RFPs: Quality Counts

How to get the most effective responses to your requests for proposal.

A technology RFP, or request for proposal, is one of the most common documents an IT manager will create. The quality of vendor responses, however, has everything to do with the quality of the RFP itself. eWEEK Labs recently spoke with members of the Corporate Partner Advisory Board—senior IT professionals who represent eWEEK readers—to determine some best practices for developing the kind of RFPs that will elicit the most effective responses.

The Corporate Partners said the best RFPs are concise and to the point, describe the goals of the project and explain how the proposal will be evaluated. RFPs that attract the most suitable responses, they added, include requests for customer references, require technical prowess on the vendors part and have defined deadlines.

But, first and foremost, an RFP must reflect an organizations business and technology needs exactly.

A company issuing an RFP for a storage solution, for example, should know precisely what type of storage technologies its interested in acquiring and what applications it intends to use with the solution. IT managers building out the RFP also must take into account the business goals the technology will be driving.

Companies that dont go into the RFP process knowing exactly what they want will simply not get a vendor response that meets their needs, said Robert Rosen, CIO of the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, in Bethesda, Md. "The hardest part is that you cant tell the vendor how to do something," said Rosen. "You really have to put it in terms of, Heres the result I want, and you cant restrain the vendors in defining how they want to do it."

Good questions = good answers

An overwhelming number of RFPs fall short because they include questions that cant be objectively graded, said the CPs. IT managers should focus on asking clear questions that provide an accurate picture of what the vendor is capable of delivering in a way that can be compared to other vendors responses.

"In RFPs, we frequently ask for cost-benefit analysis from a vendor, and it sort of gives us an idea of the vendors sense of business relevance and business reality," said Nelson Ramos, CIO and enterprise IT strategist at Sutter Health, in Mather, Calif.

And dont settle for just the sales team. IT managers say it makes a big difference when a vendors sales and technical teams work together to respond to an RFP.

Tom Miller, senior director of IT at FoxHollow Technologies, in Redwood City, Calif., takes it a step further by asking for a professional services person to attend each vendor discussion.

"We have them describe a typical implementation and an appropriate-size business reflective of our company—whether its in the same industry segment or the same size or [is similar] in complexity," said Miller. "And, by that, were able to understand each vendor and its ability to actually implement."

Sworn to secrecy

When developing an RFP, IT managers should always state any requirements of confidentiality and prohibit the vendor from distributing the RFP document without permission.

The process of describing and documenting the environment in which a new project is going to be functioning without disclosing too much information is one that each company approaches differently.

Insurer Aetnas RFPs, for example, inform vendors of the technical requirements and the infrastructure pieces that they must integrate with, but the company does not reveal anything that would give away any kind of competitive advantage, said Francine Siconolfi, senior project manager at Aetna, in Blue Bell, Pa.

Some IT managers ask vendors to sign confidentiality agreements. At FoxHollow, for example, Miller asks vendors to sign a nondisclosure agreement before entering into any discussions.

"We provide a high-level overview, and then we use the RFP process to answer any questions the vendor brings up," Miller said. "This helps us understand how deep the vendors are probing us to ask questions and try to understand our environment to come up with a really tailored proposal, rather than giving a standard response to our RFP."

Proof, proof, proof

IT managers should also determine if a vendor has been successful with a similar project. Customer references are a good way to evaluate a vendors competency and to get evidence of how easy (or difficult) a solution will be to deploy.

Vendors should also be able and willing to provide a proof of concept, as well as allow visits to see a customer deployment firsthand. By asking vendors for such references, IT managers can determine whether a vendor has experience with a similar deployment or with a specific industry.

"A lot of times Ive gone back to the vendors and told them their references dont meet the criteria," Miller said. "You need to define the criteria for references. You shouldnt let the vendor drive the reference process."

The RFP should include a schedule for completion, providing dates and deliverables for all stages of the competition, including when responses are due, how the responses will be scored, how the judging will be conducted and when a decision will be made.

"The whole idea is to be clear and succinct," said Randy Dugger, president of consulting firm Dugger & Associates, in San Jose, Calif., "so theres no question as to what youre asking the vendor for."

E-mail Senior Writer Anne Chen at anne_chen@ziffdavis.com.


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