A request for proposal (RFP) is the document that initiates the procurement and bidding process for business software and other major corporate purchases. This process should be approached with careful consideration by both the company seeking to purchase the product and the vendor that is bidding to make the sale. Both parties should enter the process with an inquisitive frame of mind. They should be open to the possibility that the process could help the customer find a better fit than it envisioned before the process was initiated.
Beyond ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ Responses
Completed RFP documents are essentially a set of written questions from the customer and the corresponding answers from the vendor. It is easier said than done. What’s important is arriving at the best fit between the customer’s needs and the final product. Customers should request responses that are elaborative, or they'll just get “yes” and “no” responses that may not address their real concerns concerning price, scope and performance. For example, the customer should try to learn whether there is an adequate product that is less expensive than the one being offered -- perhaps the vendor has both a “silver” and a “gold” offering, and the less-expensive silver offering will fill the customer’s needs nicely. Don’t just ask “Do you ...?” Ask “How do you ... ?” and “How much ... ?” Even when vendors are asked close-ended questions, they should elaborate in their answers beyond "yes" and "no" where appropriate.
Don’t Talk Past One Another
Clarity is everything. For example, a customer who puts out an RFP for customized software might be told in response that the licensing scheme is “concurrent.” That’s a concept that isn’t necessarily self-evident, and the vendor should go beyond such an answer to explain what it means by “concurrent.” When that doesn’t happen, the customer should ask the meaning of terms like this. Vendors must also understand that customers need more facts and fewer characterizations. Solid references from satisfied third parties are stronger than self-serving descriptions. Numbers are facts; flowery words from the marketing department are not.
Think About What Can Go Wrong
Just because the customer and the vendor start out on their best behavior, neither can assume that things will stay that way. To do so is to ignore the risks inherent in a vendor/customer relationship. This means, for example, that customers must know from the outset who their single point of contact within the vendor's organization will be. Then, if things start to sour with the vendor, the customer has someone within the vendor organization with whom to begin a dialogue. As for vendors, planning for contingencies means thinking about the possibility of a public lawsuit if things go south. It's wise to inform the customer that any dispute resolution must be confidential in order to keep intact both the relationship with the customer and the vendor's reputation. These sorts of issues are fair game during the RFP process, so long as they are kept in proper perspective.
In conclusion, remember that the RFP process is possibly the best chance for customers and vendors to make sure that the right technology is procured and 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 his colleague Paresh Trivedi for providing his thoughts on this article.