RFPs: Eliminate the Agony, Embrace the Success

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Three letters.  For some people, creating a RFP can be an exciting experience unmatched in the annuals of time. I haven’t met those people yet, but I’m sure they are out there.

For the rest of us though, just the thought of having to create one, instantly screams, “Tums”.

It is a necessity to identify the vendor that is going to provide you with the best system for your solution. So, with that said, why do people create or use ones that do just the opposite?

Is there anyone out there?

When people need a RFP, they think “Internet”.  As in, let me see if there is one on the Internet, I can use as my RFP.  Nothing wrong with that, and heck it makes sense. Especially when you are unsure what to put down on one or trying to save time.  Why re-build the wheel, if you do not have to.

It is a time saver, but pulling down a RFP, especially if it comes from a vendor’s site (even if that is not the vendor you are going to submit it to), can define your approach, without you even realizing it.

  • When you view it, you will see information that is in there that may not be applicable for what you are looking for in a system
  • The RFP may be geared actually to the vendor whose site you have pulled it down from. Case in point, one vendor who had a RFP on their site, for anyone to download, had statements in there – that truly applied to their product.

RFP is another word for lots of pages

This is a myth.  There is no reason in 2011, to use a RFP that is 20 pages or more. 10 pages is even too long.

Everything that you need, can be on one spreadsheet. You heard right, one spreadsheet.

Think about the beginning of the RFPs you often see on the Internet, and ask yourself these questions:

  • If I already have spoken with the vendor and provided key details on what I need or want, why am I repeating this information again?
  • Do I really need to include all this information in these tables, even if it does not apply to my system?
  • Is it relevant to find out how long they have been in business?

Consider this

  • The LMS market as it relates to online learning and web based training courses has been around for less than 13 years
  • 6 years is the average number of years in the industry
  • Many vendors are in the three or less years category

Financial data

Considering that 99% of the vendors are private companies, it is extremely unlikely you are going to see their books, let alone the financial data you want to know – i.e. debt load, cash on hand and any write downs.

They will tell you they are profitable or at least the percentage amount of revenue they generated for the year or quarter – uh, it is always going to be positive (plus).

Blast Away

I cannot tell you the number of times I have heard from end users and vendors (who receive them) the number of RFPs they send out.  One vendor told me that upon inquiring from the potential customer, 28 RFPs were sent.  28 vendors.

When you are blasting out that many RFPs or even 10, red flags raise up.

  • You did not do your due diligence about the vendor, but rather just looked at their web site
  • You most likely did not see a demo
  • That if you spoke with the vendor, it was a quick phone call and cursory information was provided on both ends – you and the vendor
  • You are price focused first and foremost, rather than system focused

Sure you want the best system that meets your learner’s needs, but at the end of the day, it has be the least expensive. I’m not saying that you should throw down 100K on a system that aligns with your learner’s needs, but there are a lot of very good systems out there, that charge less than 30K, even 15K a year.  Budgets are extremely important and should be followed, so yes, sometimes what you really want, compared to what you can afford, is the deciding factor.

Before sending out your RFPs, a simple question to the vendor when you speak to them on the phone, can solve this.

Just ask, “can you give me an estimate, based on what we discussed”? I have yet to find a vendor who won’t provide you with a rough estimate.

Once you have this information, it will enable you to select those vendors that align to your budget and to your needs.

How Many Vendors

Maximum five.

Let’s assume that you decide to blast out to 20 vendors. You receive 15 back. Your RFP is 25 pages in length. How much time can you afford to go through every page of each of those returned RFPs?

Time equals money. A demo will be your lifesaver in all this.

Demo Time!

Here is what I do when it comes to viewing a demo.

  • Open up my screen shot software, and prepare to capture windows or screens
  • Have a list of 20 key questions that I need answers to
  • Make sure I am the only person on the demo
  • When the demo starts and the person is telling you about the system, I  capture different screens – definitely front end and admin dashboard.  This will help me, when I go back and look at my notes and can visually see the product.

Most people see a lot of demos, and even with great notes, you cannot recall what every screen looked like related to that product. Now you can.

  • Ask a lot of questions. Remember no question is a stupid question. If they are technical, then have the salesperson find out that information, if they do not know
  • Ask follow-up questions, regardless of how long they scheduled the demo
  • Always ask them, if the demo you are seeing is the system you are looking at purchasing – i.e. the features you are seeing are the same features you are getting in the system you are looking at

Streamline the Process

When viewing your demo, I recommend using my apples to apples LMS template that is available for download.  It will enable you to write down information under the most common sections, such as learner paths or curriculum paths.

And Then

I review. I know very quickly whether this system has survived round one and is possibly moving into round two. How? Because I never view more than eight demos.

Most of the time, its five demos.  The final number of vendors who get my RFP is three.

My RFP consists of one page, a spreadsheet.

It contains additional information I am seeking – that I want more details then were provided in the demo.

After all, many demos are assigned 60 minutes by the vendor, so they can cover only so much, especially when you are asking questions.

The spreadsheet is made up of five columns

Column #1 – Questions. These can include “Do you offer an e-commerce system?” “Do you offer event management?”, “APIs?” “Multilingual” and so on.

Column #2 – Yes or No

Column #3 – Their comments to..

Column #4 – My additional questions for each initial question I posed. And I get very specific.


For the e-commerce question, my additional questions could be

  • What types of payment does your system accept? Does it accept debit cards? How many currencies can your system accept and which ones? Does your e-commerce come with a shopping cart? What types of e-commerce reports come with the system?
  • I explicitly state, under the column #4 – the first box before the initial list of follow-up questions (Please provide answers to all the questions and be specific)

For the mobile learning question – Initial – “Do you offer mobile learning?”

Additional questions in column #4

  • Is your system optimized to work on the iPad/iPad2? What about the Android OS? Blackberry tablets, Windows tablets?
  • What smartphones does your system work with?
  • If you do not offer mobile learning, when do you plan to? Will it include working on tablets?
  • If you offer m-learning, is it part of the system or do I have to pay an additional fee?

So for each box in column #4, I list my questions, using the “Alt & Shift key” at the same time, so it allows a 2nd line for each question, rather than just having all the questions in there.

Sure, you can flip it around so that column #3 – is your additional questions, and column #4 their responses.

The spreadsheet has an area, which includes pricing, implementation time

When I send the email, I include the following information

  • When the RFP is due, including the time (and I identify the time zone I am in – so there is no confusion)
  • I give two weeks, nothing more
  • I notify them, that they need to answer all the questions and provide additional details
  • I provide my contact info – email, phone number, skype. Ilet them know what is the best way to reach me

End Result

I often e-mail them follow up questions, and even after I receive back the RFP, email for additional questions – if upon review, they fit my needs.

When they provide pricing, I always contact them back and negotiate. I never take the initial price. To learn more about negotiating (view my “Contracts” article).

Bottom Line

For the vendors I do not select, I always send an email letting them know that they were not selected, and leave it at that. I do not explain why nor who else was being considered, rather I thank them for their time.

I expect the same from vendors who did not respond to my RFP.

They don’t have to explain why, but a polite, “thank you, however, we will not be pursing this opportunity”, is all it takes.

It only takes 30 seconds.  For you and for them.

Because in the end, it is all about time.

E-Learning 24/7

One comment

  1. Good list, as always. I used most of your techniques and learned a lot along the way. Thanks.

    If I may add:

    If the product is what you want but the first-call sales person is not, ask for someone else.

    When you are ready to say “yes,” ask for a conference with the person you will be working with once you sign.

    While tech solutions are terrifically important, the human side hasn’t diminished.

    Thanks, Craig.

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