Advice for Customers Before They Write an RFP
Writing an RFP is difficult. It can be made a lot easier if you do some preparing first. Preparing will not only make it easier, but it will help make sure that you actually get what you want out of the procurement process.
Understand your requirements as well as those of the other stakeholders. You know what you want. But do you know what the other stakeholders want (this may be completely different from what you think they need). With multiple stakeholders, it is entirely possible for the requirements to conflict.
- Be able to articulate your requirements. Describing what you want in writing is probably the easiest part of writing an RFP. And yet it is deceptively difficult. It's one thing if you are purchasing a commodity that can be ordered simply by giving a make and model number. However, if you are trying to purchase something more complicated, like a system or a solution that must be engineered, it is a lot more difficult. Some things can be written down as a set of specifications, either technical or functional. And some services can be quantified. However, some things are difficult to quantify and that makes it difficult to describe. Your goal should be to be able to articulate what you want in sufficient detail so that an anonymous reader will be able to provide it. It doesn't matter whether you use formal language, specifications, numbers, bullets, diagrams, or narrative prose. If you can't specify what you want performed or delivered, try specifying what you want the outcome to be. What matters is whether the potential suppliers will be able to provide what you need based on what you have written. It may take some research and more than one attempt to get this right.
- Know what is feasible. Is what you want possible? Is it practical? It doesn't make any sense to issue an RFP that is really a wish-list for something that can't be done, or can't be done within reason. Usually a buyer's goal is to maximize the Return on Investment, which means hitting the sweet spot between innovation and low cost. When you are purchasing something you are highly familiar with, it is easy to know whether what you are asking for makes sense. The problem comes when you are outsourcing because you don't have the expertise in-house and you don't really know what the best approach is.
- Understand the trade-offs involved. It is often said that you can have speed, low cost, or high quality --- pick any two. When you are preparing your wish list, make sure you don't ask for more than your supplier can deliver. If there are trade-offs involved, you want to be the one that makes them. If you don't explicitly specify how you want trade-offs made, then the vendor will fill the void by making a selection that may or may not reflect your preferences.
- Know your limits. Do you have a limited budget? Or a deadline? Or limited facility space? Or bandwidth? Or staffing? Or are there any other limits that could impact what the supplier needs to do to meet your needs? Are there things you definitely want included, or things that you definitely want excluded?
- Achieving Consensus. There are usually many opinions in a company regarding what it needs or wants. Creating an RFP that gives everyone what they want may not be possible. Giving everyone a chance to write everything they want into the RFP will send mixed messages to the vendor, create confusion regarding what you really want, and make your costs explode.
In order to achieve consensus regarding your RFP, try focusing on the goals. It is easier to find common ground regarding the goals you want to achieve. And goals are more important than features. It is more important to fulfill your organization's goals than it is to obtain any particular feature or specification. Most of the arguing takes place around how to fulfill the goals. Try to structure the RFP around your goals instead of the features.
- One good technique to use is "divide and conquer." Identify where you can achieve consensus and where you can't. Try to focus on the areas where you can all speak with one voice. You should also remember that an RFP is about more than just the specifications. It is also about providing instructions to the vendors and describing your priorities in terms of evaluation criteria. You may be able to achieve consensus by adjusting your priorities (RFP evaluation criteria) instead of the specification.
- Speak with one voice to your vendors. RFPs written by committee often make it difficult to understand what the customer really wants. Or worse, different sections of the RFP contradict each other. This confusion will result in your vendor having difficulty supplying what you actually want and will likely result in higher costs as they pad their pricing to reflect their lack of understanding.
By Carl Dickson,
Founder of CapturePlanning.com and PropLIBRARY