I was talking to a prospective customer the other day who shared that they had created an extensive RFP for CRM implementation services and sent it out to multiple service providers, and not a single one responded. Not a peep! I thought this was worth exploring further.
The RFP Legacy
RFPs have been around for a very long time and have not changed much in all that time. It starts with wrong assumptions on all sides. The assumption by the RFP creator is that all vendors desperately want their business. The receivers assume that the lowest price is the only “real” criterion to win the job.
The RFP Game
There are many sectors where RFPs are the norm, government, for example. The vendors in that arena have no option but to respond, and they have been responding for years. Step one: find every possible loophole that can be exploited in a response. The slightest vagueness, or even a misplaced comma, creates an opportunity to respond in such a way that almost guarantees future change orders.
And once you are under contract, your leverage in negotiating change orders is very weak. Am I saying responders will be dishonest? I’m saying that you set the rules when you sent off the RPF, and you have to live with them. Your RFP says to the recipients that there is competition, and competition brings out the ugliest side of any business.
Your respondents will absolutely have way more experience responding to RFPs than you have in writing them. For CRM, for example, your responders also know a hell of a lot more about CRM than you do, this likely being the first CRM RPF you have ever written. You can search for “How to write a CRM RFP?”, or “Template for CRM RFP”, or “RFP for Dynamics 365”, or similar and what you will find are a lot of RFP examples that failed to generate responses.
With CRM in particular, we have all heard the nightmare stories of implementations gone wrong, most of which started with an RFP for services.
RFPs for CRM
CRM systems have always been unwieldy beasts that morph left and right over time. CRM Providers, like Microsoft, Salesforce, etc., have been in a never-ending competitive battle, and their weapon of choice is the feature cannon. Microsoft, in particular, has lined up an array of feature cannons firing as fast as they can reload. How can you even know what to ask for in an RFP in this environment?
There are over 600 thousand Microsoft partners, and only a tiny fraction of those even offer CRM Implementation Services and of those, an even smaller number have been watching the feature cannons closely and are up-to-speed. How do you plan to find these people to send your RFP to? This sub-subset of partners is also highly sought after and would likely not even respond to your RFP. So who would? Desperate partners who are not very good.
So, how do you write an RFP and not get screwed?
First, don’t call it an RFP. Call it something like “Seeking Expressions of Interest” or something like that. At least it won’t get immediately deleted. Most of the RFPs I have seen in my long career were loaded with legal jargon; an RFP is not a contract. In fact, most RFPs include legalese saying precisely that! Delete all of it. You will end up negotiating an agreement with whoever you move forward with, and that will actually govern the relationship. When an RFP is full of legal terms, it says to the recipient, “we will be a pain in the ass”, and goes in the circular file.
Don’t write about “how” to do anything because you don’t know how anything is done. Don’t require this feature or that extension because, again, you don’t know what those are. Instead, describe the business challenges you are trying to solve. This you should know very well!
Don’t ask for prices! Pricing is irrelevant at this point and will be a guess anyway. Prices will be all over the place from people hoping to lowball their way into a conversation and later adjusting the price as they learned “details” that were not mentioned, or they will be crazy high because they have been padded for the unknown.
Competition is an excellent way to shop for a car. The model and features are known, so you shop the dealers and buy from the one who gives you the best price… the outcome will be an identical car. I’m glad your service department is so much better; I’ll buy it from the other dealer and bring it here for service. Car dealers are used to competition and have no choice. CRM partners, particularly in that sub-subset you really want to work with, do not like competing. If your project is a real “unicorn,” they might still pursue it, but regardless of what you might think, your project is most likely “garden-variety”.
In most of our projects, we were the only partner the customer talked to… or were we? I know I am persuasive and knowledgeable, but to move forward with me with no concept of whether the costs I tossed out were crazy high? It would be safe to assume that at least one other partner was talked to, and I would prefer that as your confidence in me will be better grounded.
But don’t tell me about it. Again, this isn’t a car, and telling me that you are also talking to so-and-so telegraphs that you are trying to manipulate me to change my price or something. And, unless you are a unicorn, and you’re not, more than likely, I will disengage and move on to the next customer. It’s not arrogance; it’s efficiency.
My best recommendation for a successful CRM implementation is first to find that sub-subset that actually knows the product best. You don’t want to be the client that someone “learns” on. How you do that is up to you, you might start with MVPs, but that is not a guarantee. Then, go to their websites and check them out. Is CRM a focus or a sideline?
Identify appropriate-sized firms; if you have less than 200 users, the big firms will not have much interest, and if you have more than 10,000 users, the smaller firms may not have the capacity. Identify 3 or 4 firms; more than that is just extra work.
Next, even though I suggested “Seeking Expressions of Interest” as an alternative to RFP, I would not even do that. Instead, I would write an individual personal email: “We are looking for a CRM Implementation partner and found your firm in our research. We would like to schedule some time to talk with you about our needs“. I would respond to that! There is no need for these firms to know that you are speaking with anybody else; it’s none of their business unless you bring it up.
Before the call, send them a list of your challenges and the current solutions you use to address them. This list should also be in the body of an individually addressed email (not an attachment).
On the actual call, let them talk! I have been on initial customer calls where I only got to say three words. Get past the bragging section quickly and onto “what are your thoughts about our challenges“. Again, let them talk! Your goal is not to be heard but to hear what they say. Do they seem like they understand your challenges? Do they seem like they know what they are talking about? Do they seem like they would be enjoyable to work with? Later, when the project is underway, you will appreciate that these three things were the only ones that mattered.
In four calls of no more than an hour each, you should be able to narrow it down to no more than two. Ask these two to send you a proposal for what they suggest as the best path. Pick the one you feel gives you the best chance of success, even if they are not the “cheapest” one. Hiring a CRM Implementation partner on price is a false economy that will come back and bite you every time. If the cost is beyond your budget, get more budget, or cancel the plan entirely. This last sentence is the most valuable statement in this entire post.
I have had a few questions about how to write an “Expression of Interest” that will actually get responses from high quality consultants. I was also looking for an interesting way to play with AI. So I combined this into a “Request for Expressions of Interest” builder, check it out here.