Who reads an RFP? How do prospective suppliers receive it? And what do they do with it?
An RFP may take a roundabout route through a supplier's organization before it finally lands on the right desk. Unless specifically addressed to an individual, the RFP package will be opened and given to the appropriate sales manager, where it may sit because the manager is traveling or too busy to look at a lengthy RFP. When your RFP is finally and briefly reviewed by the manager, it is routed to the correct sales representative, who may be traveling or busy working on a big final contract. As you can see, it is advantageous to find the right person in the supplier's organization to whom to send your RFP; otherwise, it is possible that delays will make it impossible for the supplier to respond in time.
Sales personnel typically read the RFP and decide whether to bid on your project. Most suppliers do not do this scientifically or methodically! Most suppliers do not evaluate your RFP in a formal manner to determine whether they have the right product, the time, or the resourcesrather, the salesperson decides to bid and then obtains the resources and approvals from management. A salesperson who is too busy may actually not bid on your project.
Don't confuse the salesperson with the product.
It is important to understand this point because you should not confuse the salesperson with his or her product. If the product is right, you may have to work with the salesperson to get your project recognized and put on the priority list. If the salesperson appears indifferent, contact his or her managers and work with them to get your RFP recognized and on the right track. Remember not to confuse the salesperson with the product, especially when dealing with new sales staff or fairly new companies.
The pre-RFP activity here is to identify accurately the supplier and the contact within the supplier's organization. Start a list of suppliers and contacts, so that you can establish early contact with suppliers and also send advance messages to them that the RFP will be arriving shortly.
There are many different ways to gather a list of suppliers for your project. One of the easiest is to work with your procurement or purchasing office, which will either have or be able to get a list of suppliers who work in or have products in the subject area of your RFP.
You may also attend conferences and supplier demonstrations to gather information about suppliers. For example, if you are interested in Cus-tomer Relations Management (CRM) products, you might look online for conferences about CRM. Typically, an online brochure will list the conference sponsors (who are typically large suppliers) and also provide a supplier list.
Once you have established a list of suppliers, you may consider sending each one a letter or e-mail that briefly describes your project, indicates when you will be ready to send the RFP, and states when it will be due. This information allows suppliers to start organizing their resources, doing their qualifying work on your project, and determining whether they need to team with other suppliers.
If you have set up a Web site for the RFP effort, you may be able to post preliminary information about the RFP and its progress on the site. When you initially contact suppliers, you can provide them with the Web site address (and password, if you don't want the whole world to see your RFP effort).
You may also ask potential suppliers to respond to you if they are interested in receiving the RFP. Make sure they include the name and address of a specific person who should receive the RFP; this might differ from your contact information. Be sure to reestablish this contact just before sending the RFP, as salespeople frequently move within a company or move to new companies.
Now the RFP recipient will, of course, have your name and address and will most likely contact you with various questions such as, "What is the budget for your project?" or, "Will you buy within six months?" This is a good time to develop a dialogue with the suppliers and answer as many of their questions as possible, without giving away confidential information. Building a relationship early will help your suppliers better understand your project and your company's needs. This relationship will, in turn, help suppliers write better proposals.
Only qualified suppliers should participate in the RFP.
Suppliers who receive the RFP should be qualified. First, identify all potential suppliers with the products or services required for the project. Once these suppliers are identified, you should take several steps to ensure that they are qualified:
Suppliers must be technically qualified. Do they have the correct products, or will they have to subcontract to other suppliers? If they subcontract portions of work, who are their primary subcontractors?
Do they have the resources to manage the project properly?
Are they considered a "local" company? If not, how will you work with them? Do they need to travel every time a meeting takes place? How do they handle regular maintenance activities?
How many people does the supplier employ at how many locations? Where is the nearest location to your project site? If the project is to take place in many locations, can the supplier support multiple locations? Is there a need for international support?
How many projects is the supplier currently managing, and will the supplier be stretched too thin? Is the supplier managing other projects similar in size to yours, or are they typically much smaller or bigger?
Suppliers must be financially qualified. Is the supplier in good shape financially and certain to remain in business and continue to support the product?
Suppliers are qualified for obvious reasons, but there are also some not-so-obvious reasons to consider. After you thoroughly review their capabilities and previous projects and resources, you will realize that not all suppliers have the correct product mix and not all will be able to manage a large project.
Some suppliers may be changing their company focus and while they could still bid on your project, would you want to be the last customer to have the last version of a product? In addition, many suppliers may "integrate" the products you need, but do they "own" the primary product being bid? If not, is the supplier who makes the product included in the bidder's list? Finally, why read and evaluate a proposal that is not from a qualified source? This takes valuable time and resources away from the suppliers who have good, responsive proposals.
Here is a checklist of activities that apply to the pre-RFP period:
Develop a list of suppliers.
Send a brief pre-RFP introduction letter and request information about the supplier and the product.
Hold pre-RFP interviews with suppliers, if appropriate, and request a product demonstration or their basic sales presentation.
Attend industry conventions and conferences or local supplier sponsored events.
Qualify the potential bidders for your project.
Consider holding a conference before the RFP is released with all suppliers to present your project and its principal requirements. Request comments and feedback within a specified time from the suppliers in attendance.
Develop a final supplier list with the names and addresses of specific people who should receive the RFP. Let suppliers know when the RFP will be sent.
In the spirit of "measure twice, cut once," it is important to identify the right suppliers and not spend time on organizations and proposals that are not right for your project. This approach will not only save you time but will also allow you to spend more time reviewing the right suppliers.
Once you have identified the suppliers and attended demonstrations and conferences, it is time to write the actual RFP. It is assumed that you have already selected and recruited the core RFP team members and that you are ready to begin work. Below is a recap of the basic RFP writing and releasing activities:
Develop a project schedule for the RFP portion of the project (see Appendix K, "RFP Reverse Planning Calendar"). This is a "reverse calendar" in which you start from the date when the project is to be finished and work backward in time. You may be surprised at how long an RFP project will take.
Develop a clear and agreed-upon statement of the problem that is causing this RFP to be written. This statement will help everyone on the team not only to grasp the issues but also to agree that the statement accurately reflects the problem. This statement will also be used several times in the RFP itself.
Develop a high-level outline of the RFP and have the RFP team agree on it.
Once the outline is developed and reviewed by the "writers," have them revisit and confirm that they can complete their work within the scheduled time.
Once requirements have been written, write the evaluation criteria for each requirement. How will you measure a supplier's response to a requirement?
Compare the completed RFP and evaluation criteria to the budget. Have you underestimated the budget or overestimated the requirements?
Reestablish contact with suppliers prior to sending out the RFP. Ensure that your contact is still there and that the supplier is still interestedand still in business.
Publish the RFP. You may consider providing an electronic version of the RFP on a Web site for the suppliers to download. You may want to secure the site with passwords if there is sensitive information in the RFP.
Be prepared to hold the RFP conference if required. Ensure that you are prepared with a presentation, have the RFP team available, and can produce any other resources that are needed, as promised in the RFP.
Be prepared to receive and respond to suppliers' questions as they come in. In some cases suppliers may not be able to move forward until you respond to their questions.
Be as helpful to suppliers as possible during this period, but be careful of suppliers who try to work around the RFP team by going to senior management or who try to talk to the RFP team directly without the benefit of written communication.
It is the responsibility of the RFP team leader to ensure that these activities are handled quickly and that the schedule is kept.
When proposals have been submitted, the next round of work begins.
Here are examples of activities to be performed once proposals are submitted. Each activity described below is discussed in more detail in Chapter 7, "Evaluation Guidelines" and Chapter 2, "RFP Planning and Preparation."
Evaluate proposals. The first activity is to evaluate proposals in an effort to separate potentially viable proposals from those that do not meet basic requirements. As little time as possible should be spent on proposals that obviously do not meet the RFP requirements. The initial evaluations should consider mechanical elements such as whether the proposal arrived on time, whether it followed the administrative instructions, and whether it took exceptions to major requirements.
Eliminate the first round of suppliers. The first proposals eliminated may be poorly written, priced significantly above or below other _suppliers by a factor of 50 percent, or on closer review lack the right product. Eliminated suppliers should be notified and should have the opportunity to understand why they were eliminated. Notification need not wait until the contract is awarded. It is important to document the rationale for eliminating a supplier, as this information may be used later when justifying the winning proposal.
Establish a shortlist of suppliers. The next step is to try to winnow the remaining number of suppliers down to two or three. This shortlist comprises suppliers with the potential to win the contract.
Call references. For suppliers on the shortlist, it is now time to call references. This call should be scheduled, and all of the RFP team members should participate in it. Only references for the shortlisted suppliers should be called.
Host demonstrations. The RFP may require that suppliers demonstrate their products, either at the supplier's factory or on site, so that the RFP team and other users in the community can get direct experience with the supplier and the products.
Reference site visits. If site visits were part of the RFP, these should take place prior to any final evaluation. The site visit is to a reference site designated by the supplier and is generally only for the final two suppliers in the competition. In a very close competition, site visits can make the final difference in the choice of supplier.
Supplier site visit. In some cases you may want to visit the supplier's factory or headquarters and meet the management team. This allows you to make certain that the supplier is financially sound and that all support groups proposed actually exist.
Best and final offer (BAFO). As part of the give and take during the evaluation period, there is a reasonable chance that the supplier overestimated a requirement's impact or overscheduled part of the implementation. The BAFO allows suppliers the opportunity to rethink and fine-tune their pricing by submitting their best and final offer.
Supplier selection. Consider this the last step in the RFP process and the first step of the project itself. You have done the homework, selected the best supplier possible, and are now ready to get started.
Review the selection process with management. It is possible that a formal internal document will need to be generated to explain why suppliers were eliminated and why the winning supplier won. Such a report will draw heavily from the evaluation forms and the notes taken during the meetings to compare evaluations. Remember to keep all of those notes taken during the meeting with suppliers, reference calls, site visits, and any other interaction with suppliers.
Debrief suppliers who did not win. Many suppliers are truly interested in why they did not win and how they could improve their proposal writing or products and services being proposed. Make room in your schedule to allow for supplier debriefings.
Cleanup and storage of proposals. It is advisable to keep at least one copy of all proposals in an accessible place for at least six months. While this is not a legal obligation (for commercial companies), it is possible that a losing supplier will question your decision three or four months after the award of the contract. Also, there may be good information in these losing proposals that you may want to review and profit from. Quite often, a supplier may raise a valid point about requirements, contingencies, or scheduling that you will want to incorporate into the final project.
As with any project, these activities must be coordinated and kept moving by the RFP team leader. Most of the RFP team will be off catching up on their "real" jobs, but the above tasks still need to be accomplished.