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17 things the customer needs to figure out before they write the RFP

And what you should do about them

Writing an RFP is harder than writing a proposal. And it’s even harder when you are not the expert in what you need to buy or are missing information. When customers and vendors work together, they can mitigate issues like these: 

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  1. How to get the right vendors to bid. Who out there could add value or bring better solutions? How do they find them? Would they bid? Who will ultimately bid? If they put out an RFP, what are they going to get back? Should they get more vendors just to have “competition” or should they focus on getting to know select vendors (and allowing them to get to know the customer)? What should they do about all that? 
  2. How to reconcile what they know about their technical needs with what they need to do to conduct the procurement. They know they’ve got needs, but they may or may not know how to get those needs fulfilled. But if they have to go through a procurement process, how do they translate what they need into something that will survive their procurement process? This is why it’s critical for vendors and customers to talk before the RFP is written. Customers should create opportunities for this, and vendors should seek them out.
  3. Whether what they’ve asked for is feasible. When the customer writes the RFP, sometimes they put everything they might want into it. But the combination might just not be feasible, and they may not even realize it. 
  4. How much it should cost. As they put together the list of requirements, the customer may not realize what each should cost, let alone what it should all add up to. Depending on what is being procured, the rationale for the vendor’s pricing can be as important as the pricing itself. Inflexible RFP pricing formats can get in the way of bidding better solutions. And sometimes small requirements drive a disproportionate amount of the cost. If the customer doesn’t realize this, they can blame vendors for being too expensive without realizing they could have lowered the cost substantially by dropping a low priority requirement. This is another area where discussing the basis of the estimate and how to present pricing should occur in discussions between the customer and vendors before an RFP is issued.
  5. How to control costs over time. For many reasons, costs can change after RFP award. Controlling those cost changes is tricky. Sometimes vendors game the system. Sometimes requirements evolve as part of the project. And sometimes customers want things that weren’t in the RFP. No one knows how to best control costs over time and both customers and vendors are to blame. This implies that only a solid partnership between them can address it. Achieving a solid partnership between the customer and the vendor after award starts with an RFP that requires and rewards it.
  6. How to get the most for the customer’s budget without telling vendors what their budget is. The customer knows how much they can afford to spend. They’d like to get the most for that amount. However, they fear that if they tell the vendors what their budget is, all proposals will be scaled to consume the whole budget. But that’s the only way to get the most value for that amount of budget. Customers rarely know what to do about that. The better the customer understands how vendors will approach their basis of estimates, the better they can make this decision. The best approach may vary according to what is being procured, the customer’s desire for ROI, and the range of possibilities in what could be proposed.
  7. How to maximize ROI. Sometimes customers are flexible on the budget based on what they are going to get. They are willing to invest more to get more. But they have no idea how to achieve that, let alone how to assess vendor claims regarding it.
  8. What problems could come up during performance. If the customer isn’t the expert in what they are buying, they may not be able to anticipate the problems that a given vendor approach might run into. They can ask vendors to describe them, but can they trust the answers?
  9. What makes one vendor better than another. The customer may not know industry best practices or typical ways to cheat. They’re not in the vendor’s business. This translates into the customer not knowing what things to ask about or how to write evaluation criteria to separate the wheat from the chaff. If you know your customer is going to release an RFP, you can educate them about these things. Tell them what to look out for. Better yet, word your recommendations in ways that can easily be used in an RFP. For example, if you know that some companies lowball their pricing in ways that cause the customer problems after award, give them the requirements language that will enable the customer to prevent the problem.
  10. What’s wrong with the RFP they just wrote. RFP writing is hard. It requires projecting unknowns into the future. There are all kinds of potential problems, and many of them are not obvious: technical problems, editorial problems, things that aren’t problems now but could be problems in the future, obsolescence, incompatibilities, inefficiencies, risk, leaving things out, disorganization, ambiguities, loopholes, requirements that get in the way of other things you want, etc. When you see problems in the RFP, you can’t assume the customer did it on purpose or is even aware of it. Pointing it out might help them. Giving them wording that could resolve it might help them out even more. But better than either of those is to help them get the RFP right before it’s released, because fixing it after release can be disruptive.
  11. How to determine whether vendors will deliver what they promise. RFPs invite vendors to make a lot of promises. They attempt to get vendors to substantiate their ability to deliver on those promises. But when the customer does not know how to do what you do, it’s hard for them to set procedures or ask questions that will verify that vendors will deliver what they promise.
  12. What might work better than what they asked for. The customer might not know the best way to get from where they are to where they want to be. They try to research it as best they can before they release an RFP. But once the RFP is out, vendors might not be able to propose an approach that is better if it contradicts the RFP requirements. This happens when the alternative didn’t occur to the customer. Customers concerned about this should actively seek alternative approaches before releasing the RFP. The challenge here is that vendors like to save their “secret sauce” for the proposal, don’t want everyone to be prompted to take their better approach, and may not discuss it before the RFP is released. The trick is for vendors to share enough so that their better approach isn’t ruled out by the RFP, while not turning their approach into a requirement for everyone. Vendors can help by crafting wording that opens the RFP to their approach without defining the approach or making it a requirement.
  13. How to compare one proposal to another. Some RFPs try to inappropriately force everything into an apples-to-apples comparison. RFPs like this are particularly susceptible to preventing vendors from proposing better alternatives or adding value. The more dialog between customers and vendors to enable them to determine what separates a good solution or vendor from another, the better.
  14. How different people in their own organization approach decision making. Some people want one thing. Some people want another. The chain of command can be unpredictable. What matters to the customer can depend on which people at the customer are participating in the decision, and how they go about making their decisions. The evaluation process defined in the RFP is just a tool. Different people may use that tool in different ways. And the person writing the RFP, the people who need something procured, and those involved in the outcome may not know how it all will play out. For better or worse.
  15. How to maximize competition. The customer wants the best deal. But what does that mean? The best tool they have is usually relying on competition. But in highly specialized areas, the number of companies who realistically can meet the requirements without disruption to the customer can be quite small. And introducing more companies is not always quick or practical. This leaves the customer caught between wanting to maximize competition and wanting to solidify its vendor relationships. They may not know how to get this balance right.
  16. How to balance the trade-offs. When you create a list of all the things you want and call them “requirements” it’s easy to overlook that each of them brings new trade-offs. We tend to obsess over the trade-offs that impact pricing, but there are many other trade-offs. Vendors want to make the trade-offs that the customer would prefer. But the customer often doesn’t signal their preferences. RFPs focus on objective criteria and requirements instead of subjective criteria like preferences.
  17. The best way to manage the work. The customer might understand the specifications, but not be clear on the implementation (and vice versa). They might not know how to validate quality or mitigate the risks. And sometimes asking vendors about quality and risk is frankly a waste of effort. They often do not understand how to measure performance or what benchmarks to use. Asking vendors to commit to meeting performance measures or benchmarks is practically begging for a half-hearted response. For astute vendors, this creates an opportunity and an easy way to differentiate. 

Talking to your customer about the issues before the RFP is released is the best way to mitigate these issues. Don’t expect the customer to tell you what they don’t know. But don’t let that stop you from discussing the issue and providing information that might fill a gap. Vendors who understand how difficult writing an RFP is should help their customers by providing information in ways that aren’t self-serving or aren’t specific to a single procurement. Complaining about the quality of RFPs after they are written is an admission that you weren’t helpful enough at the right time and just waited. Instead, consider changing your pursuit process to better anticipate your customer’s needs before the RFP is written.

Customers who are trying to get past the things they don’t know and still get their needs met have to look for ways to get past their distrust of vendors so they can discuss issues like these. Many of these issues can be talked about in ways that aren’t specific to any one procurement, but can increase understanding and produce better procurement outcomes across all of them. When customers are seeking input ahead of RFP release, I don’t see enough questions that start off like “What would you do to...” or “If you were writing an RFP how would you…” Complaining about the proposals submitted by your vendors or differences after award is often just an admission that you didn’t do your homework or didn’t talk to vendors before you wrote the RFP. Instead, consider creating opportunities for vendors to add value before RFPs are written. Take advantage of them. They want you to.

We’re all in this together. We want the same outcomes. Being adversarial to each other or opportunistic isn’t going create the best outcomes for either of us.

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More information about "Carl Dickson"

Carl Dickson

Carl is the Founder and President of CapturePlanning.com and PropLIBRARY

Carl is an expert at winning in writing, with more than 30 year's experience. He's written multiple books and published over a thousand articles that have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is also a frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant and can be reached at carl.dickson@captureplanning.com. To find out more about him, you can also connect with Carl on LinkedIn.

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