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Avoiding Requests for Pain (first appeared in InfoWorld)

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“Oh, &$@%#, not another &%^ing RFP!”
Requests for Proposal (RFPs) and runners have two shared characteristics. First, you see a lot of both of them. Second, nobody ever seems to actually enjoy either one. (To the runners I just offended: how come I never see you smiling?)
Clearly, we’ve become a nation of masochists.
But how else than an RFP to evaluate vendors and products? Form Follows Function. Your method of evaluation depends on the circumstances.
You generally face one of these three situations: (1) you fully understand your requirements and the market, and you need equivalent information from all suppliers; (2) you understand your business, have a general understanding that technology can improve it, and want open-ended suggestions on how different products can help improve or transform your organization; or (3) you need to choose a product from a well-defined category and need something that’s good enough. These situations call for different approaches.
When You Know Your Requirements
Here’s when you should write an RFP. Quite a few books (including my own Telecommunications for Every Business, Bonus Books, Chicago, 1992) provide detailed guidance. Three principles are worth mentioning here.
First, specify your design goals, not the means by which vendors should address them. For example, if you need a fault-tolerant database server, don’t say you need a system with redundant power supplies, backplanes, CPUs, and network interface cards. If you do you’ll get what you asked for (in this case, a system that frequently fails from software bugs). Instead, ask how the vendor ensures fault tolerance. Then you’ll learn one of the vendors provides mirrored servers with shared RAID storage for a lower overall cost and higher reliability.
Second, don’t withhold information. If you’re a Windows/95 shop, for example, don’t pretend to be open to other solutions. Just say so in your RFP. You’ll save both your vendors and yourself a lot of work.
And finally, if any vendor offers to “help you write your RFP” just laugh gently, compliment them on their sense of humor, and go onto the next vendor (who will make the same offer). Don’t take offense – they’re just doing their job. Don’t take them up on the offer, either.
Looking for Help
Sometimes, you don’t know all the questions. You know you want to phase out your nationwide SNA network, for example, but have an open mind regarding the best replacement strategy.
You can hire a consultant to help you write an RFP, I suppose … or, you can hold extensive conversations with a variety of vendors to learn what each has to offer. By doing so you’ll get a broader look at the market, and you’ll also get a wonderful education into the strengths (from each vendor) and weaknesses (from their competitors) of each approach currently selling.
In this example, you may find yourself talking to two frame relay vendors, a Transparent LAN Service provider, AT&T and Novell regarding their Netware Connect Services, and an independent systems integrator. You’ll benefit from an unstructured dialog in which each vendor can assess your situation in depth and describe a scenario of how their approach will work for your company.
When Good Enough Will Do
Let’s imagine you’ve been asked to select a new standard Ethernet network interface card (NIC). You could write an RFP or hold extensive conversations with sales reps, but why? Read a few reviews, ask a few basic questions, insist on a few evaluation units (to make sure they work and to learn about any installation glitches) and pick one. Flip a coin if you have to. It’s a low impact decision.
Oh yeah, just one more thing: very few of us make decisions based on logic. Salespeople know we make emotional decisions, then construct logical arguments to justify them. Don’t fall into this trap: recognize your emotional preference up front, figure out how much weight you should give it, and keep it from dominating your process.