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Navigating the RFP Process

What a request for proposal can miss and how to make the process work for you.

by John A. Gliedman

A customer request for proposal (RFP) and the vendor’s response often initiate the technology procurement/provisioning process and should be approached with careful consideration. If the customer and vendor do not view this process with a guiding rule of reasonableness in mind, either one or both of the parties may miss what will ultimately be a very important aspect of the required technology solution.
    

There is a danger in that an automatic, “garbage-in, garbage-out” approach will not yield a positive result and may complicate either or both parties’ performance under any agreement from the RFP process or blur their understanding of rights and obligations under a resulting agreement. Customers and vendors are well served by taking the RFP process seriously and clearly defining exactly what they request to receive or propose to provide.

How, Why and How Much are Better Questions than Yes and No. RFP documents are essentially a set of written questions and answers regarding the subject technology solution(s). Resist the temptation of approaching this process in a pre-programmed, automated manner rather than thinking through their needs and capabilities in a more proactive approach. Just being “responsive” (as a vendor) or expecting “yes” or “no” answers (as a customer) is not considered a winning strategy.

What is important is arriving at the best fit. For example, a provider should inform the customer if it has a gold (more expensive, more scope) or silver (less expensive, less scope) solution, even if not asked. Pricing, scope, and performance are integrated aspects of any technology solution and cannot be understood separately from one another.

The solution that may ultimately sell is not necessarily one that is assumed at the outset, so customers should leave room for suggestions from vendors in their responses. Vendors should be proactive in offering alternatives to the customer. Accordingly, a buyer should encourage vendors to elaborate with “how” and “why” responses to give a clearer picture of their capabilities. Vendors should not be afraid to do so, even if not asked.

Don’t Talk Past One Another. Clarity is everything. For example, in an RFP for customized software, understanding that the licensing scheme is “concurrent” is not necessarily self-evident. As a customer, you may have to ask the meaning of such terms, which have important pricing implications.

If you are a vendor, understand that customers need more facts and fewer characterizations. Solid references by satisfied third parties are stronger than self-serving descriptions. Numbers are facts; flowery words are not.

Be Cautiously Optimistic. Just because you and the vendor are on your best behavior, do not assume things will stay that way forever. Make sure you mind the risks inherent in any vendor-customer relationship. For instance, if you are a customer, have you considered who is your single point of contact within the vendor’s organization?
    

Do so now or hold your peace. As a vendor, have you thought about the possibility of a public lawsuit if things go south? If so, you may want to inform the customer that any dispute resolution must be confidential to keep your relationship with the customer and your reputation intact. These sorts of issues are fair game during the RFP process, so long as they are kept in proper perspective.

Always remember that the RFP process is your first and possibly best chance to make sure that the right solution is in place and that headaches are minimized. Keeping what matters in sight at all times will help make sure that you take best advantage of this opportunity.

The author would like to thank Paresh Trivedi for his comments on this article.

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