So you think you need an RFP

Over the years, Chesapeake Systems has responded to many RFPs, each with its own unique DNA. As a company that prides itself on being an engaged and enthusiastic partner to our clients, we’ve thought a lot about how best to establish that tone of partnership from the beginning of the relationship, including through the RFP process. We’re sharing our experience here in the hope that it will benefit both prospective issuers and respondents.

We believe there are three critical ideas in establishing the kind of relationship that both parties will want to stay in: collaboration, transparency, and communication.

A collaborative orientation on the part of both parties is critical to a successful RFP process. The goal of the process is to find someone you want to partner with, not just to stage a rigorous competition. In the most successful RFPs, the issuing organization is as helpful as possible to respondents, because it will result in the best responses. Careful preparation and honest communication pays dividends down the line for both partners.

Share who you are, not just what you know, and expect the same from your respondents. Get acquainted with one other. Make time for more than one respondent to present to you. On a project of the scale that requires an RFP, you’re likely to be in the relationship for a long time. Don’t go in blind––make sure you’re choosing people who can communicate with you and you want to work with for the foreseeable future.

Knock down the walls. Sometimes RFPs read as if they’ve been written with the intention of keeping the relationship as sterile as possible. Communication becomes stifled in pursuit of impartiality, or its appearance––and while impartiality is a worthy goal, problems are not solved by withholding information. Ultimately, the success of the RFP process, like the eventual project work, will be determined by the combined efforts of all parties participating.

Remember, the tone of your relationship is set by the tone of your selection process.

Be honest about where you stand in your process. If you’re not ready to do a procurement, or are already narrowing in on your vendor, or if you don’t have executive support and budget approval, consider whether the time is right to issue a formal RFP. Prospective vendors are happy to respond to a less formal RFI (Request for Information) or sit down to talk about the potential project without a formal process. Those processes can naturally evolve into a complete, focused, well-reasoned RFP when the time is right.

Be clear in your approach to the RFP. Articulate the problem and use the RFP platform to outline the issues. Your mastery of the problems and their nuances in the RFP gives top-tier respondents the opportunity to dig in while affording them the opportunity to offer their own perspectives and solutions.

Provide as much relevant information as humanly possible in the RFP. If you know something, say it; if you don’t know it yet, say that. Regardless of whether a third-party firm is involved in drafting the RFP, be sure to gather input from everyone who would come into contact with the system you’re bidding out and make sure all of that input makes it into the document.

Consider reserving the longest chunk of your RFP timeline for after you have answered the respondents’ questions––that’s where the work really begins, because the full scope and specifics of the project have been conveyed and are more likely to be fully understood by the respondents.

In addition to resulting in robust, detailed responses that you can actually use, evidence that you’ve carefully thought the project through attracts responses from strong contenders whom you would eventually want to work with. No desirable vendor wants to put hundreds of hours of effort into an RFP process without some assurance the issuer is both clear on what they’re doing and candid in communicating it.

Once the draft RFP feels complete, and before you distribute, read through the entirety from the respondent’s perspective. Ask yourself what you would need to know and what would help you provide the best possible response. Is the document designed to get you what you’re looking for?

Taking a step back to include all of these steps may feel like doubling the work to issue an RFP. However, putting in the effort on the front end will mean a smarter, faster evaluation process, because the responses will really get at the heart of the project and address your specific needs. Furthermore, a well-run RFP process yields one other valuable benefit: you will understand your organization, the problem, and the industry far better than when you began.