Just say “No” to sending out an RFP

In my many years working as a Pre-sales engineer for a variety of enterprise software companies the single biggest waste of my time and effort was answering a request-for-proposal (Yes, the dreaded RFP). I am so jaded from my past experiences with RFPs that I strongly encourage my portfolio companies to refrain from the practice of issuing them entirely. “Why?” you ask. Because your garden variety RFP is an unnecessary step comprised of useless information.

On the one side of things you have an enormous list of unprioritized questions put forth by the buyer. It represents a complete superset of every possible feature and function by every single solitary employee of the company from the CEO on down to the second shift janitor. Everyone wants to have their say in the process, but in most cases their feedback is a waste of time. You end up asking a bunch of questions that having no actual bearing on your business. For example:

“Does your software run on Windows 95, Windows XP, Windows 7, Windows 8, Mac OS X, Red Hat Linux, Debian Linux, Solaris, IBM eSeries?”

Really? Do you really need to run the software on all of those platforms? I SERIOUSLY doubt it. A subset of skilled professionals can whittle down a set of products to very short list of best-fit solutions with nothing more than a very concise list of requirements put down in order of priority. If you must ask, do it that way. Period.

On the other side of the equation you have the vendor. As a former representative for a number of vendors I am uniquely qualified to let you in on a little secret. And here it is. As a pre-sales engineer for EVERY vendor that I ever worked for, my job was to figure out a way to answer “YES” to every single question on an RFP — regardless of how much I had to stretch the truth to do so. Here’s an example:

“Does your software run on Windows 95, Windows XP, Windows 7, Windows 8, Mac OS X, Red Hat Linux, Debian Linux, Solaris, IBM eSeries?”

“Yes, by running Parallels or VMWare you can run our software on Windows 95, Windows XP, Windows 7, Windows 8, Mac OS X, Red Hat Linux, Debian Linux, Solaris, and IBM eSeries.”

What this means is that you can install Parallels and a copy of Windows and then run the software under Windows 7. So the real answer is “No, we do not run on all of these platforms, we only run on Windows 7.” I wasn’t lying in my answer, but I was certainly massaging the truth. Every single RPF is RIDDLED with weasly answers just like this.

And why is that, you ask? It’s because the RFP itself is riddled with a million questions that may or may not be critical to the success of the product in your environment. If you are going to ask me a bunch of inane questions that may or may not mean anything then I am going to turn around and give you back a bunch of vaguely worded answers that allow me to answer “YES” to every question. As a rep, my goal is to get past the RFP stage and into the face-to-face meeting stage where the REAL selling can begin. Government agencies and purchasing agents at large companies are the kings of issuing RFPs. And this is EXACTLY why I like working with middle-market companies on the buy side of the equation.

Let’s say that you are a company with $55 million in sales and $10 million of EBITDA looking to move off of QuickBooks and onto a bigger and new accounting platform. Do you really think that you are going to make a better buying decision by putting together a 500-question RFP and sending it out to every accounting software vendor that comes up when you Google “accounting software”? You won’t.

Get a small team of people led by your CFO in a room and put together a short list of requirements in priority order:

– What platform do you want to run it on? (SAAS? On premises? Windows? Linux?)
– What Accounting functions do you need to support (G/L, A/R, A/P, Purchasing, Invoicing)?
– Budget — how much do you have to spend on licenses and implementation?
– Lists of any unique functions/features.

For example, maybe you need to support both English and simplified Chinese for data entry. You can get the whole thing down to a few simple sheets of paper. With some simple Googling and conversation amongst your team you’ll come up with a list of 3-4 likely candidates in no time. Call up the vendors, get a demo, and ask to SEE them demonstrate the few unique requirements that are specific to your situation. Get multiple quotes and talk to some references. Pick one and negotiate a deal. I guarantee you that these steps will work better and faster than any RFP-based process — and you will save yourself a TON of time.