RFP advice: What your vendors wish you knew

Written by
Wendy Gittleson
Wendy Gittleson
Updated on
  6 min read

When it comes to improving your sourcing processes, innovation and inspection go hand in hand. Indeed, if you want to increase vendor engagement and build beneficial relationships, RFPs make a big difference. Consequently, when seeking RFP advice, it’s crucial to consider a vendor’s perspective.

To help us see the RFP process in a new light, we reached out to Ben Paul and Elizabeth Peterson from leading business development (BD) consultancy, BD Ladder. Together, these two experts have around 40 years of experience responding to RFXs, EOIs and all types of formal requests. Luckily, when we asked them for RFP advice from a vendor perspective, they were eager to share their wisdom.

In this guest blog, they explore six things that your vendors wish you knew (but probably won’t tell you).

RFP advice from expert responders

Over the years we’ve gained extensive experience leading and working with teams on many complex, high-spend request for proposal (RFP) response projects. Often, these RFPs come with tight deadlines and challenging requests which make the job of responding harder than it needs to be.

These frustrations, and in some cases, needless box-ticking exercises, lead to responses that don’t show the full benefit of what vendors can offer the issuer. Consequently, vendors must choose to either play by the rules and not show their full capabilities, or take a risk and submit a non-conforming bid. In most cases, the latter provides a more thorough response, but it isn’t what RFP issuers are looking for.

Below you’ll find a list of six common issues we see in RFPs. Each of these RFP issues are easily fixed. And, when resolved, they can greatly improve the responding experience for your vendors.

Requesting an out-of-date format raises eyebrows

Only two or three years ago, we saw a requirement that proposals be provided on a CD-ROM. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen a CD drive in a computer for about a decade now. Clearly, this was leftover from a previous RFP template that wasn’t updated properly.

While we cleared this instance up with a simple question, issues like this are all too common. Having to deal with these issues while managing a tight deadline is an unwanted distraction. It keeps vendors from focusing on the important parts of the response. Admittedly, it’s a minor issue but it makes suppliers suspicious of the integrity of the RFP document in general.

Asking for responses in an overly-restrictive format harms readability and creativity

When responding to RFPs, we understand the need for page limits and even restrictions on font sizes. Truly, we realize that you may receive dozens of responses, which is common for government organizations. So, it’s important for you to control and manage your workload.

However, as an example, using page limits rather than word counts can lead to the exclusion of informative graphics and diagrams. Often, a well thought out graphic explains data more clearly than a page of text. In addition, it takes a lot less time to digest. Unfortunately, teams must omit helpful images to meet restrictive RFP requirements. Then, they resort to pages of text instead — resulting in more work for you and your scorers.

Another area that is a bone of contention for RFP responders is section breaks. When laying out a tender, it is really nice to be able to put in section dividers with photos and images. It is also useful and informative to add in a client quote or text that explains the image.

Not only does this break up the RFP response, making it easier to scan and read, it also provides highlights of the responder’s work. Many issuers prevent this by including section dividers in the page count. In this case, the response requirement is likely based on past bad behaviour.

Indeed, some teams try to take advantage of loopholes, but we always advise against it. We know that too much text on a section divider appears like an obvious attempt to bend the rules — which won’t be well received.

Essentially, we believe it can be helpful to allow more room for creativity in RFP responses. After all, if some vendors abuse the freedom, it will count against them when you score the quality of the response anyway.

The misuse of panel agreements is a pet peeve

This is a bugbear for many vendors. RFP responders understand that to get on a panel they have to provide a huge amount of compliance information. As these agreements run for three years or more in most cases, that is perfectly acceptable. Usually, given the potential opportunity for regular, profitable work, vendors are happy to comply and then bid for individual projects after.

However, it is in these subsequent bids that the irritations to vendors start to occur. For example, we have responded to numerous large-panel bids over the years, many in the local- and state-based government sector. After providing all the necessary company, financial and insurance information in the initial panel response, we’re asked to produce it all again to bid on work. It is inefficient and frustrating.

If you need updated information, it makes more sense to ask organizations on the panel to provide it at agreed periods. For example, have vendors update information at the time of renewal for insurances, rather than before every piece of potential work.

This isn’t an isolated problem. Indeed, we see this issue with government, large blue-chips and other institutions as well. Furthermore, concerns of practicality arise in panel requirements. For example, requiring certain levels of provider insurance is unnecessarily prohibitive to some. You may need a high level of coverage from your auditors or main organizational IT systems providers. But, do you really need the same coverage from your fruit supplier?

Asking for the same information repeatedly is a waste

Ironically, this may seem like a repeat of the above point, but it doesn’t just happen within panel tenders. A few years ago I led a team that had to respond to an evidence of insurability (EOI) request with a 10-page limit. Nothing unusual there. We were delighted to get to this stage and be included in the RFP. However, the RFP was exactly the same as the EOI. So, we submitted the same response.

While we were eventually successful in winning the work, we were surprised by the unnecessary inclusion of two identical steps. On reflection, if the second RFP had removed the compliance section and kept the same questions about our proposed solution, we would have used the page limit differently. Indeed, it would have allowed us, and the other vendors, to provide additional information and greater clarity — producing a better level of response all round.

Requesting individuals’ qualifications is unnecessary

We regularly work with many professional services organizations including engineers, architects, accountants and attorneys. So, it is baffling when issuers ask vendors to supply the qualifications of all individuals. Generally, the result is a list of names with identical credentials as the answers are largely same from everyone responding.

While Suits is a fantastic TV show, it’s a long way from reality and unqualified professionals can’t fake their way on to professional services teams. Rest assured, a partner in a law firm has a law degree and is qualified to practice. It’s one of those pieces of information that issuers request which is simply unnecessary.

Client briefings with competitors in the room puts us in a no-win position

A client briefing is always greatly appreciated by vendors. Because having the details of what issuers are looking for in the responses is a great help to those responding. Even now, when these meetings are hosted online, they provide valuable insights. In addition, having the ultimate decision maker present the briefing and answer questions makes these meetings even more impactful.

However, hosting all the participants at the same time puts us in a tough position. If all the competitors are in the room at a client briefing, it becomes a bit of a standoff situation. Understandably, vendors are reluctant to ask important questions because they don’t want give away any sensitive information.

For vendors, it would be much better to have short individual sessions where vendors can ask questions openly. While it may seem more time consuming, it leads to better-informed RFP responses and decisions.

This list of RFP advice provides a few simple areas that issuers can look at to improve the clarity of the response they receive, and also ease the frustrations of their vendors. We also recommend that RFP issuers run anonymous online surveys of their vendors on an annual basis to solicit RFP advice and find out where RFPs can be improved. Remember, it is important that they are anonymous so vendors provide honest feedback without fearing negative repercussions.

Wendy Gittleson

Wendy has more than 10 years experience as a B2B and B2C copywriter. She developed a passion for writing about tech from living in the San Francisco Bay Area and working for a technology school. From there, she transitioned to writing about everything from SaaS to hardware and cloud migration. She is excited to be part of the wonderful team at Responsive and looks forward to playing her part in building the future. Connect with Wendy on LinkedIn.