12 Tips for Better RFPs

Although more and more districts are using requests for proposals (RFPs) instead of bids for technology purchases, RFPs are still seen as cumbersome and time consuming.

But there are strategies to manage the RFP process and make it more efficient, according to vendors and districts that have successfully been through it. Rob Chambers, IT director for the 5,000-student K–8 Rosedale Union School District in Bakersfield, California, and Kathy Thomas, manager of education strategy for Dell, have the following suggestions.

Answer the important questions.
Thomas says there are three critical things a district should know before putting together an RFP:

  • What are the educational goals of the technology?
  • How will the technology help the district meet those goals?
  • How will the district evaluate the technology’s success?

Do your research—and don’t rush it.
In 2005, Rosedale did an RFP for a three-year contract to purchase copying and duplicating equipment. Chambers had to get up to speed on the rapidly changing technology first, though. That involved about 10 one-hour meetings with vendors and 30 to 40 hours of research over a six-month period.

Involve stakeholders early on.
When Rosedale was figuring out what equipment it needed, Chambers talked to the administrative staff and teachers who would be doing the copying and duplicating. He held a couple of formal meetings to elicit their input but also had plenty of informal conversations while traveling around the district on other business.

“You have to make sure those who are involved with [the equipment] day to day are involved in helping to set up the specs,” he says.

Address general needs rather than specific equipment.
To give the vendor room to maneuver, Chambers says that while he states desired outcomes, he resists the tendency to write overly detailed specs when writing RFPs.

“What that allows the vendors to do is come in with more creative solutions,” he says.

With the copying and duplicating equipment, for example, Rosedale specified numbers of machines and copy volume, but let the vendor suggest the machine speed.

Make sure the RFP reflects the whole picture.
Consider everything that might be needed to get the most out of a technology purchase, and include that in the RFP. That might mean software, training, support services, and information portals to go along with hardware, Thomas says.

Ask questions.
Build in time for presentations from your top vendors, with a Q&A session. This is one of the most valuable steps.

“Set aside the time to ask them questions when they’re standing in front of you,” Thomas advises. “Meet them, because this could be the team you will be working with.”

And don’t be afraid to ask vendors about what has worked for other districts—and also for references.

Involve other school districts.
Rosedale talked to neighboring districts during the copying and duplicating equipment negotiations to gauge their interest in making similar purchases.

With that information in hand, the final proposal Rosedale received from vendors had an option for other districts to piggyback on it. That made everyone happy; it resulted in a better deal for Rosedale—with an estimated savings of tens of thousands of dollars over the course of the contract—and the vendor gained four additional districts as customers, too.

Be willing to negotiate.
Avoid spelling out terms and conditions ahead of time. The specifics will inevitably be negotiated at the end of the process anyway.

Outline realistic deadlines for the vendor.
Allow three weeks to a month for a vendor to put together a thorough response to an RFP, says Thomas.

Be concise.
Dell sees 100-page RFPs. Better to keep it to 15 pages. And remember your high school English teachers’ advice: Avoid repetition.

Make documents user-friendly.
Districts get focused on the long-term outcome and sometimes skip steps that could lead to a straightforward and easy-to-follow document, Thomas says. She suggests numbering pages for easy reference; including a simple reference guide to documents with multiple pages; and using forms designed to compare multiple vendors.

Work in cyberspace when possible.
E-mail the documents to the vendor, and allow the vendor to respond in the same way. A “huge number” of districts send hard copies of RFPs, according to Thomas.

E-mail, or even fax, is better. “It’s so much more expedient to do business by e-mail or fax rather than snail mail,” she says.

Sheila Riley is a San Francisco–based freelancer who also writes for EE Times and Investor’s Business Daily.