.

    And finally, it really does make a lot of sense in talking with some prospective suppliers and describing your challenge before writing the RFP.

    Thanks for sharing these ideas. Tony

  • As I vendor, I LOVE this list, with the exception of “DO share the questions that one vendor asks with all the vendors who received the RFP”. When I know my questions are being shared, I don’t ask some of my most strategic ones because it gives away my special sauce. Why should I be punished for asking smart questions that others don’t? I would say “DON’T treat vendors like commodities.Give them the opportunity to show you what makes them different”.

  • Good point Layla – I was thinking about it more from the perspective of “important information the association left out of the RFP that one vendor asked about” because that happens, and when the association gets alerted to that by an astute questioner, I do feel like THAT information should be shared with everyone.

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