RFPing in the Wind
Last week two RFPs arrived from international companies looking for our proposals and prices for training courses. Both made me mad as hell. If I had my way there would have been an Act of Parliament banning RFPs for anything more complicated than the purchase of paperclips. Corporations looking for the best creative ideas, because they have a negotiating problem or a need which requires the development of training or coaching, do themselves no favours by making potential suppliers go through the mechanical hoops demanded by an RFP. It is undoubtedly not best practice.
Rather than moan, I thought it might be more useful to offer those readers in procurement who are users of RFPs some advice based on the mistakes I have seen committed over the years. Here are my Top Eight Improvements for RFPs.
1. Tell us more about the problem or the need, and less about how you want us to solve it. We want to know what your objectives are, and what are the outputs you expect if our solution succeeds. In detail. We don't want to know that (for example) you want a blended solution involving e-learning and face to face training in groups of 14, or for not more than 16 hours delivered by 1 trainer. We are the subject-matter experts; that's why you ask us for our ideas. Please don't limit our creativity.
2. Meet us face to face much earlier in the process. We have lots of ideas which you will find interesting, and a meeting will give us the opportunity to identify your corporate style and personality, so that we can direct our attention to those ideas most useful for you.
3. Set realistic deadlines. You send us the brief on Day 1, you expect our proposal by Day 10. Not long enough. If you want us to do some serious thinking we need at least 3 weeks.
4. If you ask us how we will approach the research process to ensure that our solution meets your need, don't ask us how much the solution will cost. Because we won't know how much it will cost until we have done the research, analysed the information, and developed the solution. If you insist on asking, expect a rubbish answer.
5. Don't use spreadsheet answer papers. They may make it easier for you to compare responses, but that is just laziness on your part. They kill our ability to show you our style and personality, surely very important when you are buying a product so reliant on the quality of its people. One RFP recently asked us to describe the qualities we would bring to the project 'in 300 characters (including spaces) or less'. Almost every RFP spreadsheet we see is riddled with formatting mistakes, drop-down boxes with no choices allowed, and so on. You will get a better view of us if you let us choose the way we present.
6. Don't turn the RFP into an obstacle course. If you ask us to agree complex and highly contentious Ts and Cs as a precondition before submitting our proposal, don't be surprised if we decide not to submit. An RFP team recently refused to answer our questions because we submitted them on the wrong page in an electronic system, although we told them as soon as we recognised the mistake.
7. Be reasonable in your enquiry about our corporate background. Of course you need to know our track record and if we are financially sound. But I don't think you need to see our accounts for the last 5 years, broken down by region. Nor do you need a hierarchy plan of the management of the company, or who we think our top 3 competitors are.
8. Stick to your own time frame. If we miss the deadline for submission, we are disqualified. The next deadline is yours. You are invariably late. Get a grip.
We assume you ask us to respond to your RFP because you value our input and you think we might be able to help your organisation do better. We are delighted to have the opportunity to respond and demonstrate our wares. Let's at least make it an efficient process, not the nightmare it usually is now.
Stephen White, Managing Partner
About the author:
My background is sales and marketing. I read Law at University and worked for 2 major packaging companies for 13 years in sales and sales management. I joined John McMillan and Scotwork in 1984. For the next 25 years together with our colleagues we delivered training and consulting, built the global business and developed the Scotwork product portfolio.