For organizations working with either an internal or external vendor, releasing a request for proposals (RFP) is the best way to identify the best fit for the project and establish good communication early. If the RFP process is new to you, thinking of it like hiring an employee can be helpful—many of the steps are similar. There should be a vetting and selection working group established for this purpose, just like a hiring committee would be gathered to evaluate candidates for a job opening. A “job description” should be released and advertised in the form of a written SoW. Vendor proposals should be reviewed and vendors should be interviewed by the committee, just as you would with a candidate.
In smaller organizations, the SoW is often the entire RFP. In larger organizations, particularly when there are procurement departments, there are often additional administrative, contractual, and legal sections, and the SoW is one part of the RFP. In this case, once the SoW is finalized it is turned over to the people in charge of procurement and typically goes through review with a focus on contracting and legal aspects. In cases in which there are a number of people involved in the process on the client side, it is important before the RFP goes out for all stakeholders to meet, review the SoW, and confirm the timeline to make sure that all parties are on the same page. This should include the primary drafters of the SoW, procurement, legal, IT, and any other stakeholders the project will either depend on or directly impact. Once everyone is in sync and all dates in the timeline are updated and current, the RFP can be released. This may be done by sending the RFP to selected vendors, posting it publicly, or both. In some cases law or organizational policy may dictate whether an RFP must be posted publicly.
After an RFP is released, it is customary to provide a period in which vendors can ask clarifying questions about the RFP, your organization, or the project. Publishing specific information about how vendors can contact you with questions in the RFP, or even setting up specific conference calls, can keep this process moving quickly.
Once the RFP has been issued, vendor questions have been posed and responded to, and the final proposals are in from vendors, the vendor vetting and selection process begins. Each member of the working group should review each proposal and document comments and questions. Some organizations choose to use a scoring system, rating vendors in specified categories. If this is the case, documenting these scores should be done as part of the review process as well. Once everyone has reviewed the proposals, the working group should convene to discuss. If there are any vendors that are definitely seen as a bad fit, they may be removed from the process. All questions for each vendor that is moving forward in the process should be consolidated and either a meeting should be scheduled with each of the vendors to ask questions or an email should be sent asking for written responses along with a deadline. Once all responses are received, the working group should reconvene to discuss and select a final vendor. Keep in mind that selecting multiple vendors is also a possibility. For very large projects, it might make sense to split between vendors either to spread the load or to work with vendors that are particularly strong with a given set of formats. Keep in mind that the client may need to revisit the vendor candidate pool if the pilot or project goes poorly with a selected vendor. All vendors should be notified of the decision promptly regardless of whether they were selected or not.