Does RFP have to stand for “Really Frustrating Process?”
Question: We’ve put together what we think is a pretty good RFP, but the information we get back from suppliers doesn’t really help in the selection process. What needs to change?
Insights from the other side of the fence
As a supplier of services, MC² receives RFPs and RFIs all the time. While some of them are nightmares; others actually make the process of providing information easier for us — and more rewarding for the senders. So, on behalf of all the suppliers out there, here are some suggestions — 10 things to keep in mind the next time you start the RFP/RFI process:
- Ask great questions. The more specific and RFP is, the more specific the information suppliers can provide, a critical aspect of making a good, correct decision. For this reason, avoid closed questions that require only “yes” or “no” answers; instead, use open-ended questions and multi-layered questioning techniques.
Takeaway: Avoid closed questions.
- Create as balanced a playing field as possible. For example, specify a budget number, and ask what can be purchased for that amount. It doesn’t matter if the budget isn’t a “real” number; this is an exercise that allows comparison between what one supplier can produce versus another. Without a specific budget number, suppliers will have ideas and answers all over the board, input that won’t help to make a decision. Ask time-based questions, such as “Compared to three years ago, how do you handle …?” That way, companies can show how they’re evolving or have evolved over time, information that is current and useful to your exhibit or event program.
Takeaway: Specify a budget number.
- Provide as much information as you can. Photographs, drawings, sketches, actual setups and other items give responding companies a better platform to work from. Otherwise, they may use a color or material that's off-brand, wasting everyone's time. Tell companies about program successes AND failures. Ask how they would respond to a situation you’ve already experienced. If they suggest the same or a similar solution to the one you chose, you can assume their thinking process and yours are aligned (for good or bad!). If they go somewhere completely different than you, consider investigating their thought process further (it might be a good thing!).
Takeaway: Investigate the company's thinking process.
- Check a company's ability to follow directions. Ask a question that begins “In 50 words describe your company ….” Surprisingly, the content of the answer isn’t important in this case; the exact word count is. If suppliers don’t answer the question in exactly 50 words, there's a reasonable assumption they won’t follow directions to the letter. This may be kind of sneaky, but you’re about to choose a company you’ll be giving very specific assignments to.
Takeaway: Test to be sure your instructions will be followed precisely.
- Establish selection criteria to whittle down your list of possible suppliers. For instance, if you need a “turn-key” partner, you can cross off a company that provides great signage but doesn’t have the strategic expertise to manage a booth space. State minimum criteria up front, so suppliers know right away whether they have what you’re looking for.
Takeaway: State minimum criteria up front.
- Explain your selection process. Include the expected timing of final selection and what happens along the way. For instance, after initial interviews to weed out obvious suppliers that can’t meet your high-level criteria, you may request a formal submission of services.
Takeaway: Each step should refine your candidate list.
- Limit your mailing. Many suppliers are wary of RFIs and RFPs that go out to multiple companies — we call them “cattle calls.” The amount of time and energy a company puts into a response is directly proportional to the number of companies they know are on the bid list. For instance, if an RFI or RFP goes out to 20 companies, many if not most companies think they have a one in 20 chance of making the cut and won’t put much effort into the creative portion of their responses. Having a reasonable number — the rule of thumb is two to three companies for every $1 to $2 million in the program budget — gets a much higher response quality.
Takeaway: Include 2 to 3 companies for every $1-2 million in your budget.
- Develop a simple matrix to rank and weigh your program elements. Weighted scoring is one way to compare and contrast responses. What are your absolutely most important program elements, and how do the respondents stack up? There may be some smaller issues that one company rates very high on, but misses the most important two or three. This is a very important decision, so understanding how a potential supplier can handle mission-critical program elements is key.
Takeaway: Weight and rank responses.
- Physically visit the sites of two or three finalists. You learn much more about a candidate by seeing where they live and breathing their air, so to speak. There’s nothing like a healthy dose of intuition based on impressions you make by actually visiting a production facility. Chemistry is a very important aspect of a trade show or event partner relationship. A face-to-face meeting helps to rate and rank your feelings about these companies.
Takeaway: Meet your finalists face-to-face.
- Invite people from diverse departments in your organization to join the decision-making team. For instance, a finance person who can run the numbers presented by your responders would be a must-have. Also consider including a corporate marketing person, as well as someone from IT to evaluate responses on the technology side. These added eyes and ears, become part of the buying center, along with your own team members, to keep the evaluation objective.
Takeaway: Use a buying center approach.
Look at it this way: Sending out an RFP is akin to looking for a life partner. You need to find someone who is upfront and honest, thinks the way you do and makes you look better than ever before. And, as in life, knowing exactly what you want in a partner and conveying what’s important to you increase your possibility of finding “the one” that’s right for you.