How to improve the RFP process

Getting it right the first time saves time and trouble. Three simple strategies to make the process more effective

Although vendor-written, this contributed piece does not promote a product or service and has been edited and approved by Network World editors.

Requests for Proposal (RFPs) are rarely easy or even straightforward. No one wants to forget anything, so RFPs typically become long, unwieldy lists of questions -- the proverbial kitchen sink.

And that translates into even more work when the answers come back -- hours and hours of scrutinizing answers to narrow down the field to the short list.  Sadly enough, all too often the RFP process raises even more questions and adds to general confusion. It’s not uncommon for a business to re-issue an RFP for a second round due to inadequate submissions.

Getting it right the first time would save a great deal of time and trouble for both the business and the vendors. This requires a closer look at the actual RFP. Three simple strategies can make the process more effective.

Streamline the RFP

 Do you really need hundreds of answers to decide if a vendor is worth considering? Cut down the questions to the essential information you need to make a decision.

One of the most common complaints about the process is repetition of information. Go through the RFP and tag questions that are similar then consolidate them into one question.

Avoid tech rat holes and stay focused on business benefits. Vendors are all too happy to focus on feature comparisons and discuss how their widget is better than their competitors’. The discussion gets too granular, focusing on supporting points as opposed to the main argument – how will this product or service benefit your business. Develop questions that keep the answers at the benefit level and avoid descending into mind-numbing tech talk.

Focus every question on your key objectives for the evaluation – business benefit, cost, ROI, deployment timeframe, support, proof the solution will work and remedies if it does not. If a question does not directly answer your objective, remove it.

User case vs. feature laundry list

Responses to RFPs can feel like product manuals. Often the questions are a big part of the problem, all but asking vendors to cut-and-paste product feature lists and content from manuals into the RFP. Consider asking for user case studies that illustrate how the solution has helped other companies. This can significantly cut down questions and streamline the responses.

If a particular tech feature is important for your evaluation, ask for it specifically. “Do you have a cloud option?” “What video conferencing capabilities do you offer?” “How many users can the solution support?” Keep the question focused on what is important to you.

Ask for use cases that show how the solution might benefit your organization. Not only companies within your same vertical industry, but also similar in size or trying to solve similar issues.

Many vendors will include a testimonial statement as part of the user case. Ask if you can contact the customer directly and ask a few questions.

Get independent proof upfront that the solution will actually work

One of the biggest oversights in many RFPs is lack of proof that the solution will actually work with your infrastructure. A solution can be the absolute best in the industry, but if it doesn’t work with your platform, then it is completely meaningless to you. Sadly, there are plenty of examples of companies that, after a lengthy RPF process, selected a solution that simply didn’t work.

The RPF is your best opportunity to get a vendor to validate interoperability and it only requires a simple question.

Ask the vendor to provide interoperability verification through an independent testing lab. Vendors will always say that their solution will work within your environment. Especially the sales team. Demand third-party verification from a trusted, independent lab.

Make sure the vendor verifies the correct versions. Not only the correct version of their solution, but on the correct version for technologies within your company. Each business has a unique blend of technology, often including some older versions of apps, servers and even hardware. To ensure interoperability, pay attention to what the vendor verifies.

Speaking of unique IT environments, factor in future plans. Your tech platforms are not static. If you are planning to migrate to a new server or move to a cloud-based PBX, then have the vendor verify interoperability for them through an independent lab.

The whole point of an RFP is to cut down the list of vendors for a solid short list of candidates. Streamlining the questions will save everyone time and lead to better answers. Use cases will give a more illustrative view on how the solution can benefit your organization. And an independent interoperability testing requirement will ensure the solution will actually work in your environment. These three strategies will help you make the right decision faster and avoid major pitfalls.

This story, "How to improve the RFP process" was originally published by Network World.

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