Providers aren’t the only sellers in the outsourcing game. In fact, if a buyer doesn’t hold up his or her end when it comes to selling the opportunity, he or she risks a suboptimal relationship. Forget about the common wisdom that the relationship starts at selection and contract development—it actually starts the day that the request for proposal development is developed. Buyers forget that some of the best providers have fairly detailed bid gating processes. Business development folks pour over RFPs, spending inordinate hours trying to second guess what the client really wants, and assembling information that often matters not to the decision criteria.
Why do buyers inflict such pain on providers? Often they don’t know how to write a good RFP, which is certainly a valid excuse for any new entrant into outsourcing. But at times the buyer has hired an advisor with masochistic tendencies, devising intrusive, inconsequential questionnaires just because…they can (and want to prove that they add value to sourcing by overcomplicating the process). Most often, the buyer hasn’t established the criteria for selection, or even the scope, hence a fishing expedition.
What happens when the RFP takes provider cross-examination to ridiculous levels of invasion? Providers are pretty savvy about RFPs; they know when a client is serious or not by what’s required in a response. As a result, if the document screams lack of sophistication, the B team—or lower—will be assigned to the response, further exacerbating a bad sourcing situation.
What can a buyer do to sell a provider though the medium of the RFP?
• Keep it short and targeted. Don’t ask for an encyclopedia, or go for heft. It is actually harder—and forces the provider to be more precise—if the RFP is short.
• Don’t ask for file fodder. Many RFPs forget that the proposal tees off a process, rather than comprise the entire basis for selection
• Be realistic in your ask. No self respecting provider should provide detailed references until they know more about the client and scope, and whether they are a good match for the client.
• Be prescriptive in the response instructions. If you only want 23 PowerPoint slides, say so. If the number of words is limited, say so. Tell the provider that gaps in their responses will disqualify them.
• Understand the difference between an RFI and RFP. RFIs are good for fishing expeditions, but should be kept very short, asking for enough information to triage the provider field. RFPs should be comprehensive. There’s no place for a 600 page RFI.
• Give the provider a rational deadline. Circus animals jump through hoops; good providers should not be asked to. A week before Christmas is not a good time to issue a request, and screams poor planning to the provider, which suggests that perhaps working with the client isn’t a good bet.
• Give the provider some room for creativity. Ask a freeform question that lets the provider show that they can think out of the box.
• Don’t put all your proverbial selection eggs in the RFP basket. A good proposal kicks off the process, eliminating the need to cover hygiene issues in provider encounters, and focus on what really matters—the forming of a relationship.
Use your RFP to persuade you are a worthy client for a provider. It will pay dividends in relationship-building, negotiation and value.