10 Tips for Nailing the RFP Process

businessman looking at doors with arrows above them April 4, 2017 By: Christine Umbrell

Associations create a lot of requests for proposals to hire vendors, contractors, and consultants. Here are 10 tips that will make the RFP process a little less daunting and lead to mutually beneficial relationships.

Almost every association outsources some aspects of its workload and depends on contractors in some capacity to help achieve organizational goals. Associations also hire a variety of firms—whether software providers, financial services companies, or association management companies (AMC)—to outsource both short-term tasks and year-long projects. In most cases, the key to hiring the right consultant is developing requests for proposals that capture the attention of "best fit" companies.

Addy M. Kujawa, CAE, CEO of the American Alliance of Orthopaedic Executives, has written dozens of RFPs for the small-staff association. Meanwhile, Beth W. Palys, FASAE, CAE, president of Management Solutions Plus, has responded to scores of RFPs seeking AMC management. Kujawa and Palys offer the following tips:

1. Access peer networks to start the process. Kujawa suggests accessing ASAE's Models and Samples and Collaborate portals. These resources may have a downloadable sample of an RFP for a similar project to serve as a "jumping off point," Kujawa says. And for those associations seeking an AMC, Palys suggests visiting the AMC Institute website, which offers a template for starting the RFP process.

2. Consider sending a request for qualifications (RFQ) or request for information (RFI) before the RFP. An RFQ "is short and sweet and best used to prequalify candidates or companies either before an RFP process or for a small, defined project," Kujawa says. An RFI "is best used when you need to compare information, when you are a small association with limited staff or budget, or when you think you know what you want but are looking for clarification." These documents are easy for vendors to fill out and can help narrow down the pool of potential partners.

The key to hiring the right consultant is developing requests for proposals that capture the attention of 'best fit' companies.

3. Design RFPs as a complete package with detailed background information. The more information that an association or search committee can provide, the better. This is especially important when selecting a long-term partner, such as an AMC or financial company. "A lot of associations think if they withhold some information, they may get a better price," Palys says. "But if there's very little information, we are less likely to respond to the RFP."

4. Send RFPs to somewhere between five and 10 companies. Palys notes that some contractors may be less likely to respond to RFPs that are distributed en masse to dozens of prospective vendors—some of which may not be qualified. If you've done your homework by researching potential partners and acquiring information via RFQ or RFI, you should know which companies are in your price range and have the capacity to meet your needs.

5. Give vendors enough time to prepare. It may be tempting to shorten the response period after releasing an RFP, but "if you're asking for a full-fledged proposal, you need to give them time," Kujawa says.

6. Allow vendors to ask questions. Responding to vendors' clarifying questions can lead to a transparent and honest relationship once a proposal is accepted, Palys says. Ongoing discussions can ensure details are understood and the true scope of the project is being communicated.

7. Remember the lowest price may not be the best value. The goal in writing an RFP is to get what you want for the best price, but the lowest price may not give you what you want. Comparing apples to apples is necessary to make the best informed decision. "The lowest price should not be a dealmaker," Kujawa says. "If you push and push to get the lowest price, you may pay for it in the long run."

8. Look for the best partner. Even if a company has good reviews, it may not be the best fit for your specific organization--particularly if you don't have a connection with your main contact there. "Sometimes you can get through the process and everything looks good, but when you talk with those that will be your direct connections, if there is any discomfort, if it doesn't feel right in any way, it's best to look a little longer," Kujawa says.

9. Allow stakeholders to voice their opinions. Whether the final decision maker is the CEO, board, or another individual, those who will be most involved in the project should be allowed to review the proposals and offer their input before a selection is made.

10. Inform vendors of the decision. Once you have selected a partner, inform that vendor of the good news but also communicate your decision to those consultants who did not win the business. When appropriate, offer feedback on why you did not select them. "While this is not required, it's good practice," says Palys. "You may come back to them in the future with another RFP, and they may be able to meet your needs knowing where they fell short in the first go-round."

The golden rule for RFPs is that clarity and communication are critical. Adhering to that rule, and following these 10 tips, will help make the RFP process a little less daunting and lead to mutually beneficial relationships.

Christine Umbrell

Christine Umbrell is a freelance writer based in Herndon, Virginia.