What businesses can learn from online dating to run more effective vendor selection processes
There’s nothing worse in the technology space than a Request for Information (RFI) or a Request for Proposals (RFP) — and yes, there is a difference.
These processes are equally terrible for the issuer and vendor: Nobody likes writing an RFI or RFP and nobody likes responding to them. It all stems from the reason a company issues one in the first place and how they approach the process. The entire purpose of these processes is to help companies select the right technology and the right vendor for their needs, but too often these processes get used as a way to extract pricing while giving as little information to the vendor as possible.
Quite simply, the status quo of these processes is awful — but it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, a few changes to the process can make for a very successful (and less painful!) situation for both the companies issuing these requests and the vendors responding to them. So what exactly needs to change in order to run a successful RFI, RFP, or even Request for Quote (RFQ)? Look at it like online dating.
The Low-Down on Vendor Requests: What You Need to Know About the RFI, RFP, and RFQ Processes
Before we get into exactly how to run a successful RFI, RFP, or RFQ, let’s break down exactly what these processes for finding a partner entail.
1) Request for Information (RFI)
The RFI process is ideal for when you want to understand more about a solution and how it can solve your problems or when you’re not even sure how to solve your problem yet. The ultimate goal of an RFI is to educate your team so that you can run a better RFP or RFQ.
RFIs should come from a humble place. Be honest about who you are and what your goals are and ask questions that further your understanding of the solution. This process should allow any potential partners to demonstrate their expertise and give your company a feel for who they are.
Overall, the RFI process should be fast and act as a stepping stone to inform the next steps in your evaluation of potential solutions. They should not involve pricing. Additionally, the most effective RFIs will lay out specific next steps for potential partners once the process is complete. Remember, these partners are spending time to educate your business, demonstrate their knowledge, and align their experience to your goals, so it’s up to your business to provide value in return by sharing information on what will come next.
2) Request for Quote (RFQ)
The RFQ process should only be used when your team (1) knows exactly what you want and why you want it and (2) plans to select a partner solely based on price without any needs to engage them for future work.
RFQs should be extremely detailed and leave no room for partners to compete on anything other than price. For example, you need to be clear about everything, such as how many of certain elements you need and the type of support you require. If you leave the bidders with any wiggle room to ask questions in return, then you are running an RFP, not an RFQ.
This process is fairly limited as a result of those requirements. In the Salesforce ecosystem, in particular, very few products fit this description, largely because implementing Salesforce is a journey that’s best taken with support over time. Rather than looking at a Salesforce implementation partner as a one-off relationship, take the time to find a partner you can stick with as you evolve your business.
3) Request for Proposals (RFP)
The RFP process allows you to detail the problem you need to solve and invite potential partners to suggest solutions. In doing so, it should give partners a deep understanding of exactly what your company is looking for in a solution.
Importantly, this detail does not mean that everything has to be contained in a formal document. Too often companies use an RFP as a shield to keep potential partners at an arm’s length, but that accomplishes nothing; it only serves to start off your eventual relationship on the wrong foot and weakens your team’s ability to evaluate those partners.
Instead, you should use the RFP process to let these partners give your team a sneak peek into different strategies you may not have considered. However, the only way to let them do that is for your team to be honest, transparent, and available for them. Each vendor needs information to compile a unique proposal for your company, and that includes meeting your team, asking questions, and spending time to understand your needs and the makeup of the team that might work together. If you can’t commit to giving these partners time with the team that will be involved in the project, then you shouldn’t run an RFP.
Online Dating Meets Vendor Selection: 4 Steps to Run More Effective RFIs and RFPs
Now that we have a better understanding of the processes involved in getting to a bid, let’s talk about how to approach these processes and build a successful RFI or RFP (note: we’ll omit RFQ since it’s not really relevant here).
I know you’re still wondering, online dating, really? Yes! Think about it this way: What’s usually the purpose of online dating? Meeting a lot of people to find the one that is right for YOU. Sound a little like an RFx? Absolutely. So what are the steps to creating the best profile, selecting the right people to date, and actually choosing someone to spend more time with?
- Describe your perfect partner
- Select your photos and write your bio
- Engage with matches
- Select your partner
1) Describe your perfect partner
Describing your perfect partner is a key part of the process that should be very introspective and include more than just a list of wants. As part of this step, you should answer questions like: Who are you and what are you looking for? Some of the most important elements about your own business to think through and be upfront about include:
- Who will be your project manager or lead for the RFP process?
- Who are your key stakeholders?
- What is your budget?
- What are your deal breakers or things that will automatically eliminate a potential partner from participating? Consider a short RFI with these questions so you can lower the level of effort to respond and eliminate partners early on to narrow the pool for the RFP.
- How mature is your business when it comes to the software or services you’re buying? Do you need a partner who will be consultative or do you need someone to just execute your vision? These are two very different types of partners.
- Do you need someone with a global workforce or are you looking for someone local?
- What capabilities does your ideal partner have? For instance, with Salesforce, do you only need a partner that can handle Sales Cloud or should they also have expertise in CPQ and/or Marketing Cloud? Having a multi-faceted partner can save time and money down the road.
Once you are clear on what you want and who you are looking for, then you can work with your team to create scoring criteria that you can use to make an objective choice on which partners to shortlist once you have submissions.
2) Select your photos and write your bio
Next you need to provide enough detail for potential partners to understand your needs, decide whether they can service those needs, and give you a level playing field to decide which partners you want to meet in person. Make sure you outline the process timeline, the format in which you want replies, and any other administrative elements that are important to you. At this point, you can eliminate any partners with deal breakers and inform your decisions for the next part of the process: The “first date.”
Take a lot of time thinking about the questions you want to ask and the information you want to share about yourself. Remember, this document is not meant to answer all of your questions, but rather to find a few quality matches you can meet with to get a deeper understanding of each other.
Importantly, don’t fall into the trap of repurposed RFIs and RFPs. If you were going to sign up for a dating app, you’d use your own photos and bio, not someone else’s — so why would you repurpose an RFI or RFP from another project or even a blanket template you found online? At best, that makes potential partners jump through hoops and confuses them about what your needs are. At worst, it sets up your organization for a failed process, which amounts to a monumental waste of resources.
That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t repurpose sections on security or leverage templates, but read through the questions and think about how they apply to your situation. This is your chance to ask the questions that matter to you and go beyond basic functionality to understand how different partners might approach your project. Some good, non-functionality questions to ask potential partners include:
- Can you explain your process for the discovery phase?
- What does your project management process look like?
- How involved will our team be in the project? How much time do we need to set aside?
- What will the review/testing process look like on our end?
- What are the training options you provide?
- What is a recent project you are proud of or that best showcases your abilities?
Along the same lines, there are certain questions you should avoid because they simply aren’t instructive to finding the right partner. These include questions like:
- How long will this project take to complete?
- This should be answered in the bid, but if you expect a partner to give you a timeline, be prepared to get a range. Nobody wants to be pigeon-holed or give you a false sense of timeline without speaking with you. Each organization is different and partners can only move as fast as your team.
- How would you configure our solution?
- Don’t expect a partner to accurately give you pricing on something like an integration if you don’t tell them about your tech stack and exactly how you want to integrate. Answering this question properly requires those types of details. That said, this is a great question for an in person meeting where you can talk through that information.
- How will you increase our sales? Based on our website, what would you do to improve our content marketing?
- These types of questions should be out of bounds. An RFP is not the place to get free consulting. If you want to validate expertise, ask for references or case study documentation.
Once you have this profile complete, it’s time to collect submissions from potential partners and evaluate your suitors based on the grading criteria you created earlier as well as any subjective feedback you gathered as a part of this process.
3) Engage with matches
It’s easy to look good on paper, but once you meet someone it quickly becomes obvious if they aren’t who they claim to be. That’s why it’s so important to meet and spend quality time with every partner you shortlist. Think of this like a first date (or even a handful of early dates, as you may want to meet with your top suitors a few times before making a decision).
Use these meetings as an opportunity to get to know the team with which you’ll work — because you will be spending a lot of time together during the project — and to dig deeper into questions from the RFP document. For example, you can use this face-to-face meeting as an opportunity to ask follow up questions and get more context and to ask additional questions (such as one about configuring a solution) that are too advanced for the initial document.
Some of the top areas to evaluate during this stage include:
- Things too nuanced to put in a document
- Complex integration scenarios
- How a project might be phased out
- Long term planning and future capabilities
- Technology consolidation strategies
- Timeline considerations
Along the way, keep in mind that this stage should be as informative for your potential partners as it is for your team. Specifically, this means that you should also be prepared to provide them with more information about your team and your goals at this time and to answer any questions they might have. Just like with dating, it’s critical that any partnership is a good fit on both ends.
4) Select your partner
Finally, once you’ve met with your shortlist of potential partners in person and had more detailed conversations with each one, you should have all the information you need to make a decision.
During this stage, it’s important to refer back to the decision criteria you outlined at the very beginning to help you remain true to your original goals. While some elements might change slightly as you dig deeper into the project and hear ideas from different partners, you don’t want to lose track of your ultimate vision.
Some of the key criteria you should use to help make this decision include:
- The objective scoring criteria you outlined at the start of the process
- Subjective feedback from all stakeholders captured throughout the process
- Unique capabilities of each of the top partners
- Overall price
- How well a partner listens and incorporates your vision
It’s also always helpful to get input from a trusted and experienced friend. For example, looking at the Salesforce implementation process, think about your Account Exec at Salesforce as your matchmaker. Yes they are trying to sell you products, but they also have no interest in losing your trust by suggesting the wrong partners for you to talk to. Like a trusted friend, they don’t want to see you hurt and they are guaranteed to have seen and vetted more partners than you have. As a result, it pays to ask your Account Exec for input and to be as honest with them as possible along the way.
Finally, once you’ve landed on a partner, you can begin to finalize specifics like pricing and timeline that will help set expectations for both your team and theirs as you kick off the relationship.
The Key to a Good RFI and RFP? Think of it Like Dating
The status quo of the RFI and RFP process is far from ideal, but when run correctly these processes can actually be quite beneficial for both your company and your potential partners. The key to success is to follow the steps here to make sure both parties get what they need out of the process. Not only will this approach help make the request and selection process far easier, but it will also put you in a better position to succeed in the partner relationship once the actual work begins.
Any questions? Contact our experts today!