6 Questions That Should be in Every RFP

Kristin Shevis, SVP Sales and Services at Conversocial
Kristin Shevis, SVP Sales and Services at Conversocial

Kristin Shevis is SVP Sales and Services at Conversocial, a leading cloud-based social customer service solution. This piece originally ran here.

It is common practice for large companies and government agencies to issue an RFP (Request for Proposal) when they are evaluating new software/technology platforms or changing existing applications. RFP’s come in many shapes and sizes, and usually require vendors to answer questions related to requirements and provide pricing in a format that lends itself to easy comparison between responders.  Having been through at least a hundred of these in my career (and many recently), it is interesting to note the questions that are NOT included in this process, but should be. Here are 6 suggestions:

  1. Please list the top 5 customers who have been with you the longest and the duration of your relationship? Before asking for references, which can often bombard a vendor’s existing customers with requests, ask who are the customers with the longest standing relationships. It’s still possible to arrange a reference call, but most RFP’s request 3 reference calls, which can be cumbersome, especially when there are multiple RFP’s in play at once. Potential customers issuing an RFP should respect that when they become a customer, they would not like to be asked constantly to serve as a reference. There is huge value in reference calls, they just need to be streamlined. Existing case studies, and an understanding of existing relationships can complement a formal reference call. Here is an example of a great podcast that discusses how one of our APAC customers, BerryBenka engages with customers and handles huge volumes via the Conversocial platform, Focus on Customer Service: BerryBenka.
  2. Give an example of one time there was a major unexpected problem with your application, describe the impact, and how you resolved it? We’re in tech, there are always unexpected situations that arise. Along with negotiating SLA’s to make sure that uptime and response times are met, it is useful to ask for an example (s) of a situation and how it was handled. Software companies cannot maintain multiple SLA’s for hundreds of different customers (which is often the ask when changes are requested during the review of standard SLA’s), so to ensure confidence, asking for a specific example(s) can help provide more context of how a company will react as a partner in times of unexpected crisis.
  3. Please provide examples of industry awards that your customers have won or quotes/comments that they’ve made publicly about your working relationship.  A true sign as to how impactful a software partner can be is to assess how its customers are recognized in their space. For example, Conversocial (my employer) is in the digital customer care space and we are really excited about the amount of recognition our customers receive. Just this month, Dollar Shave Club received an award for excellence in social customer service at Frost & Sullivan conference. Earlier this year Hyatt was recognized in  Mary Meeker’s KPCB 2016 Internet Trends report (slide 104) related to their use of Facebook Messenger for social customer service, and finally Alaska Airlines has received the JD Power award for excellence in customer service many times and has been recognized as the fastest to respond on Twitter amongst its airline peers, as well as first for overall eValue score on social media. Furthermore, nothing is more rewarding than a public thank you, and we have many of these as well:
  • 4. What would you expect of us if we were to become a customer? We’re entering into a partnership, it’s fair to expect some commitment on both sides. This is where a vendor can establish how the working relationship will be, ie both sides should have some commitment to success aligned with agreed upon business objectives. It’s better to know going in what the expectations will be in terms of cadence of communication, escalations, etc. and it this is an opportunity for vendors to differentiate and establish rules of engagement in a partnership.
  • 5. How does your exec team and company represent the space you’re in? Ie do you practice what you preach and how would you describe how your company is leading the industry/space you are in and what strategic partnerships exists to support this? We are a social enterprise company. It’s telling whether the CEO and exec team are active on social channels. Our CEO, Josh March is called upon frequently as an expert in social care and social media in general. Here is an example where Josh is quoted on CNBC on November 1, 2016 in discussing Facebook’s earnings and another recent example where he also appears on Bloomberg related to Twitter’s earnings:

6. Replace Y/N with a numerical scale:  If a list of functional requirements is necessary, the Y/N format should be replaced with, on a scale of 1-10, how well do you meet this requirement. Not all Yeses are equal. Having a scale would provide a much truer comparison of responses vs. a simple yes or no.

A final ask to customers: Please read our responses.  Many vendors put a considerable amount of effort into creating a response to an RFP. There have been situations where companies have requested on site presentations from every vendor involved in responding to the RFP, but have not read the responses before the in-person meeting, even though they’ve flown the team out. This is a waste of everyone’s time. Similarly, let’s wait to negotiate pricing until there is a short list vs. having a bidding process before there is a determination of which software solutions are the right fit.

The bar is absolutely set during the RFP process and there needs to be respect on both sides. Vendors need to be thoughtful, prepared, qualified, and engage in a professional and grateful manner during the process. Lizette Tucker, provides some excellent tips in her recent post, The RFP Process: Vendors, Whatever You Do, Don’t Do That!  I’d welcome thoughts and comments on what has worked best and what else is missing to make the RFP process a better and more efficient experience for both the customer and the vendor.