Rethinking The RFP Process

If you’ve ever been involved with a request-for-proposal (RFP) process, you probably have a few pointed thoughts on how helpful, or painful, the experience can be. I’ve had the privilege of representing both sides of the customer/supplier table, and it can be a challenging process for all participants if it’s not facilitated effectively. Perhaps the biggest concern is the time and resource commitment it takes from both sides. Many organizations tend to follow a similarly templated process, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right approach for your current situation. If you feel like your process is a bit antiquated or broken, there’s a few pragmatic changes you can make immediately. Below are just a few recommendations to help calibrate the approach for better results.

  • Validate what you should really be requesting at your current stage. It seems like an obvious first step, but I’ve seen situations where decision makers jump right into kicking off an elaborate RFP process when they haven’t meaningfully acknowledged their readiness to proceed or established a clear desired outcome. Below is a quick chart providing some considerations on the different “Request For” categories that may factor into your overall approach.
Request TypeWhen To Use It
Request-For-Information (RFI)You’re exploring the wider supplier marketplace and gathering foundational information and solutions that address a potential need. The objectives and scope for the project or solution is not yet clearly defined.
Request-For-Proposal (RFP)You have a foundational understanding of the key suppliers and a baseline project scope and need.
Request-For-Quotation (RFQ)You have a strong handle on select suppliers and clearly defined business requirements. The goal is to generate targeted scope and budget parameters.
  • Prioritize discovery over detail. A typical RFP process often starts with a request for a formal written proposal, followed by live presentations. There are several mutual advantages to meeting with the supplier first and calibrating scope and expectations from that point forward. It helps suppliers qualify the ask (e.g., should they even be responding?) and helps the customer determine potential supplier fit before getting too far into the process.
  • Do your homework. Sending RFPs to misaligned suppliers wastes time and money. You can curate a meaningful shortlist of providers through initial research that shouldn’t take much time at all. Third-party resources exist to narrow down your potential suitors, but don’t be shy about using your professional network to get recommendations and testimonials. It’s called a shortlist for a reason – SO KEEP THE LIST SHORT. You can always add more suppliers for consideration if your initial list fails to produce the right mix of suppliers.
  • Provide meaningful content and context. Any supplier can check “yes” next to a laundry list of capabilities, services, or features of a platform. You need to get to the WHY. Prioritize use cases & scenarios over detailed requirements to help suppliers better understand the core problem you are trying to solve. Focus on OUTCOMES – what will success look like for you?
  • Be realistic and practical about the information you request. RFP documentation and related question sets tends to fall victim to scope creep over time. Do you really need the vendor to answer endless questions about their company history or methodology? The bottom line is this: no one is absorbing that 50+ page proposal response, so why waste the suppliers’ time? Quality over quantity. Less is more. Be targeted about the information you need to evaluate for making a practical decision.
  • Define clear milestones and stick to a concise timeline. Don’t drag it out or you’ll lose the plot. Publish a timeline AT THE BEGINNING of the process that defines all the milestones, deliverables, and commitments required. Significant gaps in time between milestones will risk decision continuity and stakeholder commitment. Suppliers need clarity on what you’ll be expecting from them and when you’ll need their focused attention.
  • Constant communication & feedback. Respect everyone’s time; these efforts may be considered a low priority to internal stakeholders and can create resource allocation challenges for suppliers who need to pull in senior staff as part of the process. Timelines will inevitably need to shift, and proactive communication keeps everyone in the loop. Win or lose, suppliers put in a tremendous amount of effort to respond to RFPs, which can represent a significant internal cost to their business operations. In many cases, providers do not receive candid, meaningful feedback when they are not awarded the project. Take the time to provide detailed feedback in person.