Over ten (10) years ago, over on the LawMarketing Blog, Larry Bodine asked Why Go to RFP Hell? in response to a fellow lawyer who asked how her firm could get more RFPs for legal work from corporations. This question is as relevant today as it was then.
As Mr. Bodine quite astutely noted, RFPs are onerous chores leading to hideous events where clients get the chance to dictate terms, chisel down your fees and turn you into a fungible commodity. Nobody wants to be fungible. Moreover, RFPs were liked to competing to be the first to be hanged.
Why? RFPs were typically 50-page monstrosities divided into a dozen sections that required a complete history of relevant litigation, minority hiring statistics, alternative fee arrangements, financials, references, industry knowledge, and so on — all to make a short-list. At which time, if the firm was not considerably better than the incumbent in the eyes of the buyer, they would not see a penny. It is a hell.
A hell unnecessarily created by buyers who believe that they cannot even consider a supplier for an event before they know everything there is to know, even though a single piece of information can disqualify the supplier from consideration before any negotiations ever begin.
This is not a good thing to do. A company with a reputation for putting its potential suppliers though RFP hell is not one that many suppliers will want to deal with. The more a supplier’s peers complain about RFP hell with Company X, the fewer are the suppliers who will even acknowledge the existence of an RFP from Company X. As the word of RFP Hell from Company X spreads, the only suppliers that will respond to an RFP from Company X are those that are desperate. Those in bad financial shape, those without a stable customer base, and those with a bad reputation. These are not suppliers you want to deal with.
If you need to cast a wide net to find new suppliers, start with an RFI that only requests enough information to determine whether or not an RFP response from a supplier can be seriously considered. And before this RFI is issued, make sure to understand the category need in detail and what the absolutes are and that the RFI addresses each absolute. If multi-lingual support is an absolute, if a platform that encrypts 100% of data is an absolute, if a company with a headquarters in a country where it can be held responsible and liable for its products is required, or if a company with a factory with certain equipment is required, the relevant questions should be asked in the RFI. You should never ask a supplier to complete a 50-page RFP until you are sure the supplier can meet every absolute requirement. You can ask them even if their chances, based upon their initial RFI response, are less than 1% (as long as you make the award criteria, and weightings, abundantly clear), but not if their chances are known to be zero. (With complete requirements, award factors, and weightings clearly known, a supplier should be able to determine its own chances and determine whether or not its investment of time is worth it.)
And then, make sure that if you need a supplier to complete a lengthy RFP, that the RFP is well written. For details on how to write better RFPs, see the ongoing series over on Spend Matters Plus (membership required) by the anarchist, the maverick, and the doctor, of which 3 parts are already up.