RFPs: The Most Dreaded Word?

Posted on October 10, 2019

Anonymous vendor

This guest blog is by an ELGL member who works for a private company that works with local government. It was shared anonymously with ELGL in the hopes of raising awareness of the topics, issues, and challenges that vendors who work with local governments must deal with on a regular basis.

RFPs could be the most dreaded word, both for you and for vendors (ok, maybe vendors is the most dreaded word…).

Both vendors and city employees can likely agree that, as believers in good government, RFPs are important to our transparency. That doesn’t take away the fact that we can also agree – as people on both sides of those documents – they generally suck. They suck for local government employees who have to produce them, and they suck for vendors who have to respond to them. I shared with Kirsten a challenge that I encountered recently, and this blog post came out of that conversation.

For months I had been collaborating with a city employee (also an ELGL member) on how to create an RFP based on industry best-practices and proven approaches that would solicit qualified candidates.

As an added bonus, I hoped that it would provide an opportunity for my firm to shine. We responded to the RFP but, unfortunately, we weren’t selected.

And that’s okay – we can’t win all the RFPs (that’s what we keep telling ourselves, at least.)

But all too often, emerging technology firms are sidelined because of RFPs that are poorly written, have a bias for functional specs that a city already has even though they may not be valuable, or, as in this particular experience, the RFP is simply (and many times inconspicuously) biased toward incumbent firms.

These scenarios result in a combination of wasted resources and, with all that in mind, I wanted to offer some ideas – or operating norms – that I believe will ultimately result in better partnerships between the public and private sectors. These insights are from the perspective of a vendor – and I hope this is helpful, not just in illustrating how vendors approach RFP responses, but also could result in better RFP responses for your project.

Operating Norm 1: Be Transparent

No, this isn’t about open data. Just cut through the BS. If you want to buy Tyler, or you want to buy OnBase, or you want to buy something from any specific vendor, please just tell me.

Being up front saves a lot of resources — not only for you, but also for us. On average, our firm spends 8-10 hours responding to an RFP. This includes writing detailed responses, creating a narrative of our how our product fits your goals, etc.

We’ll always try to put our best foot forward, so all I’d ask is that you let me know if the door is really open before you invite me in.

And if it’s not, I welcome you to say, “Hey, it sounds like you have some really great technology. I think you’re likely not the best fit for us, and I just want to be candid, that you maybe shouldn’t reply.”

On the other hand, if you’re leaning one way but not totally committed, make sure you’re truly open to the possibility of being wowed by someone unexpected, even new and small.

Operating Norm 2: Replace Yes/No With How/Why

Far too often we find ourselves responding to an RFP with hundreds of lines in an Excel table where we simply have to say YES or NO or CUSTOM to a functionality matrix.

Word to the wise – almost every firm will say “yes” even if that’s not true.  So, know that. But more importantly, ask questions of firms that help you better understand their technology, their approach, and their perspective.

Ask “Why do you” or “How do you” – I believe asking these open-ended questions will allow you to better differentiate firms and find the right fit.

Operating Norm 3: Go Green

Going out on a limb here: I think we can all agree there is a climate crisis. This is my bold attempt to convince you and your procurement officer that it’s “good government” to stop asking for paper copies of proposals.

Further, aren’t we all trying to make life easier for residents by offering more digital services? Why not this process?

But, seriously – this is why: every RFP our firm has replied to in the past year that required physical proposals typically asked for one full-color original and three-to-six black-and-white copies (let’s call that like 300 double-sided pages).

If you haven’t been to FedEx Kinkos or Office Depot lately, that means that I’ve spent probably $150-300 just to print and bind our response and $10-20 to add that USB drive for the digital version that was ironically asked to be mailed, which necessitates that I mention the $50-80 it costs to ship it to City Hall to ensure it arrives at 10 a.m.

And – be honest – do you even read all 75 pages of a proposal? Perhaps the most empathetic thing you can do is understand that the cost of producing an RFP response (that I unknowingly might not even stand a chance to win) is downright expensive. I also guarantee you’ll get more responses to an electronic RFP than a mailed request. Win-win.

Operating Norm 4: Engage With Us

Those of you who have followed Kent for while know that he’s talked about how worthless trade shows at conferences are – save for getting some great tchotchke.

Unfortunately, those events are often the only place for us to connect and interact with you, inform you of who we are and captivate your attention. Why? Because you’re busy.

When we call you typically don’t answer. When we email, you typically don’t click through and read that amazing case study we published because, understandably, you’re avoid clicking on any links for fear of being phished.

As fellow members of ELGL, we’re here because we believe in what we do, what you do, and that together we can do something even better.

My final request is this – pick up the phone. Click through. Engage with us. I know 80% of you won’t buy from me. I also know that when I talk to you, you help me learn.

Your questions help me think critically about how my product needs to work differently. You help me understand what’s important to you, so that the next time I call an Assistant City Manager, I can more clearly communicate the value of our solution to them.

We’re all in this together. I love that our common goal is to help your community members trust and better engage with their local government, so help us to help you.

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