The 2011 RFP Season has Begun!

By | January 3, 2011

Elizabeth Gooding Boston Color picFor those businesses on a calendar-based fiscal year, Requests for Proposals (RFPs) are already hitting the street. Whether you are on the issuing side or the responding side of bids for print and other business communications services here are some tips to keep in mind based on my many years sitting on both sides of the RFP table.

Issuers of RFPs

These days, most businesses rely on some sort of strategic procurement group for all or part of their RFP processes. In addition, the business group(s) requiring the services, their respective IT organizations and potentially a separate legal and compliance group may also be involved. Everyone is busy so the goal is typically to avoid “bothering the business units.” That’s mistake number 1 – bother the heck out of the business units and anyone else who can ensure a better result. If they don’t participate in the definition and weighting of requirements you might as well not bother issuing an RFP. You won’t get what you need and you will waste a lot of time and money not getting it. There is always a tradeoff between designing an RFP that takes the least effort for your business to evaluate and one that gets you the best and most creative bids. The latter will be more work in the short-term but can pay off for years.

Speaking of not getting what you need – that leads to mistake number 2: simply asking for bids on what you have now. What you have is not necessarily what you need and may not be the lowest cost, highest quality or most effective solution available. Tell the suppliers what you have now, what your goals are and get bids on their recommended solutions – you may want to get bids on what you have now also for an apples-to-apples comparison – but don’t limit yourself to what you think you know. I guarantee that the people who deliver the services for a living know a few things that you don’t about the best way to do it.

Top Tips for Issuers:

  1. Get all stakeholders to participate in both defining and weighting requirements up front
  2. Get all stakeholders to rate existing vendors on those requirements in advance of issuing the RFP (you really should be rating suppliers at least 2X per year anyway)
  3. Get an expert consultant (internal or external) to review requirements to ensure that they are complete, up-to-date and stated in a manner that will make sense to suppliers
  4. Don’t rely solely on “check the box” and “fill in the blanks” RFP formats. This may make it easier to score the RFP but will limit the quality and quantity of information you get to score.
  5. Don’t rely solely on “catalog pricing” for price comparisons. Have specific jobs estimated where possible. Catalog pricing, particularly for variable full-color printing jobs will likely cost you more in the long run.

Responding to RFPs

Let’s face it – responding to RFPs is not fun. They are typically poorly constructed; a lot of work and often you have no idea if they will ever really be awarded or if they are just a fishing expedition or post decision justification exercise. It’s easy to start off the process with a bad attitude. Well… don’t. That would be your first mistake.

If you don’t think an RFP is a good fit or a “real bid” then don’t respond. Quite frankly, many RFPs are not worth the time and effort. But once you make the decision to participate – go after it with your best people and your best effort. Participate in every possible aspect of the RFP process – ask questions on calls, ask questions in writing, make suggestions for improving the RFP and – at all times – play by the rules of the RFP. Also – if you decide not to respond – write a really kickin’ “No Bid letter” explaining exactly why you have chosen not to respond and under what circumstances, or for what types of services, you would like to respond to a future RFP. I’ve written no bid letters that ended up getting the whole RFP process changed for the better. I’ve also seen vendors barred from future RFP opportunities for failing to respond to the invitation to bid.

Top Tips for Responders:

  1. Follow the rules. If you are not supposed to call anyone but procurement – Don’t! If you are supposed to respond in a certain format – Do! By all means – meet the deadlines.
  2. If the RFP is poorly constructed – try to get the rules changed. During Q&A sessions make the case for changing the format to allow suppliers to provide more effective responses or suggest expanding requirements. Explain why this will benefit the Issuer. If the Issuer won’t budge – see Tip #1.
  3. Put the boilerplate at the end (and eliminate anything that is not pertinent to the Issuer.) Keep answers in the body of the RFP succinct and to the point. It takes more work to write fresh answers for RFPs – but the shorter you can make your answer the more likely it is to be read and understood.
  4. Make sure that the person responsible for writing your response can actually write. Some of the responses I’ve seen would embarrass a 3rd grader. Even if you have multiple people responsible for responding – there should be one voice and one responsible editor. And SPELLCHECK!
  5. The right references are important. If possible, give more than they ask for and make sure that the references will be pertinent to the Issuer (same or similar industry, company size, services provided, level of complexity.) Just providing a reference to say you’re a great company is not enough – it needs to relate to the particular RFP you are responding to.

RFPs are a lot of work for both Issuers and Suppliers. They work out best for everyone when it is a respectful process. Issuers don’t get the best bids when they treat suppliers like second-class citizens of the business realm. Likewise, suppliers don’t get the respect they deserve when they don’t play by the rules or fail to state their case in an effective manner. I wish everyone a prosperous and efficient RFP season and a Happy New Year.

If you want to get connected with some experts – comment on this post or find me on LinkedIn.

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4 thoughts on “The 2011 RFP Season has Begun!

  1. Roger Albert

    Thanks, Elizabeth, for a snapshot from both sides of the aisle. We just finished responding to an RFP (large current customer) in December. Thankfully, we seem to have covered the bases fairly well, except for not being exceptionally concise in a few areas. I compensated by giving a condensed opening paragraph in a few places, followed by a longer explanation. I also gathered all of the “past and potential future” savings points into one spreadsheet and inserted that in the executive summary.
    Hopefully, we’ll get the nod to continue business with them in February!

    I also wholeheartedly agree with the need to submit an RFP with proper spelling AND grammar! The final submission needs to be thoroughly reviewed by at least one knowledgeable person besides the author/editor.

  2. Elizabeth Gooding Post author

    Roger – good luck to you on the RFP and thanks for your comment. Having strong, concise summaries at the beginning of each section is another great recommendation. Another key point you raise is the executive summary – that’s the first impression you give to the reader of the RFP and it sets them up to be positively or negatively predisposed to the rest of the proposal. Being an incumbent vendor always gives you an edge in terms of being able to recommend improvement and the Executive Summary (as well as the letter of transmittal) is a great place to highlight that. Let us know if you win the bid!

  3. John McMahon

    My favorite topic of all time. At the 2010 NAPL Leadership conference I asked a panel of print buyers whether or not they’d ever achieved lasting value as a result of the RFP process. None of them indicated they did. I then asked the attendees, most of whom were commercial printers, how successful they had been in earning lasting business by means of winning an RFP. the overwhelming majority said they don’t. Our experience is the same. Countless hours spent answering questions and providing pricing for projects that in all likelihood will never be produced again. Over the past five years or so, most insightful and strategic thinking as evidenced by the publications and studies from all industry sources point to the need for our industry to shiift our focus away from pursuing transactional business, and towards creating value added comprehensive solutions, of which both traditional and digital print will be a part. I have yet to see an RFP that is written in an effort to seek a solution. Moreover, I have a difficult time believing that any solution that can add real business value can be gleaned from canned and weighted responses to an RFP. My advice is somewhat different than yours. Ignore the rules. Ignore the procurement people. They are the enemy to success. The process is set up to ensure you fail. Focus your attention on building relationships and constantly reinforcing your value. If a current client takes you to an RFP and you’ve been unable to sell your way around that, face the facts and understand you’ve already lost. Don’t respond. Spend your time finding and talking to people who are interested in building their business and show them how you can help.

  4. Elizabeth Gooding Post author

    John – I agree that as a supplier it is always best to avoid having to go to RFP. However, it is a fact of life that many large companies require competitive bidding on major procurement categories every 3 or 5 years. No matter how happy your customer is – they may be forced to go to RFP. Not responding in those cases is effectively firing the client. With that said – it helps to try to influence the procurement people as well as the direct clients you serve. Make sure that rankings of customer service for existing vendors are highly weighted in the selection process to give an edge to incumbent vendors. Incumbent vendors should also have an edge on pricing since they will not have to go through the set up process (for existing book of business.) You may decide not to pursue RFPs for new business – it’s risky but manageable. I said “no” to a lot of RFPs in my day – but always sent a “no bid letter” explaining the reasons. As I mentioned – this was often more effective than responding to the RFP as I was able to secure business directly that was not included in the RFP (which was my goal.) Getting creative is good – but being inflexible probably isn’t.

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