Maneuvering Through the RFP Process
Here's a roundup of best practices for both sides of the request for proposal divide.
When Pauline Valiquette issues an RFP for CBC/Radio Canada corporate travel, her belief in the importance of details often results in a document that is almost 100 pages long. With responsibility for CBC corporate travel as well as overall strategic sourcing, Valiquette is adamant that the best RFP is a detailed RFP. She brings years of experience on the procurement side of the business to her job. And if there’s one word that embodies the recent evolution in the overall incentive travel, meetings and corporate travel management services business, it would be procurement.
Large companies are handing RFP responsibilities to their procurement departments, driven by a desire to make the process more open, level the playing field between incumbent and new suppliers, remove any whiff of favouritism, and to ensure best value. But because procurement departments are writing RFPs that sometimes contain hundreds of questions, suppliers are spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars on their responses, often without seeing a return on that investment. It’s got people talking about the pros and cons of this new RFP evolution.
On the positive side, the RFP process is becoming more transparent, says Debbie Grossi, director, Egencia Meetings & Incentives North America. Before procurement became involved, many organizations didn’t follow consistent guidelines, she says.
New suppliers are now getting a shot at business that might have been held by an incumbent for several years and wasn’t being examined or challenged internally. Preferred suppliers are also being kept on their toes to ensure they are providing the best pricing and that they are being as creative as possible.
“It certainly gives you the opportunity to get in front of people and put your case forward in a situation where you may not have had as strong a relationship with the client,” adds Nikki Germany, Country director, Egencia Canada.
As procurement and finance departments become more involved in travel management, suppliers see the RFP process becoming more sophisticated and detailed, she says. There are more questions probing functionality as well as supplier activities related to social responsibility and sustainability. There is also much greater emphasis on providing information related to data privacy and disaster recovery, Germany explains. Buyers want to collect as much information as possible so that they can make an informed decision.
But this is turning into a double-edged sword for suppliers hungry for business. Tony Wagner, vice-president meetings & events, North America, for Carlson Wagonlit Travel, says his team recently responded to a 290-question RFP for an enterprise meetings program. Lengthy RFPs put pressure on sales teams to gather mountains of data and still meet the proposal deadline, which is typically within two weeks of when the RFP is issued.
That’s a challenge, especially for smaller suppliers that don’t have staff dedicated to responding to RFPs. Some suppliers manage the workload by efficiently answering standard questions about company history, financials and project timelines, and devoting more resources to answering questions where they can really demonstrate their unique value.
Lori Heller, president of Heller Productions Inc., suggests that buyers should consider paying a flat amount to help compensate participants for their efforts.
Some RFPs are issued, not because of a specific project, but because a company may require every contract or agreement to be bid on every couple of years, regardless of how the incumbent is performing. There may be little or no return on the effort to have to continually re-bid the contract, Wagner suggests.
“The biggest challenge for us lately has been dealing with government RFPs. Requests for Standing Offers and Vendors of Record came out from all levels of government—federal, provincial and municipal—at the same time this spring,” says Pelly Heighton, managing director, Next Wave Events Inc. “It’s very challenging as a small company to address and qualify for these RFPs, yet we know we are perfectly capable of delivering the work. The proposals require incredible stamina to produce the 100 or so pages!”
From Valiquette’s point of view, public companies and government agencies alike have no choice but to be more transparent in procuring goods and services. “I try to provide as much information as possible so suppliers understand my requirements and can bid accordingly,” she says. “You’ve got to let them know what they’re getting into and buyers are looking for much more in-depth assurances that suppliers have the infrastructure to support any company.”
Whether a supplier is qualified to deliver on its RFP response promises is a question that needs to be addressed, says Valiquette. The poor economy has made suppliers more aggressive for business, including smaller firms that are promising to handle very large accounts even if they do not have the infrastructure, the account management dedication and the reporting tools to support an organization as large as the CBC.
Lately, some suppliers are wondering whether buyers value long-term relationships as much as they used to. It’s a catch-22 when the great relationships so crucial to the event planning and travel management businesses are being put out to bid every couple of years.
Wagner says that when an RFP is officially issued, the lines of communication with the buyer often shut down. “Dialogue can only go through a specific contact and our team doesn’t have the opportunity to have a discussion with any key stakeholders about their needs or objectives,” says Wagner. The trick is to try to dialogue before an RFP is launched.
“The irony is that this is a highly emotional and relationship-driven business and we’re putting it on paper and looking at numbers now,” says Grossi.
Ultimately, it’s up to the supplier to determine whether it’s worth investing in any given RFP process, says Egencia’s Germany. “You probably wouldn’t respond to an RFP from a company with whom you’ve never had a conversation,” she says. “Smart suppliers are always fostering ongoing conversations with their contacts—even if they’re not clients—so they are top of mind for the next RFP opportunity.”
Companies are ditching their paper RFPs in favour of online forms that are quicker and easier to set up, customize and issue, and that allow suppliers to complete more efficiently.
“Online tools streamline the process,” says Corbin Ball, principal of Corbin Ball Associates, a consultancy based in Bellingham, Wash. The idea of an automated RFP process is still new enough that the meetings and event planning industry is in its “digital adolescence,” says Ball.
An advocate of Accepted Practices Exchange (APEX) standards developed by the Convention Industry Council, Ball is encouraging meetings technology companies to develop tools based on these standards.
The number of companies offering web-based services to help planners manage meetings and events has grown. StarCite dominates the business, but new players such as Cvent—an online database of hotels, special event venues, conference and convention centres, audio-visual companies and caterers—have recently entered the market and are making huge investments to keep their databases up to date.
While there are still some meeting planners who are resisting the move to automated RFPs, the big players are embracing digital, says Ball. “Right now we’re in a transition phase, but if you’re not using online tools to increase efficiency you won’t be as competitive as those who are.”
RFPs: Scooping ideas
They say you can’t copyright ideas. Yet, it’s frustrating when suppliers suspect a company is using the RFP process to fish for new ideas or, worse, executing in-house concepts originally suggested in an RFP response.
Using the RFP process to solicit ideas sounds unfair, unprofessional and perhaps even unethical. It’s very difficult to gauge how wide spread the practice may be.
That’s why savvy suppliers tread a fine line between writing RFP responses with enough information to allow a buyer to make an informed decision, without giving away intellectual property.
This is tricky territory. Fierce competition means some suppliers are only too happy to offer creative suggestions that will help their RFP response shine above competitors.
Daphne Meyers, director of sales for Holiday Inn of Fargo, N.D., conducts workshops on the RFP process and advises buyers not to ask for creative ideas during the RFP process. And she tells suppliers to include the copyright symbol (©) in their response document as a not-so-subtle reminder that proprietary information needs to be respected.
How to create a great RFP:
- Be very clear about goals, the scope of work and expectations. Offer lots of supporting details.
- Inform suppliers about a project before issuing a formal RFP so they can ask questions and determine whether to participate.
- Be realistic about timelines, particularly how much time is needed to review responses and get a decision.
- Prioritize questions so that the RFP hones in on the crucial information required from respondents. Reduce the volume of general questions that don’t contribute to the project goals.
- Share information with all respondents including the names of all suppliers invited to participate and identify the internal stakeholder making the final decision.
How to create a stellar response:
- Research the company and its culture. Has there been a recent downsizing? What is the relationship between internal stakeholders and the procurement department?
- Ask a lot of questions so you have all the information needed to respond.
- Address the buyer’s specific objectives in your RFP response.
- Be succinct. Enough said.
- Model your response to the specific request, not your response template.
- Eliminate surprises by itemizing all charges, fees and policies.
- Let your personality and unique qualities shine through.
By Angela Kryhul
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