"Are a few hundred requirements too many?"

I almost spit up my coffee when I heard the question. My friend was starting a request for proposal (RFP) process for a new content management system, working with a draft RFP he had inherited. The draft consisted of a really long list of requirements.

He was having a hard time coming to grips with the full scope of what his company was trying to achieve.

My friend's company isn't alone in this. It was repeating a time-honored mistake by not asking the questions in their RFP that would turn it into a tool for making a smart decision.

Avoid These Common RFP Mistakes

A recent article by Tanzen Consulting founder Carrie Hane clearly outlined five reasons why most RFPs suck and gave ideas for how to improve them:

  1. It doesn’t focus on a problem to be solved.
  2. It is a list of requirements.
  3. It is sent out blindly.
  4. What you want doesn’t match your budget.
  5. It asks for spec work or “innovative ideas.”

The first reason is the worst offender: You've picked a solution before understanding the problem. When in doubt, bring someone in to to help you figure out what the actual problem is. 

A company once brought me in to do this and it quickly became clear that their problem wasn’t the technology — it was the lack of training and awareness. This problem would only become worse if they moved to a new system.

An endless list of requirements is horrible. Vendors will respond “Yes” to the majority of items, leaving you with no meaningful comparison. Which vendor do you reject because they couldn’t meet 10 of your 150 optional requirements out-of-the-box?

Additionally, the answers will mean something different even when they are the same. For example, if you ask a vendor if they can import information they will all say “Yes.” The reality behind the answer will vary greatly regarding speed and complexity. 

While many large organizations are locked into a defined RFP process, these bad behaviors are not process dependent. A smart RFP process can avoid most of these pitfalls.

Successful RFPs Take Preparation and Flexibility

A successful RFP process takes preparation. Take the time to understand the problem you are solving. What is the ultimate goal and how will you measure success? What intermediate goals will demonstrate that you are on track?

If you want a new CMS ask yourself why. What are you trying to accomplish that you cannot do on the existing platform? You might not need a new CMS, but simply a new site design on the existing system. Perhaps you just need an upgrade to the latest version to gain access to new features that will meet your goals.

Learning Opportunities

Meet with vendors, see their demos and understand their vision. Ask about their partner network. Meet with some partners and existing customers to understand what implementing the system really takes.

Ask them to explain how they will solve your problems. Instead of asking them if they can import information, ask them to describe the process of migrating data from one system into their system. Do they fully understand the scope of the challenge? Are they planning to just force it or take a thoughtful approach?

Finally, break the process into steps. 

Send out the RFP. If you didn’t before you sent the RFP out, ask to see a demo. Have select vendors submit a written response. Then have your top two present a custom demo before deciding. This will let the vendor demonstrate scenarios that you have defined in the RFP. You’ll see how their software approaches solving your problem.

These are all high-level suggestions, but taking time to get everyone on the same page early on makes a huge difference during the implementation stage.

Pay Now, Save Later

There is no such thing as a perfect RFP. In an ideal world, you wouldn’t need to issue an RFP. Unfortunately, getting things in writing is often the only way to make sure the vendor shares your understanding of what needs to be done.

Timeframes may be tight but taking a couple months before issuing an RFP to learn the market and fully define your problem is important. Make sure that your future partners understand what you are asking of them.

Take the time to do the RFP right. If you don’t, you will be going through the same process again a year or two later. Invest the time now or you’ll find you have run out of time.

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