Let’s Make RFPs Better – and More Definitive

Two years ago I wrote a post for the Doculabs blog, entitled “Skip the RFP.” In that post, I proposed that firms eliminate the big request-for-proposal (RFP) process and get down to brass tacks by deciding between a couple of down-selected vendors. Sadly, I think few organizations have taken up this position, as RFPs are as commonplace today as they were back then. It’s understandable, though; firms must ensure both due diligence and integrity throughout the selection process, especially when making a sizable investment.

So rather than thinking about eliminating the RFP, let’s think about how to make the RFP process better for all involved. I think there’s opportunity for the entire process to be both more definitive and less time-consuming at the same time. Here’s my list of recommendations:

1. Cut or limit the table-stakes questions.

Many RFPs are filled with perhaps hundreds of questions concerning basic, commoditized functionality that would be considered mere table stakes for any vendor with a serious product in play for the RFP. In many cases these topics are presented as a series of yes/no questions. Sure they’re easy to review and easy for the vendor to answer, but do they really add value to investigation or to the decision-making process? While it’s possible a couple of specifically placed “no” answers could truly be show-stoppers, in practice, I’ve never seen this in practice. Bottom line, if the software supplier couldn’t or can’t do the basic table-stakes functions or services you’re evaluating, they shouldn’t have made the final RFP list anyway.

2. Focus on the real product or service differentiators.

The follow-on to Point #1 is to focus your RFP questions on the key services and product functionality that will really help to differentiate one vendor from another. This sounds simple, but often the intent of the analysis gets muddled or lost when a number of involved parties, representing a wide array of viewpoints, are crafting the questions. The person(s) responsible for the final RFP should take a firm command and leadership position in ensuring that all questions are designed in such a way as to truly allow a vendor to display its unique value to your organization and how it differentiates itself and its proposed solution from those of the competition.

3. Weed out the financially unstable vendors early.

Finance and procurement departments have a role to play in the assessment, and one of the value-added services they provide is a look into the financial strength and welfare of the prospective vendors. How often have you seen a company with considerable stability risk remain as a finalist in the RFP process? In most instances, this risk is insurmountable, and regardless of the quality of the product or service, there is very little chance for the vendor to overcome this obstacle. Make it better for everyone by eliminating these players before you even issue the RFP. You’ll save time and money for all involved.

4. Know who the decision-maker(s) are upfront.

There are really two places where you need to apply this rule. First, when the questions are being crafted, know who’s got the decision-making authority to trim the topics and questions to those that truly differentiate the vendors (see Points #1 and 2, above). Second, once you’ve completed the scoring of the RFP responses, know who will make the final decision. All too often the role of final decision-maker is not defined clearly enough, leading to extra cycles for the evaluation team and the participating vendors.

I still believe that supplier demonstrations based on real-world scenarios are the best way to assess a vendor. An RFP, however, can provide a valuable view or extra data point in the overall selection process. Just remember that the results of the RFP are just one data element, and that they provide indicative rather than definitive information to the selection process.

Rich Medina
Tom Roberts
I’m a Principal Consultant for Doculabs with more than 25 years experience, focused on delivering strategies that improve clients’ enterprise content management capabilities, with an emphasis on customer communications management strategies.