7 Tips to Make Your RFPs More Effective

By Kat Liendgens — Tuesday, October 20th, 2015 at 4:00pm


Those of you in higher education, government, or other large institutions are probably familiar with Requests for Proposals (RFPs) as part of your procurement process - maybe even more so than you really want to be. For some people, the RFP mandate is a necessary evil that brings with it some frustration. That’s especially true if they’ve already done their research, talked to vendors, and think that they’ve identified the product or service that they want to purchase. The RFP process is very time-consuming and often involves a committee consisting of stakeholders from multiple departments, most of whom have their own objectives that all have to be accounted for.

Of course, you’re not setting yourself up for success if you only issue RFPs to go through the motions and check off boxes. By approaching the process differently, however, you can get tremendous value out of RFPs. An RFP is your chance to not only weed out vendors who clearly won’t be able to deliver the desired services, functionality, and results. It’s also an opportunity to actively identify those vendors who best understand and can cater to your needs. As a side benefit, writing an RFP and evaluating responses helps you think through your product implementation or project more thoroughly, ensuring maximum understanding of your own goals so you can be best positioned for success.

So with all of that in mind, let’s take a look at a few tips for getting the most out of your RFPs.

1. Be strategic about your questions

First off, ignore the highly tempting option to simply copy and paste questions from a collection of RFP templates. While doing so can expedite writing your RFP, this method can quickly result in a smorgasbord of questions that are not necessarily geared towards determining the best product fit for your organization. You may also end up with so many questions that you’ll have a hard time separating the high priority ones from the less important ones. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t copy and paste questions at all, however. It’s perfectly fine to pull questions from RFP templates, just be strategic about it. Only take questions that really make sense for your project.

2. Start with your goals

Before you even start writing your RFP, write out your organizational and your departmental goals for the project. Doing so will define your strategy, allowing you to identify the best types of questions to determine the product or service that will allow you to achieve those goals. For example, say you’re a university looking for a new content management system. Does it make sense to just start with questions about relatively simple functions that many vendors offer, like a basic WYSIWYG editor? Probably not. Instead, consider the goal-driven approach. If one of your goals is to improve admissions, figure out how much you want to increase new student applications. Next, identify what that means for your website goals and objectives, then break each one down into features and functionality that will allow you to achieve the best. Finally, assign a value to each feature so you can create an evaluation matrix.

Here’s a very simple example:

Organizational Goal: Generate $[number] in new revenue by increasing 2015 enrollment by [number]%.

Web Objectives:

  • Implement a website that is mobile friendly.
  • Implement more calls to action and web forms.
  • Deliver more targeted, effective content.
  • Increase the reach of our content through better SEO, more effective promotion, and social engagement.

Now take each objective and determine which features would best support them.

Objective: Increase the reach of our content through better SEO.


  • Solution must generate SEO-friendly URLs.
  • Solution should alert users to potential SEO issues, such as broken links, long load time, or missing metadata.
  • Solution must facilitate cross-site sharing of content.
  • Solution should increase content freshness.

Outlining and prioritizing your goals makes sure that they’re fully defined. Better yet, it also helps you determine the specific features and functionality that are needed to make sure your project is a success. Once you’ve determined what your organizational goals are, consider outlining them in your RFP. This will give vendors a clear understanding of what you’re looking to accomplish.

3. Describe past experiences

RFPs are not only a good way for you to zero in on vendors who are a good fit, but also for those vendors to determine if they’re the right fit. After all, responding to RFPs is a lengthy and resource intensive process, almost as long and involved as writing one. The last thing a vendor wants to do is to compete for a deal that ultimately is not the best solution for all parties involved. Therefore, it can be very helpful for you to include a section that describes your past experiences with similar products or services. What worked well and didn’t work well for you? What are your expectations from the selected vendor?

4. Ask how

It’s not enough to know that a product has a particular list of features - make sure you ask how those features work. Otherwise, you’re missing out on an opportunity to learn about the complexity and robustness of the product. After all, straight “yes” or “no” questions make it easy for vendors to respond positively - without explaining how the process works and how much technical set-up is required. In certain cases, you might even talk about your user personas and ask how each persona would accomplish tasks relevant to his or her responsibilities. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask the vendor how their products or services will help you achieve the goals that you’ve outlined.

5. Have an open mind

No matter how meticulously crafted your RFP is, it’s never going to cover all of your exact needs. Sometimes during evaluations, you’ll discover a new product feature that would significantly benefit your organization or department or perhaps the opposite occurs and you’ll realize that a functionality included in your RFP won’t do as much as you’d thought to help you reach your goals. For instance, say you have a very specific feature in mind and, better yet, you have an idea of how it should work. How would you react if a vendor described an alternative solution? It’s easy to simply reject such responses but try to resist doing so. Keep an open mind and weigh your options so that you can determine whether the proposed alternative is better, viable, or if it doesn’t meet your expectations.

6. Identify your resources

The resources available for the implementation and maintenance of a new product can (and should!) have an impact on your vendor selection, so make sure to detail your resources in your RFP. At a minimum, include who will be managing the project, how many technical team members will be involved with the rollout, and who will train your end users. Since the project doesn’t end with implementation, also consider adding who will be in charge of system administration and ongoing management of the product. If you don’t have the bandwidth to handle some (or even all) aspects of the project, be sure to include this information in your RFP. Make sure as well to indicate if the vendor will be expected to handle these aspects or if you would rather get assistance elsewhere. Be cautious of vendors that demand you use their professional staff for implementation or ongoing service projects instead of enabling you to learn how to handle things on your own. One of the most important things to find out during your selection process is whether a vendor empowers you to become self sufficient, provided you have the necessary resources. You don’t want to be forced into a service contract unless one is actually needed or have to pay for the privilege each time you’re stuck going back to the vendor for future tasks or updates that could have been done in-house. Which leads into our final point:

7. Find out the total cost of ownership

The cost of your project goes beyond what’s involved at the start. All the little optional bells and whistles can really add up, sometimes resulting in expenses that keep climbing long after the project is marked “complete”. To find the right vendor, make sure to get a strong idea of the total cost of ownership for each proposal. While most organizations ask about the cost for licensing, maintenance & support, and initial training, many RFPs don’t ask about other things that can actually drastically increase the total cost. Things such as modules, add-on features, higher support tiers, and future professional services can cost extra, carving out a big dent from your budget. It’s critical to determine exactly which vendor services are mandatory (and how much you’ll be expected to pay for them) and make sure you know how independent the vendor will allow you to be.

So start with your end goals in mind! Take a strategic approach to your next RFP to get the most from it. Not only will it help you to best filter the responses you’ll receive, it will also best enable you to achieve the desired outcome.

What about you? What are some other tips that can help you make your RFPs more effective and useful?

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