If your company has ever been in the market for products like enterprise software, or business services like customer service or sales, you’re likely pretty familiar with the term “RFP”.
An “RFP” is a request for proposal, which is a document put together by a business with the goal of detailing their specific needs when trying to find an outside vendor to fulfill a function or project, otherwise known as outsourcing. RFPs are most commonly used when you want to compare the proposals from multiple vendors who’re offering a similar product or service.
I like to think of an RFP kind of like a job description, except rather than finding candidates to hire internally, you’re seeking the help of an outside agency or provider. Your RFP goal is to make clear your company’s culture, needs, mission, objectives, and the role the partner will be expected to play — just like you would in a job description — with the goal of attracting only the most qualified candidates.
In this blog, I will use a made up scenario involving an operations manager & and an e-commerce women's clothing company to help illustrate how to write an RFP and the general process that happens once your RFP has been sent to potential vendors.
Getting Started with Your Request for Proposal
My illustrative scenario starts with an e-commerce women’s clothing company — I’ll call it The Boutique. The Boutique is based in North America but is planning a major launch to expand into the European market. With this expansion comes many challenges, one of which is how to support their growing customer base, including the need to offer support in languages beyond English and Spanish, which are currently the only two languages spoken by The Boutique’s customer service agents.
To prepare for this, the store’s operations manager - we’ll call her Dee - decides she will need to recruit help from an outside company if she wants to keep up with their increased customer service demand, expanded language support, and continued high-quality service and quick response times customers have come to expect when engaging with The Boutique.
Dee has a few companies in mind who could perform the services The Boutique needs, but she also wants to make sure she’s selecting a partner that’s a good fit, has a strong reputation, and can perform within her budget. She really wants a partner who not just ”gets the job done”, but can do the job well and be a trusted resource she can rely on for years.
She knows she’ll need at least 40-50 full-time non-technical customer service agents working through the incoming customer cases and that they’ll need to speak English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese. She knows she will need around-the-clock coverage as her internal customer service agents based in the U.S. are all in the same time zone and work only day shifts.
Another aspect Dee must consider is how much the company prides themselves on working only with partners who are striving to do good in their communities and in the world, so to her list of criteria she adds the need for finding a partner with strong values who is using their power to make the world a better place.
Knowing she has numerous boxes she must check, she starts the process of putting together an RFP that asks the critical questions before selecting the best-fit partner. She starts by outlining the sections of what she is including:
Common Sections of an RFP:
- Company Overview and Introduction
- Project or Service Needs and Criteria
- Timing for RFP Submission and Response
- A list of Questions for RFP Respondents
Company Overview and Introduction
In this section, it's important to make sure that the outsourcing vendors who will be receiving the opportunity to respond to this RFP understand what your company does and the values that are important to your business. You’ll want to include details like when the company was founded, what they do, your mission statement, and any other information that might be critical for a potential partner to know about you before deciding whether or not they’re a strong fit for your business.
Dee's Section 1 might look something like this:
The Boutique was founded in 2010 and is an e-commerce women’s clothing company whose mission is to make perfect-fitting clothes for women of all shapes and sizes. We currently service hundreds of thousands of customers across the United States and are rapidly expanding into new regions.
Our value-driven company is centered around helping women feel comfortable in their own skin, which goes beyond clothing. We donate 10% of all sales to non-profits that help battered women get back on their feet. Taking care of our community is a vital piece of The Boutique's culture.
Project or Service Needs and Criteria
This section should outline everything you know you'll need regarding the services and support the partner will be expected to provide.
In Dee's case, it is around the clock support in multiple languages for 24 months.
It's important to be as descriptive as possible to make sure that the vendor who is filling out a response to the RFP knows up-front whether they're capable of fulfilling your critical need.
Dee's Section 2 might look something like this:
The Boutique is expanding into the European market. With this expansion, we’re expecting a large increase in customer service demand. We’re looking to outsource 40-50 non-technical customer service agents to provide around-the clock coverage by agents who can speak English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. We will expect to need these additional agents for 24 months, starting as early as late September. I am hoping to find agents in the price range of $8.50 - $12.50 per hour.
We are looking for a company who, like us, is passionate about doing good work in their communities and neighborhoods.
Timing for RFP Submission & Response
This section should make it clear when you need responses from each vendor if they want to be considered to win your business. This can be pretty short and sweet, but it should also include details of when the vendors who submit a response should expect to hear back from your company on whether they are being selected or are out of consideration.
Dee's Section 3 might look something like this:
Please submit your RFP responses no later than August 15 by emailing them to firstname.lastname@example.org. We will complete Round 1 vendor evaluations and you will be notified if you’re selected to move on to Round 2 by September 1st. We will evaluate and make a final vendor selection no later than September 15.
A list of Questions for RFP Respondents
This section consists of a list of questions you want the vendors to answer so that you can get to know their business better and truly be able to evaluate whether the brand in question is a good fit for your company's needs.
This questionnaire often includes different categories of questions ranging from a company’s overview, to their financial history and stability, to the "nitty-gritty" details on the services they provide, to client references that can be called to talk through their experience with that vendor.
This section can also look very different depending on your needs, the longevity of the project or service being provided, the expense of the project, etc.
Obviously if you’re using a vendor for a very short period of time and it is a relatively inexpensive project, you may not feel it necessary to do quite as much vetting because there is less risk if you end up not finding that the partner wasn’t a perfect fit.
If, however, the need you’re looking to fill is a longer-term, more robust engagement, you will probably want to make sure that you’re selecting a company who can adapt alongside your business's needs, which often means you will want to receive as many details as possible about your potential future partner.
Returning to our example with Dee, she knows just how important customer service is to keeping churn low and increasing customer lifetime value, so she opts to find out everything she can about the vendors participating in the RFP. She also knows that her company is growing rapidly and they might need more outsourced help. Because she could see this 24-month project expanding into an even longer-term relationship, she wants to take extra care to ensure they’re the right fit.
The RFP is written... now what?
Now that Dee has her RFP written, she sends it out to a handful of vendors that she is interested in hearing back from. Once the vendors receive The Boutique’s RFP, they’re able to quickly see what the needs are and know if it’s worth it for their company to bid on the business.
If they want to win this business, they will fill out the questions asked in the RFP and will email them back to Dee who will then read over their responses and determine if they’re a strong contender for the partnership. One company Dee sent the RFP to doesn’t accept any business with less than a need for 75 customer service agents per campaign. In this case, they opt not to bid on the business, and don’t return an RFP response.
Note: If your business plans on conducting many RFPs, there are plenty of available tools out there that make this vendor engagement process much simpler for you and them. I would recommend considering investing in one of these tools if you anticipate your business conducting this RFP process often.
Finally, Dee knows she must stick to the timeline she has provided the vendors and will do everything in her power to meet those promised dates. If Dee notices she won't be able to hit the target response times, she should proactively reach out to the RFP respondents letting them know that there has been a delay, and how long she anticipates it will be before a decision has been made.
As a marketplace of outsourcers, we're extremely familiar with RFPs, to the tune of conducting hundreds each year on behalf of our customers. Our goal is to take the hard work out of finding, managing, and optimizing outsourcing relationships, and we know just how challenging that first step of finding the right partner(s) can be.
If you're looking for outsourced professionals to help improve your operations, ArenaCX can help.
Interested in learning more? Get in touch with our team. Our team is happy to offer free RFP assistance and help connect you to the right-fit partner(s) for your business.
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