Is this the RFP – or just another country?

If you’re going to buy something, you’ve got to be clear what you want or you’ll get offered all sorts of stuff you don’t. Somewhere between this simple assertion and the issue of a Request for Proposal (RFP) it often goes awry.

The Workplace – whether it be strategy, design, professional services, facilities management – spins on an axis of requests and proposals, yet as a general ‘thing’ we don’t really like to talk about them. They define and reinforce the adversarial nature of the market, and suck in significant amounts of time, energy and expense from which only a few actually benefit. As the brochure will tell you they are a key part of auditable governance, and are intended to create fairness and ensure due ethical process. Done properly, of course. Yet even within the narrow disciplines of Workplace each RFP is vastly different – approach, quality, clarity, sense, depth, order, substance.

While supplier responses to an RFP are dissected, ranked, shredded and in some cases not read other than for the couple of key parts because too much was asked for that wasn’t actually needed, suppliers never get to rank the RFPs they receive. It’s a one-way relationship. There’s sometimes a debrief to the supplier on why they didn’t get selected, but there is no debrief to the buyer on the quality of the RFP. Imagine the call – ‘We weren’t successful with our response to your RFP, so we would like to invite you in for a de-brief on what you sent us.’

I’ve issued far more RFPs than I have responded to. As a client and buyer, I would put considerable effort into trying to make my RFPs as clear and easy to respond to as possible. How successful I was I don’t know, I was never told. When I got four different entirely different answers to what I thought was a straightforward question, I would go back to my question to try and work out how it got interpreted so widely. However clear we think we are being, we can always be clearer.

I said ‘four’, because RFPs are invariably distributed to too many parties, creating an inappropriate level of work and expense, and too poor a chance of success given the investment. Four parties are invariably enough: research should not be conducted at the market’s expense, especially when the internet handily offers all you need to know about a supplier, good stuff and bad. Responding to onerous RFPs diverts supplier investment away from being better at what they do. They often also fail to apply the ‘disaster test’ – if suddenly all parties in the game but one was nullified, would you still be happy working with the one remaining? If no, they shouldn’t have been included. Due diligence has to work both ways.

I therefore offer – as both buyer and supplier, and in the combined interests of both sides of the demand/supply crevice – a Workplace RFP template. It could apply outside of the Workplace field too. The content can still be open to interpretation, but if used at least there will be a mutually beneficial logic that allows focus on the right things for the supplier, and easier evaluation on the part of the buyer to arrive at an informed decision. We may then not be collectively staring into a crevice, but operating in trusting and understanding environment, having a grown-up conversation. Which would be nice.

Firstly, here is a suggested structure:

Section What it is about Reasoning (if such is needed)
Executive summary A summary of everything in the RFP – it’s not just for ‘executives’ of course so it doesn’t need ‘superior’ language, it’s just a summary. Crisp, clear, logical, short (one page maximum). If the rest was lost to a fire, there is enough here to understand what it’s all about – it could be enough for a supplier to decide whether to read on. It helps with structure too, as a checklist – so its best written last.
Why A high-level statement of why you’re doing this and in the market – the context, the drivers of the need for the project, and the timing. If you have had long-running supplier relationships in this area say so, and why you’re in the market now. There has to be a reason and it has to be tangible and credible – you need to dispel any fears that you’re just fishing for free ideas.
Context As much relevant background as possible – who you are, what you do, how you do it, what’s changing, your values or principles, why you are where you are, and (seemingly the hardest thing for any organisation) a diagram showing how the parts of the organisation fit together. Corporate websites are generally a ‘catch all’ creation harder to navigate than the upper reaches of the Amazon (the river, not the distribution company – it came first, who knew?) – it should be stuff that’s easy to gather and set out.
Data The portfolio – site names and addresses, m2, occupant departments, total occupants, lease events, operating costs (discretionary and non-discretionary). The people – headcount by team and location, now and as far as the forecast can be made (usually little further than now, too). It’s a data-driven world – facts are everything, now that ‘truth isn’t truth’ anymore according to the US president’s legal team. Where you’ve created the data in Excel provide it in Excel too – don’t PDF everything, your suppliers will want to play with the data.
Aims What you hope to achieve with the exercise and by when – a targeted analysis, not simply a brain dump of every conceivable buzzword – they should be reasoned, concise and testable. It’s important for credibility to show you’ve thought it through. Stating ‘cost reduction’ isn’t a sin, so there is no need to dress it up – if it’s an aim, say so. If the respondent knows what you want out of it, they’ll target their pitch accordingly – or the result will be guesswork and you’ll probably counter with ‘you didn’t understand what we wanted’ – if the RFP is specific and the response still isn’t what is wanted then there will be no excuses.
Practicalities The key parameters – and remember that requesting the highest quality at the lowest cost in the fastest timescale and with a host of innovations (see below) isn’t realistic, so be realistic. Offer an outline programme and budget – they may be draft or aspirational subject to the RFP, but something is needed – with a quality expectation. The myth pervades that declaring a budget means all bids will be at this level less 99p for optics – openness can start a meaningful business relationship, even at RFP stage.
Depth RFPs often ask for ‘innovations’ – which are rare and damned difficult. Be clear on whether existing approaches done well will suffice, or whether they have all been tried and unsuccessful and therefore something new and different is required. Suppliers are unlikely to dream up something entirely new that’s never before seen the light of day in the two weeks they’ve been given to respond to the RFP. As with practicalities, be realistic. Balance the need for new thinking and approaches with the considerations of budget, programme and quality.
Team The ‘home’ team, on a chart, with names and role titles – and include any other third parties already contracted, or gaps where the need has been identified but the role not filled. If you haven’t planed it yet, say so. The suppliers need to know where your expertise lies and what is needed to complement it – their team will be mapped to your team so there are some huge clues in this.
Criteria What you will look for in the RFP response – which shouldn’t be absolutely everything or it won’t mean anything – and again, stating ‘cost’ isn’t wrong. If you’re going to use an evaluation tool, it’s probably a good idea to include it. Transparency never hurt anyone. Keep it down to 3-4 points and keep it relevant to the parameters set out in Practicalities and Depth. It has got to be balanced.
Process Say how many parties are tendering, as this is only fair (you don’t have to say who, albeit it’s is quite a good idea to as it gets out anyway), and set out the timescale and any key restrictions on the size of any response – better still identify the chapters for the response so they can be followed and compared. The supplier will want to know they stand a fair and reasonable chance of winning, so that the investment in bidding is worthwhile – and having a guide to sections and pages is helpful, and removes ambiguity.
References State why you need references, what they should show in support of the submission, and provide a structure for them. References should support a bid – there is often too much ‘stuffing’ because the key info is missing – because it wasn’t asked for.
Contract & legal List any key legal or contractual stipulations of doing business with your organisation as it may affect the price or even the willingness to bid. Include a sample contract as an appendix. It’s pointless getting all the way through an RFP process only for both parties to find that doing business together isn’t possible.
Non-compliant bid As a buyer you may think that with this excellent RFP you’ve nailed the shape of the solution and you just want someone to colour it in, but be prepared to be challenged and so invite a non-compliant bid wherever possible. Suppliers love non-compliant bids, they allow them to be creative and think differently about the situation, and tailor a solution to their preferred way of working – and so you’ll have happy, motivated suppliers responding – nothing wrong with that at all.
Other services Most suppliers offer multiple service lines, not just the ones asked for in the RFP, so ask for a declaration of interest up front in any other services they may be able to offer with a short description of how and what they can do. Most suppliers will offer more than you’ve asked for. To to avoid any emotion over a supplier appearing to see a bigger prize that the one on offer, its best to get this all out in the open at the outset and then everyone understands the landscape.
Addenda There may be a spreadsheet for filling in the pricing – which is fine as long as it’s considered and doesn’t ask for too granular a response. A pricing model needs to be appropriate. Some services need a granular explanation, but no-one builds up how they will complete a £50K fee-based project infused with a whole heap of uncertainty based on an hourly rate, so best not to ask for it to be built this way.

There some general tips too with creating an RFP – it needs to be:

Clear Exactly what services you are asking for – absolutely no room for ambiguity here
Interesting and engaging Make suppliers feel like it’s worth being part of – create some excitement, it’s okay for an RFP to have some passion for what you’re doing woven through it
Organised Think charts and tables rather than long paragraphs, make it easy to track and follow
Succinct Don’t put anything in there that doesn’t help enable a better response – it should be as short as it can be, even if it’s for work of a significant value
Comprehensive Anticipate the questions and answer them first – if it helps include a Q&A section – if you’re getting heaps of requests for clarifications or additional information, its telling you something
Accurate Check grammar and spelling, and if the source language is different from the language in which it is issued, have it checked as things absolutely will get lost in translation
Realistic If you’re asking for stuff you won’t read, unless it’s the law to have it (in which case it will also be the law to check it) don’t ask for it
Complete Have all your data ready, don’t send the RFP out until you have it or the requests will come flooding back to you
Respectful Suppliers will spend a lot of time and money on the response, they’re not the enemy
Humble You’re a big organisation and/or brand, but there are lots of others out there too, and you are competing for the attention of the supply market – you have to do a bit of marketing too
Commercial Don’t ask for stuff for nothing unless there is a decent chance of a return for the supplier – especially if you’re a big organisation and/or brand – there is far more dignity in offering to pay for services over and above an RFP response
Ready If you issue an RFP and there is s project, be prepared to start it when the RFP process is over, as the winner will want to get on with working with you – or they may not be able to do it when you’ve removed the final obstacles

I’m hoping that’s all positive and helpful. There’s another guide waiting to be written on how to respond to an RFP too. I’ll save that one for a while.

I’m all for a better world of buying and supplying. If this post contributes, it won’t just be me that’s happy.


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