I’ve been suffering of late from Jon’s Law of Inverse Technological Availability: “the less time I have available, the greater the chances of IT failure”. Our third panel post has been a little delayed, therefore, as I’ve fought off the gremlins. The challenge we posed this time to our team of proposal professionals from around the world provoked considerable debate:
What impact does the quality of the customer’s RFP have on the quality of the proposal? And what advice would you offer to customers to improve their RFPs?
Roisin seemed to sum up the panel’s frustrations with a wonderfully provocative response:
My mother often says ‘You reap what you sow’. And in this case, she is completely right. Any customer who issues a poorly constructed RFP is setting a poor tone from the outset. It will immediately sway the mood of the bid team who have to spend hours extricating requirements and compliances from a web of confusion.
First impressions count. That’s right, isn’t it? Everyone knows that. It’s why people practice their handshakes, polish their shoes before an interview, and so on…. So why, why, do potential clients think that it is acceptable to send a tangled mess of formatting, hidden text, and obscure questions?
If this is the issue, then the client should be likened to the small child learning to speak. The child knows what it wants, but the communication skills it possesses are not developed enough to clearly define it. The vendors are the adults trying to understand what the child is saying, trying to offer suggestions as to what it may be that is required…
Barbara picked out some specific frustrations:
Poor syntax would have the most effect, as we might not understand the question. Poor formatting, etc., doesn’t affect our response as we always remove the questionnaire and put it into our (beautifully formatted) response template.
In terms of advice, Dave offered four suggestions:
1. Ensure the questions are clearly written and applicable to the project.
2. Eliminate redundant or duplicate questions. Nobody likes to answer the same question twice! (buyers don’t want to read the answer twice, either)
3. Apply consistent formatting to the questionnaire. A proposal manager should not have to correct formatting and numbering in the original RFP document.
4. Allow the vendor to respond in Microsoft Word (or PDF). Excel and web-based RFPs do not typically allow the vendor to incorporate formatting and graphics in their response.
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I loved BJ’s post last Monday, in which he inadvertently found that he’d been editing a paragraph from the customer’s RFP – rather than from the draft proposal.
I still spend about 10% of my time working with purchasing teams. They find it fascinating to hear what happens on the bidding side of the table, and I personally like to keep in close contact with the way that buyers think and operate. And if I can persuade one or two sourcing teams that they need to write better RFPs, then it might make life easier for some proposal folks out there!
It’s a long hard slog, though, trying to persuade buyers that what they’re doing when producing an RFP is an exact mirror image of what we’re doing in our proposal teams. Their process logically includes:
- Pre-RFP preparation (building their team, developing their project plan, positioning their requirements with the market to ensure that the right suppliers do bid)
- Developing their strategy (“What are our real needs? How do we want to position this with bidders?”)
- Working out the structure of their document (“How can we make sure we get the right information in a format that’s easy to evaluate?”)
- Designing their content (“What questions do we need to ask, and why? What would good answers look like?”)
- Developing their content (collating information from different content experts, and melding it together to ensure consistency of tone and content)
- Producing a professional-looking document that presents their opportunity appropriately to the RFP’s recipients
- Gaining final sign-off from relevant stakeholders before the RFP is issued to the market.
Problem is, they don’t really (by and large) see it as a process. And when they don’t treat it as a process, they don’t understand the skills associated with doing it well – least of all, any professional writing or design skills, as mentioned in some of the comments on BJ’s post. So it’s left to the purchasing manager (frequently untrained in the art of developing RFPs) to cut and paste from past questionnaires, and to issue documents that veer between inconsistent and incoherent, whilst often feeling a sense of desperate isolation from business stakeholders who don’t want to get actively involved until the proposals are in.
Done well, mind, the benefits to the buyer are immense: we’ve seen this whenever we’ve helped procurement teams with their RFPs and subsequent evaluations. They receive far higher-quality proposals from their suppliers. So much better for the evaluators to be able to choose between a selection of truly excellent proposals, than to play a confrontational game that inevitably results in poor documents articulating unnecessarily weak, costly and risky solutions from ill-informed bidders. They find the transition from contract to implementation much smoother. And they find it far easier to manage the debrief process, as even losing suppliers confirm that they recognise the quality and fairness of the process they’ve just been through.
More on this shortly – our Proposal Guys panel is working on advice for those developing RFPs, and we’ll share their thoughts next week.
While editing a response to an RFP and well into “editing” mode, I came upon a paragraph which was very poorly written, unclear and needed a complete rewrite.
I did just that. I took the time to understand what the paragraph was really trying to say. I then rearranged the order of the information, restructured several of the sentences and completely rewrote others. When I was done, I would say, at the risk of sounding conceited, that the paragraph was much clearer and easier to understand, and it was written well and correctly.
It was only after I had completed this exercise that I realized the paragraph was part of the RFP and not the response. As Charlie Brown would say, “Arrrrgggh!” Maybe this has happened to you. You have become so caught up in editing or worked with an RPF that was so poorly written, that you’ve inadvertently edited the RFP. Please tell me I’m not the only one who’s done this. (And yes, sadly, this is not the first time it’s happened to me.)
I would point out that any one who has a bit of time in the proposal game has surely come across an RFP that was poorly written and very unclear. Such RFPs, and the one I’ve described above in particular, would have benefited greatly from some of Jon’s expertise in developing effective RFPs. As he’s said many a time to a buyer (and this is also the name of a course Jon presents), “You get the response you deserve.”
A few weeks ago, UKAPMP hosted a fascinating evening at which members had the chance to quiz two (very brave!) procurement experts.
On the team was our good friend Martin Webb, one of the leading lights of the purchasing profession in the UK. A couple of his comments particularly caught my attention.
First, Martin offered his definition of the role of the proposal as being:
“making it easier for the customer to make a ‘yes’ decision.”
Quizzed by the audience on management summaries, Martin confirmed the view that they ’set the tone’ for the evaluators reading the document:
“There’s a good chance that you’ll be facing a fundamentally lazy organisation. You need to lead them through to the things that differentiate you, and the management summary is a great way to do this.”
I always enjoy watching the faces of sales and proposal people when they hear procurement folks discussing their trade. Similarly, buyers find it quite eye-opening to listen to folks from a bid environment. So, when did you last have an open talk to someone from the opposite side of the negotiating table – away from a particular live deal, but to share your respective experiences and insights?
A design team recently presented me with samples of some new proposal binding and packaging. I immediately dropped one of the ring binders onto the floor. “May I?”
They looked at me, concerned. I proceeded to tell the story.
Some years ago, I facilitated the evaluation workshops for a major IT procurement for a leading financial services institution. We gathered the evaluators together in the executive suite at Murrayfield, home of Scotland’s national rugby team.
One bidder’s proposals had started to come apart before it reached us: pages were falling out of the somewhat crushed ring binder. I well remember struggling up the cold staircases on the outside of the stadium, balancing their fragile documents as best I could.
I can still feel the moment that the ring binder started to disintegrate completely in my hands. I can picture the pages of that bidder’s proposal, floating away in the wind and the rain, in the general direction of Glasgow.
Needless to say, we didn’t trek across the muddy training pitch to retrieve them. I’ve never since underestimated the importance of packaging and binding for proposals. And I put any collateral to what I now term ‘The Murrayfield Test’: if I stand on it, does it survive the experience?
I present to groups of purchasers on a fairly regular basis. I’ve taken to asking for a show of hands: “Tell me if you’ve evaluated proposals in the past six months for a particular purchasing project.” Ninety per cent of hands go up.
“Keep your hands up if the longest proposal won the deal.” Like a flash: not a hand left in the air.
I’m reminded of Ambrose Bierce’s wonderful phrase, “The covers of this book are too far apart,” and also of the occasion when Mark Twain’s publisher sent him a telegram insisting
“NEED 2-PAGE SHORT STORY TWO DAYS.”
“NO CAN DO 2 PAGES TWO DAYS. CAN DO 30 PAGES TWO DAYS. NEED 30 DAYS DO 2 PAGES.”
Amusing comments from bid team members the other day, discussing customer’s procurement processes: “It feels like customers use work experience students to write their RFPs” and “Do purchasers get paid by the question?” I hope there are a few buyers out there reading this: understanding the challenges facing folks on the other side of the negotiating table can be really beneficial.
Bid teams usually have a fairly low regard for the quality of the RFPs to which they have to respond. “Beware of the Buyer”, a research study we conducted a couple of years back threw up a few thought-provoking statistics, such as:
- 86% of bid team members agree that the better the customer’s RFP, the better the proposal they submit in response.
- Only 14% agree that the quality of the RFPs that they receive is very high.
- Only 8% find that RFPs provide sufficient context on the customer’s business issues and the project’s drivers.
- 91% state that the length and complexity of the RFP is not always commensurate with the value of the deal.
- 85% agree that there is a direct correlation between the quality of the RFP and the quality & cost-effectiveness of their proposed solution.
- 83% agree that “the less time we have to respond, the poorer the quality of solution that we can offer”.
- Only 5% of proposal teams have customers who seek feedback on the quality of their RFPs.
And on the flipside, most buyers are disappointed by the quality of the proposals that they receive. There’s a self-perpetuating climate of mutually low expectations here. Perhaps the two groups should talk more. (Actually, if anyone out there – from either side – fancies being part of any such discussions, let us know and we’ll see if we can set up a suitable forum).