I’ve Looked at RFPs from Both Sides Now – Part 2

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

Clients aren’t the only ones who could use some advice to make the Request for Proposal (RFP) process go more smoothly. Over the years, I’ve seen plenty of good, bad, and ugly in vendor responses, too. To that end…

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

  • DO proofread! The client is probably not going to discount your proposal because of one or two typos. Probably. But one or two typos per page or serious grammatical problems lead people to question your attention to detail, your competence, and frankly, your intelligence. Even small shops usually have at least one person who’s a good editor. Have her give all your proposals a once over before they go out the door. If you’re the one in a hundred shop that doesn’t have anyone on staff who can copy edit, hire somebody.
  • DO call the client. The RFP process is kind of like dating. Signing the contract is kind of like getting married. You should get to know each other better before making that commitment.
  • DO be accessible. When the client contacts you, take her call. Answer her email. Call her back. And do it quickly – not two weeks from now. Yeah, you’re busy – she’s busy too. But don’t make her call out the FBI to find you if she has a question. However…
  • DON’T hound clients. If she tells you she’ll be letting all the vendors know one way or the other on Friday, don’t call her Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and twice on Thursday “just to check in and see if you have any questions.” Just don’t.
  • DO respect the process. Assuming the client read part one of this two part series, she probably wrote a pretty good RFP that includes information about the timeline and decision criteria. Subverting the process by going around her to her boss or her staff is a BIG no-no. If she says the proposal deadline is Friday at 5 pm ET, have it to her by Friday at 5 pm ET. And if that’s going to be a problem, don’t wait until Friday at 4:53 pm ET to ask for an extension.
  • DON’T talk about what your competitors do or don’t do. Nine times out of ten, you’re wrong. Even that one time that you’re right, it’s petty and doesn’t reflect well on you or your firm. When a client is reading your proposal or talking to you, she cares about what you can and can’t do. She’ll worry about your competitors if and when he talks to them.
  • DON’T send the LONGEST possible proposal. DO send the SHORTEST possible proposal that answers the client’s questions and addresses her needs. She’s probably reading four to six (or more) of these things. If they’re each 50 pages, that’s 200-300 pages. She’s not even going to remember who’s who by the end! Edit, edit, edit!
  • DO skip the boilerplate marketing fluff. She’s seen it. Everybody says they’ve got the greatest widget since sliced widgets were invented. It just pads up your presentation and wastes trees and time.
  • DO have good references in the market. Sure, the client’s going to call your reference list (aka, Your Carefully Chosen Group of Only Your Most Blissfully Happy Clients EVER), but if she knows what she’s doing, she’s also going to ask around. Three glowing references don’t help you if the ten other clients she finds through her own network all hate you. Remember: as long as your price is in the ballpark and the client is confident you can do the work, she’s buying based on relationship, personality, and reputation. Make sure yours is sterling.
  • DO make sure the client can open your files. You know what doesn’t cause problems? PDF. And if you send over your proposal and don’t receive an acknowledgment that the client got it, drop her an email without attachments or give her a quick call to make sure it arrived. She asked for your proposal. She wants to get it. If it’s stuck in her spam filter, she wants to know. It’s OK to check. Really.

What’s the common theme? Relationship. We’re about to enter into a relationship. You don’t start a dating relationship by refusing to talk to the other party, withholding information, and putting them through a lot of silly, unnecessary tests (and if you do, odds are you’re single), and you don’t want to start a vendor relationship that way, either.

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.

The Consultant and the Association Exec Should Be Friends

Eons ago (actual time: four years), I wrote two  blog posts on the topic of consulting and RFPs. They’re still among my most popular posts ever.

I got thinking about this topic again recently for a few reasons:

  • I just got my shiny new ASAE Buyers’ Guide, which includes an article on the RFP process.
  • There’s been some chatter lately on some of the Collaborate communities about the RFP process.
  • I just submitted a proposal in response to an RFP that asked for my “project management methodology,” aka, my approach to managing the consultant/client relationship (which I thought was a damn fine question).

As the title of this post states, the consultant and the association executive should be friends (bonus points if you get the Oklahoma! reference). One side has expertise to offer, the other side needs that expertise periodically (but not continuously, which is why you’re hiring a consultant rather than another staff person), what’s the problem?

The problem, often, is that we fail to follow the golden rule. Rather than treating each other as we ourselves would want to be treated, we behave badly.

Consultants can be overly aggressive and too “sales-y.” We are sometimes guilty of hounding execs, acting boorish, discounting organizational culture, and being far too convinced of our own brilliance.

Association execs have been known to issue “spray & pray” RFPs to everyone under the sun, a huge waste of time and energy on both sides. They waffle. They refuse to talk to consultants and withhold information. Some of them have been known to steal consultants’ intellectual property, or give (higher priced) Consultant A’s (perhaps overly detailed) proposal to (lower priced) Consultant B to implement.

People! We have to work together here!

And that’s that point: the consulting relationship is just that – a relationship. A partnership. The proposal process is like getting dating. Signing the contract is like getting married. And you both want your marriage to work, right?

Consultants provide a lot of the intellectual capital in association management, some of it for free, some of it for pay. Association execs are our clients, and our partners in creating change. And both sides are vital members of the community we all love. Because, as Jamie Notter is fond of reminding us, it’s all about love.

Or to quote myself, from that ancient RFP blog post:

What’s the common theme? Relationship. We’re about to enter into a relationship. You don’t start a dating relationship by refusing to talk to the other party, withholding information, and putting them through a lot of silly, unnecessary tests (and if you do, odds are you’re single), and you don’t want to start a consulting relationship that way, either.