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What's the etiquette of the RFP?: users & vendors vent their spleens.


Preparing requests for proposals is not a routine, boring job if you're doing it right. Good RFPs can further you career. Bad RFPs are careeer-limiting.

Problem is, whaths a good RFP?

Users and vendors often feel the other does RFPs wrong. That makes everyone's life more complicated.

Neither side agrees totally on how to improve the process. But some initial steps were taken recently by the Tele-Communications Association.

TCA's Venfor Council hosted its first Issue Forum--a closed-door session between four telecomm managers and three large vendors. Because of the no-holds-barred nature of the meeting, we're not identifying he people or companies here. They're real people; I was there as moderator.

Pet Peeves

Vendors say too many RFPs differ widely. One major gripe is unrealistic timeframes for esponse to complex systems-integration procurements. Thirty days is too little time to process an RFP and prepare the technical response and a sound price proposal, especially on a fixed-price basis--part of the reason for terse responses and boilerplate preprinted material, they say.

Ill-defined technical specifications and objectives, and not being able to get appropriate information from the user in order to do a realistic design, are other vendor gripes.

Too often, a vendor's answers make assumptions. That kills any chance of a level playing field.

Defined technical specs, vendors plead. It is easier to write a responsive proposal of the customer speels out evaluation criteria. Do you want the low-cost solution? Say so up front.

Futures in RFPs are anothe problem area. The customer specifies future capabilities not necessarily identified as optional. Vendors cringe at pie-in-the-sky RFPs asking for solutions beyond current technology.

Don't change the rules during the REP process, vendors beg. One vendor mentioned a job where certain things were requested in the bid as capabilities that had to be delivered within two years. "Our company would have had to make a conscious decision to go and make the development effort to meet the requirements. so we made the modifications. Ten days before the resonse date, the rules were changed to a different timeframe. We wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars."

One user's solution is not doing RFPs. "I create product-specific RFWs (requests for quotations), a luxury some do not have. For the products that have some interest, I'll go out with a spcific RFP that names equipment," he said.

If there's any drawback in theat, it's the need to do homework properly. One can overlook some excellent possibilities. On the other hand, there are no surprises.

Another user looks at the RFP process as coming up with a contractual vehicle to provide service to his end users. "It's a marriage; I want a contract I know is going to be livable during a long-term relationship."

Users admit they have made RFPs more complex than they need to be. Often things are thrown into the RFP that are in reality contract definitions.

Because everybody responds in different ways, it is nearly impossible to develop an RFP that gives an apples-to-apples comparison.

One user's solution was to send out a Lotus spreadsheet (in this case for long-distance services for a number of divisions). The diskette included not only all of info the user could give in the various categories but a spreadsheet with blanks for vendors to fill in.

Sliding Time Scale

Vendors say it's almost impossible to come up with a sliding scale based on number of lines, application, etc. -- so much depends on what the RFP requests. Some responses to RFPs for 500-line systems can take two weeks, others six months.

One user noted response time hinges on how well vendors know their customers.

Users are contrained on time, too. Users would like to give vendors adequate time, but timeframes are based on one of two things--adequate planning or a knee-jerk reaction to a need within an organization.

If the boss comes in and says "We're going to move a division to a new office and we need a switch in within 60 days," you're really contrained.

Users asked vendors to spell out what they see as realistic.

Vendors say it depends on whether the RFP is the checklist comply/non-comply type, or one which wants to see how the system will work.

Generally, RFPs are built on a grid system to make all vendors bid on the same thing. But that can limit creativity. One user refrains from specifying whether he wants, say, a PBX or centrex.

Vendors like the alternative approach. Though they wonht always respond, they like to the option.

Everyone seemed to like a format with space to offer something special.

"Have you ever been to a pre-bid conference where vendors wil not ask questions because they donht want to give away their bidding strategy?" one user complained.

By the same token, communications managers know communications is a strategic tool; they do not want to signal competitors what their corporate strategy is either.

It would be beneficial, one vendor suggested, to have a post-bidders conference, where the rules of engagement are set up again with the individual vendors, not for a dog and pony show, but as a Q&A.

One user suggested vendors should be on the street now, beating the bushes and educating telecomm users.

They should say, "If you're purring out an RFP on a PBX, this is the kind of RFP you should put out, of if you're putting one out for transmission services, this is the type you need."

Ethics issues

User feel more dialog, to define the RFP after it is issued, would be helpful. Most users would welcome a call to ask for clarification. Vendors don't object as long as new information is shared by all. some would call that a request for information (RFI). Users say RFIs are essential, but vendors fear making public a dandy alternative solution which then is used for the bid--by everybody.

Often, criteria change during further discussions.

Vendors ask for communication on two levels: data shared among all, and specific alternative solutions kept private until the user lets a vendor know if iths on the right track.

Perhaps most frustrating for vendors are cases where there's never any award made for an RFP. They say it happens a lot. Sometimes it is part of getting budget approval, and approval never comes. Or users had unrealistic expecations. It becomes a fishing expedition for some people, vendors complain.

On a large network, a huge outlay of resources is requried, but often the result is no award at all. There is a certain obligation on th part of the customers not to put such as RFP on the street, vendors say.

Users say sometimes they decide to do nothing.

"That's just the nature of the vendor's circumstances," one user responded. In most cases, do vendors have a fair chance to get the bid? Is the bid given in a reasonable way and in a reasonable time?

No-bids are another problem. Vendors don't bid some jobs for a variety of reasons. Some RFPs are written for a spcific system and competitors feel they donht have a chance. Or, vendors see a consultant who have the last eight jobs to the same firm.

It may be due to a bias on the part of the customer, but users say they donht think it is common. Users say you're generally better off not writing an RFP, and going directly to that vendor and saying you want the best deal possible.

Other users disagree. Even if you want to be vendor specific, it doesn't mean you can't create another RFP for other vendors, they say.

Other users fear vendors wil lowball a job because they expect to make it up on adds, moves and changes, or an upgrade at a later time.

"Something is going to bite you somewhere," a vendor responded.

While consultants affect both sides, none were there at the forum. TCA is, however, working to add a consultant to its Vendor Council.

Users sometimes use consultants to augment staff, for example, to do work for which they donht have staff. Users also use consltants to create a CYA file: "Gee, they came up with the same solution I did."

Some users feel a good consultant wants to make it clear you're getting your money's worth; they say 58-60% of all PBX decisions involve a consultant writing the RFP. Over 400 lines, it's closer to 90%.

Users like breif, pointed replies. "Just fill in my blanks," one begged.

Vendors say RFPs should come to their sales offices. Firms then can send them to distributors. All vendors agreed it would help if they got a call saying an RFP is on the way. One vendor sugests making due dates on Mondays, not Fridays. "there's a big difference between Friday at 5 p.m. and Monday at 8 a.m.," he noted.

Users sometimes will accept a response after the due date, but if an extension is grantd one, they will extend it for everybody.

Most users have aproblem doing a comparison after the bids are back. They object to searching through stacks of material, and finding support material and references to other sections. One user gets so frustated, "I won't evaluate a bid if the infoamtion is not readily in front of me, or the staff has a hard time getting through the first part of the initial elimiantion process. I won't evaluate veondor responses that use glossies or reference me to three or four differnt areas for an answer. More times that not, I disqualify vendors for that."

Users ask vendors to put extra stuff (glossies and hype) in a different book.

They want basics: an executive overview of pricing, timeframes, etc.

Despite differences, there is common ground. Thorney problems can be talkedc out. TCA plans to take the information exchanged at this first Issues Forum and develop some basic guidlines for RFPs.
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Title Annotation:requests for proposals
Author:Wiley, Don
Publication:Communications News
Date:Oct 1, 1990
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