How to Use the RFP Process to Select the Right Supplier
Graphic courtesy of istockphoto.com.
The request for proposal (RFP) is the key way most fleets get bids for products and services from OEMs to upfitters to fleet management companies and everything in between.
While an RFP is the key method to efficiently gather information for a bid, fleet managers need to make sure they are asking the right questions and getting the right information so they can make an informed decision to pick the right supplier.
There are a number of techniques that can be used to make sure that an RFP leads to a mutually beneficial outcome for the fleet and the supplier.
While there could be a temptation to put the onus of a successful RFP on the supplier, it is, in fact, incumbent on the fleet to ask the correct questions in the RFP.
To this end, fleets need to do their homework, which is a fundamental best practice for the RFP process, according to John Dmochowsky, senior global fleet manager for Mondelez International.
“The fleet does its homework on the front end by having a clear and standard template for all of the bidders,” he said. “And bring in all the cross-functional groups that touch fleet, because they’ll have a say. Establish a selection criteria and how you’re going to weight these factors. It’s important to establish these criteria at the beginning of the process. You have to invest in the hard work at the front end, to feel confident that you’re going in with best practices when you’re analyzing the bid.”
Erin Gilchrist, director of fleet operations for Safelite, said she commits to detailed research on the market and the suppliers ahead of issuing an RFP.
“We do extensive research on qualified/top-tier suppliers, reference checks, consult with industry partners who might help us to understand what other fleets are doing, who they use and why, what players we may have missed, etc.,” she said.
Of course, the level of research and homework depends on whether the supplier receiving the request is someone who has worked with the fleet or fleet manager in the past or if it is an organization “new” to the particular fleet.
“If the RFP involves a previous vendor or like vendors or if they’re a company we’ve dealt with before, research would be minimal — review their websites, read their annual report, etc.,” said Phil Samuelson, fleet and capital asset manager for USIC Locating Services, LLC.
Among the standard questions that fleets ask are related to operations and financials.
“Generally, the RFPs are divided into general questions — we’re trying to understand more about the company participating in the bid. And then there’s also financial questions — the company will provide financial statements for historical years — and then there’s questions regarding the business proposition and any required documentation that could surface from the RFP,” explained Dmochowsky.
Samuelson added that he takes a deep dive into the company in question to get a three-dimensional view of the bidder’s business health and effectiveness.
“We ask stability questions covering the past five years or so — mergers, acquisitions, financial growth, etc. We ask employee retention questions — turnover rates, reductions in labor, etc. We ask customer retention questions — growth/retention, customer losses, etc.,” he said.
Gilchrist described other standard questions beyond financials she asks of bidders.
“We have questions and requirements written around product quality, timing, delivery, pricing, service, and strategic partnerships if/when appropriate,” she said.
While an RFP may be thorough and clear cut, questions may arise during the process, which need to be addressed.
Chad Fay, vice president, fleet and supply chain for Centuri Construction Group, even builds the ability to ask questions into the RFP process.
“There is a date in every RFP in which all bidders’ questions are due to us,” he said. “We then answer all questions via e-mail, and all answers are sent to all bidders, not just the bidders who have specifically asked the questions.”
Dmochowsky, who also sends questions to all bidders, sees this as a way to keep the RFP process completely fair.
“I think it’s in the spirit of transparency as far as the size and the scope of the bid, and your goal is to keep everyone on the same level playing field and this is one way to do that,” he said.
Once the completed RFPs are received, then the hard work of reviewing begins.
Following directions, answering questions thoroughly, and returning the RFP on time are crucial for the process and the bidders’ chances of being considered.
“A bidder that answers all the questions and follows all of the instructions with the RFP, tends to have more of an opportunity than those who have issues responding or following instructions from a synergy perspective,” said Dmochowsky of Mondelez International.
For Fay of Centuri not only will not following the guidelines knock a bidder out of contention for the contract, but so will other factors.
“Immediate elimination of a bidder will happen any time a potential vendor does something unethical,” he said. “They are also immediately eliminated if we see they cannot meet the basic requirements.”
While answering the RFP thoroughly and on time is an important first step and indicative of a bidder’s commitment to the project and its overall professionalism, there is more to being successful in winning the business. This is the point when thoroughness on the front end of the process yields dividends.
“We look for best value, and best match to our needs, which varies for each RFP, depending on stakeholder wants and needs,” explained Fay. “We look for apples-to-apples comparisons to make our score carding and our analysis clear and objective. A bidder stands out once we start analyzing the information through weighted scoring analysis. The weights are always discussed with stakeholders before the RFP is issued, so weights are based on needs.”
Developing weighted scoring analysis is one of Centuri’s best practices when setting up an RFP.
For Samuelson of USIC, best practices also go back to doing your homework first.
“We bid the right folks up front, and don’t get lost in minute details,” he said.“We also quickly determine and ensure that frontrunners are capable of handling our business needs.”
As with Dmochowsky of Mondelez International, Gilchrist of Safelite works closely with company stakeholders throughout the RFP process.
While every bidder has an equal shot at Safelite’s business (unless they haven’t completed the RFP correctly), there are ways bidders can stand out, according Gilchrist.
“Thorough and timely answers to the issued bid, outside the box ideas on how they might enhance the offer, and partnership elements can help them stand out,” she said.
While price and quality are key elements of any RFP, particularly with the ongoing pressures on fleet managers to control costs, and the fact there are many suppliers operating in the fleet space that can get the job done, how can fleets tell if a supplier is right as opposed to just adequate?
For Gilchrist of Safelite, the answer is clear.
“While pricing, quality, service, etc. are important, we are looking for a fit,” she said. “We’re looking to work with organizations with the same or similar values, those who are looking for long-term partnerships based on trust, and organizations whose corporate culture is aligned with ours.”
Samuelson of USIC also wants to work suppliers that are a cultural fit. There are other qualities he values as well in finding the right supplier.
“What are they doing to stay competitive among their peers, always looking for technological and innovative growth,” he said.
For Fay of Centuri, the answer could be summed up broadly as “it depends,” but is closely related to the specifics of the project or service that is being bid.
“Each situation is unique, so we could be looking for a very specific diversity rating, ability to work in specific regions, total value, IT abilities, and any other heavily weighted factors important to the stakeholders and leaders involved in the RFP,” he said.
Dmochowsky of Mondelez International sees choosing the right supplier as having four components.
“There is always the cost component that everybody is looking into, or the quality component that everyone is looking into, but then there’s also the innovation and assurance of supply are critical when making a selection, so between cost, quality, and innovation — which falls into cost savings as well, such as reducing accident costs, etc. — and you have to make sure that there’s going to be the assurance of supply there. It’s a collaborative process that’s determined by a number of variables,” he said. “You put a lot of work in the front end, so the integrity of the numbers is substantiated. That is critical, because if they’re not then there could be a component of your process that is going to work against you.”
Having a highly developed RFP process, involving company stakeholders at all levels who touch fleet, and clear criteria for bidders is the tried and true and successful method for issuing and analyzing a request for proposal. But is there ever a time when “going with your gut” is another tool to be used in making a decision on an RFP?
The answer depends on who you ask.
“Our collaborative approach allows for open discussion that would uncover or expose any gut reactions,” said Gilchrist of Safelite. “We would then vet these out and make informed decisions. But, yes, gut reactions would certainly be considered.”
For Samuelson of USIC, gut reactions are tied more to whether there is a pre-existing relationship with the supplier.
“It’s especially if they’ve been a good partner and the RFP is more based on requirement than need; that kind of ‘keep everyone honest’ RFP,” he said. “It’s not to say that you can overlook issues with fees and services, but you might make up more in not having to re-train or mesh new cultures.”
Dmochowsky doesn’t see a gut reaction even entering the RFP equation for a very specific reason.
“When you talk about the gut reaction to the bid, I’d say we don’t have gut reactions to a bid because of the time we invested on the front end to follow an established process,” he said. “Is this established process set in stone each time we go out to bid? No, but the base is set in stone, because you’re dealing with total cost of ownership, with product, safety ratings, and you have your criteria, and those criteria based off of your values and principles aren’t going to change, so, no, there isn’t a gut reaction to a bid as it pertains to the bid — not in my experience.”
While many fleets follow the same overall processes when issuing an RFP, some have added elements that give it a new dimension.
Though not unique, as part of its RFP process, DISH has added a piloting component that eliminates surprises and aids in making the addition of new products to the fleet go relatively smoothly.
Depending on the relationship with the vendor — whether DISH Fleet and Administration Manager Abe Stephenson knows or has worked with the company — determines if a typical RFP process is followed or a less formal process is used.
“For example when we were starting on implementing propane in our fleet, we were sending out bids to onsite fuel providers. That was all new territory for us — we had never had onsite fueling before, never had propane systems before, so we did your typical RFP process,” Stephenson said. “I engaged our procurement teams, and we have some canned documents and different things we do to collect data from these companies. I had no relationships with these companies before, and I used procurement to execute the mechanics of that, and ended up using the information that they got and made the decision ourselves in operations, it wasn’t a procurement decision. They did help administer the process, but we ended up making the final call of which vendor to choose. That is not as common for us. At this point, several years of working at DISH, supporting the fleet, and a lot of things that we do these days whether we change an upfitter or a vehicle manufacturer we typically have some familiarity with the products overall.”
The RFP process for a company that Stephenson may already have a relationship with may involve a more hands-on approach for the bidder. For example, an upfitter may be required to design an upfit for one of DISH’s existing vehicles.
“Either they do a 3D schematic spec on a computer or we give them a vehicle to play around with and put the upfitting on, but basically it’s a tangible process that we do with them, and, at the same time, behind the scenes you can get pricing and quotes on the various products and that’s easy to do,” he said. “But I’ll consider a couple of things. Their engineering team has to go out and design a couple of 3D schematics or I’ll give them an extra question or two to design a schematic to kind of test their ability to design some products for us, and they come back with the physical product and it very much helps if they have a vehicle to play around with whether it’s one of theirs or one of ours. And the process can include having them visit us on site, or us going to their engineering facilities and talking with their engineers and their sales team onsite in real time.”
Once — again, for example — an upfitter receives the contract, Stephenson begins the piloting process. Stephenson will put five or 10 or 100 products in the field and get feedback from managers and technicians.
“We do a whole hands-on feedback loop, what I call ‘tech to exec’ where you have all sorts of people engaged at all levels within our business within our In Home Services operations business, so it’s not just us working in a silo deciding what people should use,” he said. “We use constant feedback loops when we’re designing these things to begin with, but once we have a tangible product we always consider it a pilot project, and we get feedback about ‘do we like it’ and if we don’t do we make certain changes and then do we like it, and that’s very different than any paper RFP process. It’s hands on, eyes on, lots of piloting, and then we’ll move on to scale.”
Stephenson said that the process is a little different with a vehicle, because there tends to be fewer specs to choose from, nevertheless, piloting is part and parcel of the process.
“With vehicles it typically follows more of your traditional RFP mechanics — give me the pricing, negotiate the discounts, and we’ll use our fleet management company if they can to provide lifecycle costs projections, such as tires, brakes, or maintenance, to give it a little more flavor. If it’s a new vehicle type, they may not have that history,” he said. “You still need to pilot the vehicles. We’re very diligent in the preparation process, so when it’s time to execute and you’re spending money I’ve gotten everybody’s skin in the game. Again it’s the tech to exec — we’re getting everybody’s sign off during this process.”