Every now and then, we open up the blog to our vendors, especially when we feel they have something important to say that can truly benefit our clients. That’s definitely the case today, as RFP365 shares the do’s and don’ts of RFPs. Enjoy!
Few holidays are as wrought with fear and trembling as Valentine’s Day. But today, we’re not talking about the folly of giving your significant other wool socks for a gift (don’t) or forgetting to make dinner reservations until February 13th (admit defeat now). Today, we’re talking about a different kind of relationship – the one we have with our vendors.
Luckily, the Lockton HR Technology & Outsourcing blog has already done a great job explaining how to choose and commit to a vendor (see the Wedding Bells post), so now the question is simply: how do we engage with them “happily ever after?” Or in other words, how we do effectively work with our vendors in such a way that they are equipped to deliver what we need? Especially in the dreaded Request for Proposal process?
What’s true of love is also true in business. If we expect consideration and commitment from our vendor community, we need to give it in return. So in honor of the holiday, here are some tips on how not to issue a Request for Proposal and the insider secrets of writing an RFP that will make vendors love you forever.
How to torment vendors: RFP horror stories
A client of ours recently told us about its 500-hundred page RFP. At that length, that’s not a Request for Proposal; that’s an endless interrogation. Moreover, lengthy RFPs such as this create two huge problems:
- Lengthy RFPs generate a mountain of data for purchasers to get through. Case in point: a 200-page RFP response from five different vendors means 1,000 pages of responses to evaluate. (Who wants to do that? Are the responses really being evaluated?)
- They also require a massive investment of time and energy from vendors that ultimately may not win the business. Sadly, lengthy RFPs are also ineffective because they can drive quality vendors away – to opportunities where they can win business with less effort.
Key takeaway: respect your vendors’ time by issuing short, highly targeted RFPs (in rounds if necessary), because ultimately it’s more beneficial for both you and them.
Not only is it not “green” to require binders of printed proposals, but it’s also incredibly frustrating for vendors. It means a huge portion of their valuable time is spent making Kinkos and FedEx runs instead of writing quality responses.
Yet often, printing the RFP response is the only option. A county we recently spoke with requires all proposals to be physically delivered. The county’s procurement manager claims her state’s statutes don’t allow digital submission …even email or disks. While that limitation may have worked 20 years ago, it just doesn’t cut it today.
Key takeaway: paper binders kill trees and anger vendors; let’s agree to at least allow for electronic alternatives.
More than once we’ve had to respond to an RFP that completely painted us into a corner by the way the questions were phrased. For example, we were recently asked “does your platform support PDF downloads?” (A PDF posted to an online portal) Technically, our answer was “no,” but not because it wasn’t digital (as the buyer would likely assume), but because it was more digital. It was like someone asking us if we could send a telegraph when we were offering a text message – it didn’t get to the heart of the matter.
The problem was the question was too specific; we couldn’t answer “yes,” but our “no” wasn’t accurate either. There wasn’t an option for “not applicable” or a means to comment why. And ironically, because the question was tailored to outdated technology, it made the vendor with outdated technology look like a winner.
Key takeaway: overly specific questions don’t work because they put vendors on the defensive and don’t give the buyer accurate perspective. Consider using more open-ended questions that give vendors a chance to prove their worth.
We were recently responding to an RFP in which we had to prove our employees had the appropriate insurance to work on-site and drive rental cars there. Valid concern, right? Here’s the thing though: our product is an online, cloud-based software, meaning we’d never need to deliver our product in person. This question was clearly a recycled boilerplate question that hadn’t been tailored for the project.
Key takeaway: if you don’t update your questions so they are relevant to the product/offering of your vendor, your vendors will wonder why they should bother to respond.
Our software company was actually told by a municipality, “Sorry, we can’t talk to you about your RFP software until we run an RFP for new RFP software.” The paradox was not lost on us.
Key takeaway: an RFP isn’t always the right first step; sometimes it’s better to issue a Request for Information (RFI) or simply start a conversation. Don’t get caught up in process for the sake of process.
Now you know what not to do and which questions not to ask. So let’s move on to the good stuff – three ways make vendors loyal and eager to engage.
How to an issue an RFP that will make vendors adore you
Love & cherish
We’ve had more than one vendor confide to us that they’ll no longer respond to X Company’s RFPs/RFIs because:
- The process is just too hard (red tape)
- The format is hideous (what are they asking for?)
- The request is too long, etc.
This type of negative reaction poses a serious problem for buyers because the tried but true “it’s easier to keep a customer than find a new one” also applies to these critical vendor partnerships.
Constantly having to engage new suppliers means continually working from ground zero. They don’t know intimately know your business, and there’s no established trust or rapport to buffer inevitable problems. It’s much easier (and more profitable) to simply cherish the good ones.
Key takeaway: If we’re not actively working to make our vendors’ lives easier, we risk losing them.
Short & sweet
Again, nothing will frustrate vendors more than an incredibly long RFP (one vendor told me his company measured RFPs by the height of the stack of papers). So make questions count. Consider issuing rounds if you have several prospects, targeting the crucial questions on the first go (or starting with an RFI) and then getting more detailed once you’ve created your short list.
Key takeaway: keeping it short and sweet proves you have reasonable expectations for your vendors (that are working for free until they win the bid), allows vendors to respond faster, and gives you a more manageable response to evaluate.
One-size-fits-all RFPs just doesn’t work because:
- They leave the buyer with unanswered questions, and
- They make vendors wonder why they should bother to respond at all.
Ask insightful questions; get insightful responses. When your RFP questions are specific, tailored and relevant, vendors are far more likely to identify a good fit and engage.
Take a lesson from a marketer: generic emails don’t get a response and neither do faceless RFPs. Focus on quality over quantity, and remember that better questions mean better answers.
Key takeaway: targeted RFPs result in fewer, but higher quality responses. You’ll also avoid frustrating potential suppliers with irrelevant questions.
Conclusion: do’s & don’ts of issuing a love-able RFP
- Don’t interrogate your vendors with endless RFPs
- Don’t require physical paper submissions (offer a digital option)
- Don’t paint vendors into a corner with overly-specific questions
- Don’t use generic, boilerplate questions (without tweaking)
- Don’t default to issuing an RFP as the first step (consider your options)
- Don’t be a “one and done” purchaser (an inconsiderate customer)
- Make your RFP as short and sweet as possible (even if it requires multiple rounds)
- Give an electronic-submission option
- Ask open-ended questions over highly specific questions
- Do use technology when it helps streamline the process
- Use past questions as a starting point; then tailor to make them relevant
- Issue the RFP once you’ve done your homework
- Prioritize and invest in your vendor relationships
Amidst all the practicalities, simply remember two things.
- Your success depends on your vendors’ success, and
- Effectively building strong relationships with vendors really just requires considering their needs as well as your own.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Anna Spady is the Marketing Manager for RFP365, an RFP software platform which makes selection faster and simpler for both buyers and sellers. She’s passionate about making complicated things simple, dogs of any kind and chocolate in any form. Get more of her RFP tips and tricks here.