Requests for Proposals (RFPs) are used by organizations to do as their name implies, and request a proposal from a vendor for goods or services. I’ve had extensive experience with them as a result of having more than eleven years experience providing election services combined with more than thirteen years experience working inside a non-profit association. That experience means I have a very up-close, dual perspective as I’ve both responded to RFPs as a service provider and have written them as a service consumer.
They have their role. The process of writing one can force an organization to examine its business practices and reconsider how it operates. Oftentimes a process is done a particular way simply because that’s how it’s always been done. When some fresh thinking is applied to it, a better approach, perhaps one that takes advantage of technological advancements, is born. The process of writing an RFP can force this sort of fresh thinking.
They’re also useful for the vendor as it is impossible to write a proposal for a client that doesn’t know what they want. An RFP can make clear what they’re bidding on, or at the very least, make clear what sort of questions need to be asked of the client in order to get clarity.
But defaulting to an RFP every single time an organization requires some type of service can be a very costly mistake. The appropriate place and time for an RFP is when an organization requires work that is specific to that organization. In other words, when the vendor won’t be able to reuse the good or service delivered for other clients, that’s when that vendor needs to research and write a client-specific proposal in response to an RFP. So how can a client know when their requirements meet the criteria for an RFP? Simple, before writing an RFP, shop the market. The following five reasons explain why.
- Very simply, it may be the service you’re after already exists.
- You may have talked yourself into believing you have unique and highly complicated requirements when you really don’t. There are many specialists in many different vertical markets today who are likely to have off-the-shelf solutions for problems considerably more complex than you believe yours to be. Shop the market first to see what’s available. If you really can’t find anything that meets your needs, it may be time to write an RFP.
- Be assured you’ll pay more for a service if a vendor has to go through the process of writing a proposal than if you use something already on the market. You won’t see a line item on an agreement for the cost of preparing a proposal, but it will be embedded in the total cost somewhere. Remove from the equation the cost of preparing a proposal—which can sometimes be quite considerable—and you’ll pay less.
- This may only be applicable to certain types of services, but choosing something already on the market means it’s seen real-world use and been built to hold up against it. From the perspective of a business who provides software-as-a-service, I know it takes years to encounter all the behaviors real-world end users can demonstrate. Building robustness into software that can hold up against that isn’t something that happens on the first pass. It’s a never ending process.
- Like point number four above this is not applicable for all good and services, but your understanding of what you’re getting is never as good when reading about it in a proposal as when actually getting your hands on it; seeing it up close in its finished form; or, as in the case of online voting software, taking it for an actual test drive.
Regrettably, some organizations require that all purchasing decisions go through an RFP process. In a case of unintended consequences on steroids, they think the only way to get the best price is to put everything up for bid, so they tie their own hands behind their back and prevent themselves from even considering goods and services that might already exist on the market and be ideally suited for their situation. The irony being that in a move intended to get the best price, they can end up paying more for something that’s fully developed, time-tested and ready for use. And because it doesn’t require client-specific customization, doesn’t require going through the RFP and proposal process.
In the election services market specifically, point number one above is point number one for a reason. I’m not sure I’ve ever read an RFP for election services where the RFP was necessary from a technical systems requirements perspective. ElectionsOnline’s software is perhaps the most feature-packed available and has out-of-the-box support for every technical requirement I’ve ever seen in an RFP with one exception. ElectionsOnline’s Evote does not support preferential voting. The reason for that is simple. There’s very little market for it. When the market begins to demand it, it likely will be included. But sometimes an RFP is necessary because a client is required to be completely hands off the process and the administration of an election put in the hands of an independent third party. For these cases, ElectionsOnline has partnered with companies who offer election administration services since ElectionsOnline does not respond directly to RFPs, but does pass them through to those partners who may do with them as they wish.
So if after shopping the market, you make the determination that you really do require an RFP whether it be for election services or something else, consider these pointers:
- Give the vendor an opportunity to help. The most productive relationships are not ones where the client dictates requirements and leaves no room for a collaborative relationship. This happens when a client states, “We want a, b and c. What’s your price for that?” I’ve seen this personally and have thought, “Well, I can deliver a, b and c, but from the problems you’re trying to solve, a, b, and c aren’t really the best solutions. There’s a better way, but in the overly strict format in which you’ve stated you want the proposal written, you’re not permitting me the opportunity to share them with you.”
- Identify problems, not solutions. This ties into number one above and is something that happens only after you permit a vendor the opportunity to help. While a problem or need may be new to you, remember that industry suppliers work every day with different types of problems for different types of clients. From that experience, they likely have a very full palette of solutions to draw from and they also likely got into their line of work because they are energized by the problem solving process. Identify your problem then get out of their way and allow them to do what they do.
- One of the smartest questions I’ve ever been asked came near the end of a conversation once when a prospective client said, “Is there anything I should ask, that I haven’t?” By asking that, she just followed pointer number one above. She’s giving me the opportunity to be helpful. Little does she know that I’d take it upon myself to make sure she’s aware of anything I feel she needs to be aware even without her asking that, but the point is, I didn’t have to slow her down and steer her onto the right path. She was opening the conversation up to help me, help her.
Please weigh in with your own experiences where an RFP was either invaluable, or just simply got in the way.