How to Approach Your Request for Proposal (RFP) from Your Vendors

In addition to being curious about who we chose (and whom we didn’t choose), people wanted a copy of our request for proposal (RFP), to help guide their own vendor searches. Naturally, I thought, “What better topic for my next column?” So here is a description of the RFP that got the job done.

RFP Format

Like any resourceful, efficiency-minded employee, not having written an RFP before, I took someone else’s RFP and modified it. I stuck with the “outline” format of the original document, ending up with an RFP about 10 pages long, with the following main sections:

§  Purpose
§  Overview
§  RFP Response
§  Business Requirements
§  Technical Requirements
§  Support Requirements
§  Pricing and Costs
§  Summary

I solicited lots of advice. Why reinvent the wheel? The best advice I got was, instead of specifying what you need, let vendors tell you what their capabilities are. You do this by phrasing requirements as open-ended questions whenever possible. For example, instead of stating you need a maximum throughput of x million e-mails per month, you ask the vendor what their maximum e-mail throughput is.  If you state, “I need x million,” just about everyone will reply, “Yeah, we can do that.” If instead, you ask, “What’s your maximum e-mail throughput?” you’re likely to get a more thoughtful answer.

Introductory Sections

The first two sections of your RFP, Purpose, and Overview should be brief. The Purpose section is pretty straightforward: it’s a short description of the purpose of your RFP. You are requesting a proposal from multiple vendors for a possible service relationship. The Overview section briefly describes your company and how you currently handle the function you need to outsource (e.g., Do you have an existing e-mail host?).

The third section, RFP Response, should be more substantial. We ask that responses take the format of the RFP itself: an outline that answers every bullet (item for item). You should request that the response address the vendor’s product history, their implementation plan, the process for customizations, training, and, of course, supply customer references.

Business Requirements

Now we’re into the meat of the document. As this is an RFP for an e-mail delivery product, we asked vendors to provide information about their campaign management process. How do you choose a list? How do you filter out demographics, eliminate duplicate results, enter creative, send mailings? How do you get reports? What types of reports are available? Detailing these bullet points took up about a page and a half of the final document.

Consider the individual steps you take to get a mailing out. The vendor must address them all. At its simplest, first, you choose whom to send a message to. Second, you create your message. Third, you send it. Finally, you want reports on it. Your process is probably more complex than that.

Technical and Functional Requirements
The fifth section is perhaps the longest. In our final RFP it ran about three pages. This is where advice I received about asking open-ended questions really came in handy.

For technical requirements, we wanted to know what volume vendors could handle: maximum number of lists, maximum list size, maximum number of demographic details, and maximum number of e-mail messages sent per day. We also asked them to provide details on their profiling and demographic capabilities, any programmatic API interface to their system (so our developers could write scripts to automate campaign management if desired), what e-mail formats they supported (HTML, multi-part, etc.), what types of tracking they could do (open, click, etc.), and how the system handled e-mail distribution.

For functional requirements, we requested details on how vendors handled subscription management, customer service, abuse complaint resolution, and the other daily e-mail operations functions our team would need to handle. What are the functions you need to accomplish to get your mailings out, to add and remove people from your lists, and to deal with complaints? The vendor should make you feel comfortable on all of these points by addressing each of them.

Support Requirements

This section was pretty straightforward. What type of support do they provide via e-mail, telephone, etc.? Are there 24/7 beepers you can call? What’s the guaranteed minimum response time?

Pricing, Cost, and Deadline

Again, pretty straightforward. First, what format does the vendor use to price their system? CPM (cost per thousand names), flat fee? Second, the question we’ve all been waiting for—what’s their bid? Also, are there startup costs, additional support costs, costs for customizations, or other “hidden” costs? And of course at the very end, we provided vendors with a deadline for their proposals, and an e-mail address to submit them to.

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