The RFP Process Is Broken. Here’s How to Fix It.

Posted by on September 27, 2016


The current RFP (Request for Proposal) process is broken. It is not serving the customer, and it is not serving the vendor or service provider.

Before discussing the shortcomings of current practices with respect to the RFP, we should say that laws and regulations require some agencies, companies, and organizations to file highly detailed documents covering nearly every aspect of the product or service. If you have these legal or regulatory requirements, then there isn’t much you can do to change how you approach the RFP document itself. Even so, there may be additional aspects of the process for you to consider.

If, on the other hand, you do not have these requirements, it’s time for you to ask, “Why are we doing it this way?”

If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.” – Jessie Potter

The primary reason you look for something new is that the product you have is no longer delivering the value you want. If you are in the market for new service management tools, it’s probably because your current software—or perhaps the vendor—is not delivering value. Chances are you or someone in your organization wrote a detailed RFP for that solution, probably using the MoSCoW prioritization technique. You should ask yourself and your organization how the new RFP will deliver more value if it is once again based on the same approach, and maybe even on the same cookie-cutter template.

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Let’s start thinking about this differently. Truth be told, service management solutions—while not all the same—are very much a commodity; there are more similarities than differences, at least when it comes to basic functions. We need to look for a different way to distinguish requirements in order to highlight how the differences between solutions will become apparent.

Does the car have wheels?

Too often, RFP’s spend a good deal of time describing what the software and/or vendor provides, not what you, the customer, are actually looking for. A few years ago, Stephen Mann published a blog called Why Is Buying an IT Service Management Tool Like Buying a Car? in which he describes some of the mistakes people make when purchasing a new tool. He points out that the specifications often overshoot the mark, narrowing the request to particular characteristics of cars (“green”) rather than benefits (“aesthetically pleasing”).

The car analogy can be taken further. Most of us would not go to a car dealer with a list of requirements like, “Must have wheels. Must have brakes. Must have a windshield. Must meet government safety standards.” Yet this is exactly what many RFP’s look like. If you’ve done your homework ahead of time, you already know—and have documentation for—the basic functions of the product. The RFP is asking the vendor to check a box reaffirming that the product has the features they already say it has. It’s a given that all the vendors will check all the boxes.

This traditional approach misses many opportunities to allow the vendor to show how and why they and their product are different from their competitors. What if your RFP states that you must have a four-cylinder, gasoline powered engine, missing the opportunity to hear about their new, two-cylinder hybrid with just as much power and three times the gas mileage?

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Taking a new approach

Consider beginning your RFP with a statement of the problem you are trying to solve or the progress you would like to make:

  • In one year, we would like to be able to do X. Can your product help us do that?
  • Tell us how you are different from your competitors
  • Please provide evidence for your claims

You may even wish include an innovation statement by asking, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could…?” This is different from the traditional MoSCoW “nice to have” because it’s seeking a beneficial outcome for your organization, not a feature of the product. This allows the vendor the opportunity to shine and show you their understanding of you, your industry, and the potential of their products and services. Even at this stage of the process, you should be working to build relationship with the vendor.

The new RFP process

When you begin the journey toward a new service management product, try coming it at it from a different direction.

  • Develop an RFP format that suits your needs
  • Ask about differences, not similarities
  • Allow the vendor to show you their expertise
  • Ask for evidence of any claims about benefits
  • Leave room for innovation
  • Build a working relationship early in the process

Chances are very good you will come away with a product and a set of services that will fit your needs now and in the foreseeable future.