7 Red Flags in your RFP that Send Vendors the Wrong Signals

If your RFPs aren’t attracting the vendor responses you hoped for, explore these 7 RFP red flags to discover why.

Are you getting ghosted by vendors when you send out a new RFP? If so, you’re not alone. As procurement teams adjust to the current supplier-centric landscape, the ability to build and maintain strong relationships gives your organisation a strategic advantage. Unfortunately, when it comes to finding new suppliers, your RFP may not be endearing you to the people behind the proposal.

Essentially, your RFP is your introduction to a vendor. As such, it should be a reflection of your organisation and convey your commitment to creating a mutually beneficial partnership. In addition, your RFP should be written in a way that supports your supplier experience management (SXM) efforts by removing friction and making it easy for your vendors to engage. Unfortunately, many proposal managers and consultants say the RFPs they answer (or don’t) are full of red flags that may give the impression that winning the business may not be worth it.

The top 7 RFP red flags according to proposal professionals

1. Inconsistent instructions

The vendors that receive your RFP and respond want to win your business. They’re happy to follow your instructions and ensure the proposal meets your requirements. Truly, they will do everything in their power to ensure compliance. However, they often can’t. 

One of the most frustrating things that proposal professionals regularly run into is conflicting instructions and requirements. For example, Ashley Kayes, a proposal consultant at Key Solutions, has more than once run into an RFP with very specific font requirements. Unfortunately, the required response template provided by the buyer doesn’t match the specifications. It leaves the vendor wondering — should they change the template or ignore the requirement? It feels like they can’t win. 

While font and format may seem minor, Lisa Rehurek, founder and CEO of the RFP Success® Company, who has answered hundreds of RFPs, echoes the sentiment. Consistency, clarity and attention to detail is a fairly easy way to make the lives of your vendors just a little easier.

From your cover letter and executive summary to your evaluation criteria and submission requirements, do your best to verify that everything matches. You’ll find that your vendors will welcome rigid requirements — as long as they don’t contradict each other.

2. Barring all communication

When a vendor notices competing requirements, should they reach out for clarification? According to some RFPs, all communication outside of the initial question and answer period is strictly prohibited. It’s understandable. Managing vendor communication is a handful, especially when there are dozens of vendors vying for your business. In addition, you’re trying to run a fair and transparent RFP so providing information to one vendor and not another isn’t okay either.

For the most part, your vendors aren’t reaching out to give you the hard sell or to gain an unfair advantage. They just want to provide a good proposal. So, while you need to protect the process, it’s beneficial to everyone to find some middle ground. Use your best judgement and respond if you can without influencing the process. And, if needed, provide your response to reasonable requests for clarification to the entire vendor pool — a practice that’s particularly important when a vendor points out an error or inconsistency.

3. Unrealistic RFP timelines

Creating a high-quality proposal takes time. So, when your vendors encounter an RFP timeline that seems a little off, it may create the impression that if they win the business they may regularly be asked to cut corners or face last minute requests that jeopardise work/life balance. In addition, your timeline will certainly be a consideration in the vendor’s decision to bid or not to bid.

There are a lot of people involved in creating an RFP response. Indeed, the proposal manager must coordinate with sales and marketing teams, subject matter experts from various departments and executives. They’ll do everything they can to create the best possible proposal in the time they’ve been given. But, they’re only human.

A few of the common time-related scenarios that vendors run into are:

  • Very-short turnarounds relative to the scope of the proposal
  • Question deadlines that are too close to the proposal submission date
  • RFPs that are released or due immediately before or after a holiday

Your vendors know that sometimes the RFP timeline is out of your hands. If you find yourself issuing an urgent request, consider an RFP lite approach and only ask a selection of questions that are crucial to your decision.

In short, when you write an RFP and establish the timeline, remember the proposal team. Will answering your RFP in the allowed time keep the proposal team working overtime and away from their families? If so, consider revising your RFP or your timeline.

4. Asking the wrong questions

Your suppliers are experts in their field. And, they’re eager to be a partner to your business and help you solve problems. In fact, they’re excited to offer you an efficient and innovative solution, if they just had the opportunity. Unfortunately, the questions in many RFPs make it clear you’ve already set your sights on a very specific solution — even if there’s a better one out there.

In some cases, this challenge is solved by issuing a request for information (RFI) as a precursor to your RFP. Unlike, with an RFP, an RFI makes no promises about a future purchase. Instead, you can simply gather information and ask open-ended questions about how a vendor would solve the problem you’re facing. Rather than adding time to your procurement process, an RFI can help you short-list the best vendors and narrow the scope of your RFP or even make it possible to use an RFP lite instead for a faster overall process.

5. Obvious, but (hopefully) unintentional bias

Psst … do you know your bias is showing? Your vendors know when you’re using one of their competitor’s RFP templates. You may not realise it, but your scope, questions, terminology and evaluation criteria are often a dead giveaway. And, it’s hugely discouraging for vendors. Indeed, it could be one of the big reasons you’re not getting enough RFP responses. 

Unintentional bias is sneaky. We all know how helpful RFP templates can be, and it’s likely that each of your vendors would be absolutely thrilled to provide you one — because it’s such a huge advantage. Not only does it give the vendor a head start on their response, but it allows them to subtly influence the RFP scope and your perception of the market. Vendors can make their unique strengths seem unrivaled and absolutely essential to success while downplaying their weaknesses.

6. Facing an entrenched incumbent or early favourite

If a vendor has been courting your business for years, naturally you’d expect them to eagerly engage when you issue a relevant RFP and include them. However, if you’re not transparent about your needs, you may only hear crickets back from them. 

It’s not uncommon for prospective vendors to already know (or suspect) which of their competitors you’re currently working with. Consequently, if your RFP is vague about your current solution and why you’re seeking alternatives, it makes them wary. Alternatively, Ashley Kayes notes that including overly restrictive past performance questionnaire requirements in your RFPs severely limits possible competition. This is particularly revealing when a contractor performance assessment report (CPAR) is available.

These things may send the signal that your RFP is unwinnable. For example, your vendors may wonder if you already made up your mind and are simply issuing the RFP to meet a three-bid minimum policy. Or, if you’re using the RFP process to gain leverage for negotiation with your current vendor with no intention of considering the new bids. Either option leaves the vendor feeling used if they participate in good faith only to find out later that they never really had a shot.

So, be as transparent as possible when providing your background and scope. It may also be helpful to adjust your evaluation criteria to give more weight to considerations that would sway you away from your current or preferred partner. Vendors are happy to compete, but give them enough information so they can provide an offer that will make you do a double take.

7. Not allowing a debrief

In any relationship, communication is essential. So, think of your RFP process as a tool for facilitating communication and initiating connections. Accordingly, vendors who create thoughtful proposals want your feedback — win or lose. 

If you specifically disallow RFP debriefs, it limits the supplier’s ability to improve and indicates a lack of transparency in your process. Furthermore, it discourages them from participating in the future. After all, they have no idea what they did wrong, so why would they spend time and resources trying again?

Allowing debriefs may seem risky, like inviting scrutiny and conflict. However, for the most part, vendors simply want to understand how they could improve. After all, they have to share the news with the team that helped create the proposal. Being the bearer of bad news is never fun, but your specific feedback can be encouraging, insightful and incredibly valuable. 

Ultimately, we’re all here to get a job done and vendors want to work with you. But, in the current market, they also have to be selective about how they spend their time and where they direct resources. Like all of us, suppliers want clear communication, mutual respect and a fair shot.

According to a white paper from HICX, viewing things from your vendor’s perspective should be central to your supplier experience management approach. So, as you build your next RFP, remember that there are actual people behind the proposal you’re asking for. By removing these red flags from your RFPs, you’ll reinforce your organisation’s desire to create successful partnerships and positive outcomes for all.

How do you ensure your RFPs garner a positive response from prospective partners? Post on social or comment below to share your insight and join the conversation.