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Improving the RFP Process: Tips from the vendor perspective

The following is a collection of thoughts and analysis from several vendor representatives. While the sources shall remain anonymous, we felt that their collective views were a fair representation and offer valuable insight into one side of the RFP process.

The RFP is one of the most important, yet unwieldy processes in higher education. For those constructing the document it means long hours of research and writing. For those responding to the document it means long hours of research, writing, and financial modeling, often accompanied by frustration, confusion, and considerable expense. What should be the vehicle for a fair and equitable procurement process often ends up being the biggest hurdle to obtaining new products and services in the higher education environment.

The true purpose of the RFP is to provide a fair and efficient means of gathering product and service information from a multitude of vendors in an effort to obtain the best product at the best price. In reality, however, the RFP often becomes a complicated, confusing, and time-consuming means of collecting generic information in an effort to appear fair and efficient.

So what can you do to improve this process and achieve better results for your time and effort? Listed below are several tips designed to help you carry out a positive, relatively uncomplicated and beneficial RFP process.

1) Obtain detailed knowledge
This may seem obvious but more often than not those constructing an RFP settle for a basic overview of the product/service instead of gaining helpful and detailed knowledge about it. This lack of information can mean the difference between getting what you want and getting what the vendor thinks you want. With the Internet you can gain overview and even detailed information and product knowledge without even contacting a vendor directly. Also, utilize all other assets including trade associations, message boards, and a healthy dose of peer-to-peer advice.

2) Keep an open mind
Many RFP’s are written with a single vendor in mind, at the expense of the true value of the RFP process. Perhaps a determined sales person contacted you and convinced you to choose their system, or maybe during your research you found the perfect vendor with the perfect product. Regardless of the reason, your mind is now locked in on a single solution and the RFP process has become a nuisance rather than an opportunity.

Avoid this situation at all costs. You can certainly have a ‘favorite’ vendor but don’t design your RFP around their product to theelimination of others. When you do you deprive yourself of the many benefits of a well written RFP. Instead of pinpointing the question such that only one vendor can answer it affirmatively, write open-ended questions that leave room for a multitude of answers. For example, say you are researching the purchase of a new mealplan system for you campus. Instead of asking vendors to comply with very specific POS terminal specifications (already given to you by your favorite vendor), simply ask them to describe their POS terminal capabilities. In this manner, your favorite vendor can still reply with your expected answer but you now leave the door open for other responses, of which some might end up being more desirable for you campus’ needs.

3) Clearly identify response sections
RFPs typically have many different sections. There is often a contract language section, a campus description, specific RFP instructions, desired product explanation, specific response section, addendums, etc. In many cases, it is easy to begin writing an RFP and forget that the document must wholly communicate your program’s needs. In order to prevent confusion, take care to clearly illustrate the areas requiring a response. Whether it is a simple bold “reply” next to each valid question or a blanket header asking that all questions in this section receive a response, you will find that your vendors will consistently give you more of what you are looking for. Also, a requirements summary sheet at the end of the RFP is often a helpful tool for a vendor. By listing everything the vendor needs to supply to you on one final sheet, they are able to check things off as they go and ensure they deliver to you a complete and accurate RFP.

4) Clearly identify important dates
Due dates, pre-bid meeting information, and target implementation dates are all important pieces of information that a vendor needs to know up front in order to begin the construction of a proper response. Sometimes it’s a simple problem of putting the information in the RFP but losing it in the body of a paragraph and sometimes the information is omitted completely. Always devote an entire page to listing this very important information and bold any important dates that the vendor needs to know.

5) Be flexible with the responses
Remember that different vendors have different ways of supplying you with the services you request. These differences can be subtle or profound but ultimately the product they are supplying must meet your needs. The same is true for the RFP response process. Vendors often have specific ways of displaying important information that only fits their product. These different ways are often represented in simple formatting changes that bring important information to the front. Often RFP’s require some structure in order to facilitate objective comparisons, yet care should be taken to facilitate flexibility in the vendor’s answer.

In general, require vendors to follow a simple outline but grant them some room to display their information in the best way possible for them.

6) Explain your inclusion of contractual language
True to their nature, RFP’s typically include some form of contractual language provided by the institution and/or the state. The problem with the language is that its purpose is often vague. Is it rigid contractual language that cannot change? Does it have to be agreed to in the RFP response in order to comply with the RFP process? Is it there for vendors to review for the possibility of contact negotiation in the future? These questions should be addressed whenever you are including contractual language. You will find that clarifying this information for your vendors ahead of time will prevent potentially catastrophic problems down the road.

Remember, these are very general tips designed to help you refine the RFP process. Since every RFP is different, some of these tips may not apply to the situation and some may apply even more. Two items are of paramount importance. First, prevent a credibility gap by making every possible attempt to ensure that an award is expected with a resulting contract for the winning vendor. Does funding exist? Is there broad-based buy-in from all strategic interests on-campus? Chronic false starts or RFP’s without award can jade the vendor community’s approach to your project’s needs.

Finally, the absolute best tip of all is simply to be as flexible as possible. Using a classroom analogy, make liberal use of short answer questions in addition to the true and false and multiple choice. While it may take a bit longer to grade, your institution will certainly benefit from a more objective analysis of the solutions available to you.

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