Are your RFPs getting you the responses you want?

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A few simple decisions can deliver precise
answers, yet still provide tools for practical evaluation

By Matt Schroeder

Director of Marketing, ETA Transit Systems

Let us address the elephant in the room and say that nobody loves RFPs.

In fact, in 2018, when we asked transit agencies across the country about the RFP process, ‘preparation’ of documentation ranked as the biggest headache, and ‘comparing offerings’ tallied as the most significant source of stress. In 2016, 77.6 percent of respondents said that the procurement process took at least six months from start to completion.

That is a considerable chunk of time to spend dialing in your requirements, hiring a consulting firm to research needs, polling stakeholders to achieve consensus, and ultimately drafting the final documentation. Add to that responding to questions, chasing down answers, and writing and issuing addenda; it is a massive train on an agency that likely faces workforce and resource shortages.

If it makes you feel any better, transit technology providers do not relish the process of preparing our responses, either. It’s every bit as cumbersome as the agency side of the coin.

This blog is not about sharing gripes, but instead providing a roadmap for RFP creation that helps both sides deliver the exact answers you need to make an informed choice.

#1 Use industry-standard terminology

Using the right terms and phrases would seem to be a straightforward recommendation. However, one would be surprised at just how often an RFP includes made-up terms and acronyms. It makes it challenging to respond to criteria if it isn’t precisely clear how to define the request. The Federal Transit Administration NTD Glossary or American Public Transit Association’s Transit Glossary (800k PDF download) are good reference sources to ensure that you are asking what you think you’re asking.

#2 Organization is critical

Clutter, repetition, and vagueness are three items that make it very difficult to respond to a proposal. Help a potential partner identify and read your document by providing the background information and resources needed to understand the problem, choose which solutions best address the request, and deliver a response that is equally focused and precise.

As referenced in an earlier article titled “3 tips to build a right-sized transit spec,” it is not uncommon for an agency to search the Internet and lift pieces and parts from sample RFP sources draft their document. The result is often a confusing mix of terminology, requirements, and legalese that adds to the complexity of interpreting response.  The more precise your RFP’s organization, the better it is for vendors to assess whether their solution will be a good fit for your situation.

You want your evaluation to be simple and straightforward. Make sure the structure you use is just as precise as easy to follow. A recommended format for RFP preparation is as follows:

  1. Introduction: Tell potential respondents about your transit operation, its history, and the situation. Please include information about the stakeholders of the project and who will be making the decisions.

  2. Objectives: Describe the challenges you face and the problems you wish to solve in clear language. Bullet points and prioritized lists are a fantastic way to help vendors sort priority items from optional features.

  3. Resources: In this section, provide substantive responses to:
    • Number of vehicles
    • Make/model of vehicles
    • Installed hardware, including manufacturers/part numbers
    • Personnel who will be the point of contact for different areas (e.g., finance, contracts, maintenance, leadership, etc.)
    • Budget (be as specific as possible)
    • Installation location
    • Number of vehicles available for installation at any given time

  4. Scope: Clearly define each deliverable you want as part of this solution. Include every specification, feature, and the way you intend to use it to deliver upon your objective. A properly-designed compliance matrix is an excellent tool for making it easy to define needs and assess the merits of a solution (more on that later).

  5. Submission requirements: If you have a specific sequence that you wish your proposal to follow, state it here. If you want to learn about the company first, make that known. If your preference is to jump right into a solution, say so. The advice here is to group your requirements by topic logically; do not spread them out. A suggested sequence might look similar to the following:

    1. Statement of intent

    2. About the vendor
      • Mission
      • History
      • Leadership team and organization chart
      • Customer references

    3. Solution
      • Overview
      • Compliance matrix
      • Hardware information
      • Software information

    4. Implementation
      • Project team
      • Strategy for deployment
      • Timeline for deployment
      • Requirements of agency in the process

    5. Warranty and support
      • Define the terms of the warranty
      • Define how to request support
      • Service Level Agreement

    6. Price proposal

    7. Required forms
      • Add the forms required for this procurement (e.g., Buy America, DBE certification, lobbying, etc.)
      • Sample contract

#3 Provide enough time to respond

Just as it takes months for an agency to prepare a proposal, it takes a significant period for vendors to reply to one. A good rule of thumb would be to provide at least 6 to 12 weeks from the date an RFP hits the street to the time vendor responses are due. That should provide enough time for a provider to provide a proposal that delivers the clarity you need to support such a large expenditure.

#4 Remove page limits

A recent trend has been to limit proposal responses to a page count, sometimes a ridiculously low count like 20 or 30 pages. The argument for a page count is to help an agency evaluate proposals, with the idea that ‘if you can’t sell your solution in X pages, you cannot make a persuasive case.’

With all due respect to that argument, the stage for an elevator pitch is before an RFP hits the street. At this stage, you want an in-depth, under-the-hood evaluation of a solution because hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars are at stake. Details help, forced brevity does not.

A page limit can impact the ability of a vendor to supply enough information to address the requirements dictated in the project scope. The result is that details are left out, complex topics are unnecessarily streamlined, and valuable resources like screen images and hardware specifications are omitted to meet an arbitrary page limit.

If you must set a limit, be reasonable. Look at a ceiling of 100–150 pages. Yes, it’s a lot to read, but within those pages lies the information you need to make an informed choice. If you structure your submission correctly, ease of evaluation will follow.

#5 Compliance matrix to simplify evaluation

Hands down, a compliance matrix is your best tool to evaluate the merits of a solution. The key to a useful compliance matrix is to set specific measures that a vendor must answer. Many RFPs that come across ETA’s desk either lack this resource entirely or implement it very poorly.  Include one in your RFP, and you immediately streamline both a vendor’s understanding of a project and streamline your ability to assess their solution.

Considerations for a useful compliance matrix:

  • RFP Language: For purposes of clarity, please refer to the following for language contained in this RFP:

    • Must/Shall: When the words ‘must’ or ‘shall’ are used in this document, it means that the component is a required feature of the proposed system.

    • Should/May: When the words ‘should’ or ‘may’ are used in this document, it means that the component is a desired feature of the system.

  • Compliance code: Require a vendor to specify on a scale of one to six whether a feature or function is currently available and what state of development it resides. This ranking helps you determine whether the solution is transit-tested, has just been released, or is vaporware.

    • Proven functionality: This functionality exists and has been in revenue service with multiple transit agencies for at least one year.

    • New functionality: This functionality exists now but has not been deployed to multiple customers for more than one year.

    • Planned functionality (available before ‘go live’ date): This functionality will be provided before this project’s ‘go live’ date at no additional cost.

    • Planned functionality (available after ‘go live’ date):  This functionality will be provided after this project’s go-live date at no additional cost.

    • Not available:  This functionality will not or cannot be delivered as part of this project.

  • Can demo: This column asks a vendor if a system or component is ready for prime time and can be demonstrated to your team. This question is especially useful if you need to evaluate user experience and gauge whether a system is easy to use or convoluted.

You may download a sample spreadsheet template of a recommended compliance matrix here, or reference the image below and create your own.

Keep a clean, logical flow to your compliance matrix, and press potential vendors to respond with specific answers.

A properly executed matrix quickly and efficiently allows a transit agency to evaluate whether a potential solution will satisfy its goals. This approach streamlines the review process by eschewing those responses that do not meet a threshold of compliance and allows stakeholders to conduct in-depth evaluations of only the systems most likely to satisfy your project’s objectives.

Other tips:

  • DO provide your RFP to potential vendors in a PDF form.

  • DO NOT print your RFP to paper and then scan it to a PDF. Doing so makes it harder to search for key topics or edit forms.

  • DO provide Excel or Word documents for any custom pricing forms.

  • DO size your spreadsheets to be legible/printable at US Letter size.

  • DO allow for digital submission, including sharable links from Dropbox or other file sharing services.

  • Do use bullets to identify essential concepts and deliverables.

  • AVOID providing a custom pricing forms for vendors to complete as part of your RFP. While it may seem intuitive to you— the customer—to do so as a means of ‘forcing’ an apples-to-apples comparison for your evaluation, the practice can actually obscure the the true picture of the quotation. A vendor will typically construct a quote document that would reflects the logical breakdown of their solution. It is better to review a full quote and ask questions, than force a format and wonder later if your form actually captured everything you need to know. At the very least allow them to provide their own pricing documents as a supplement to your preferred structure.

The RFP creation and evaluation process can be troublesome, but if a logical approach and sound strategies inform the type of responses you seek, then it need not be such a cumbersome effort. You could even find the process more enjoyable since you can spend less time focusing on the task and more time anticipating the results.

Good luck!

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