Sunday, November 1, 2009

How to Handle Key Challenges That Face Buyers During an RFP Undertaking

In my previous articles, The Evolving Role of Procurement in Modern Organizations – How Vendors Should Adapt to the RFP Process, and Why Global Corporations Must Source Their Hotel Spend And Run A Reliable Global Hotel Program? I try to build the case for the importance of managing the RFP process in a more methodological manner. In this article, I try to touch upon some of the key challenges that face the Buyer during a typical RFP undertaking, and how best to handle these challenges.

Although the focus of this article is on the Buyer, which is in this case, a typical global organization that is sourcing travel commodities such as hotel room nights or air contracts, the key challenges could be applicable to other types of commodities or services being sourced by organizations of any type or size.

The key challenges that face Buyers during an RFP undertaking include:
- Defining Requirements
- Managing Communications with Vendors
- Choosing The Proper Technology
- Implementing a Project Management Approach
- Evaluating The Bids
- Contracting & Performance Measurement
- Managing a Global Program

Defining Requirements
Although, this seems to be a straight forward point, it is sometimes looked upon as a major hurdle. Not only the Buyer needs to clearly identify its needs, the Buyer must be able to fully articulate these needs and requirements to the vendors. Otherwise, the RFP process will not be as effective and will not yield the aspired objectives.

Managing Communications with Vendors
Once the RFP’s are out, and vendors start working on their responses, communication back and forth with the vendors becomes a key success factor for the RFP process, since in some cases, the number of vendors in a single RFP process, may reach hundreds of hotel properties simultaneously, especially when managing a global hotel RFP program.

As a best practice, the Buyer has to designate a project manager to handle the communication with the vendors during that process. A single point of contact for all vendors. If you have multiple contacts, this will create a havoc during the RFP process, and may lead to mixed communication messages, and confusion down the road. The designated project manager must be knowledgeable about the Buyer’s needs and stakeholders, and how the RFP will be evaluated. The project manager, ideally, has to be knowledgeable as well about the industry of the vendors. He or she could be the procurement manager, or travel manager, or even an independent consultant who has strong expertise in the field.

The communication has to be fair, as some questions may lead to answers that could give certain vendors competitive advantage. Therefore, as best practice, it is always better to collect all questions from all vendors within a specific time frame - call it questions period - and then, the project manager aggregates all these responses into one Q&A sheet and distributes it at the same time to all vendors, to make sure that all vendors have the same level of information.

Choosing The Proper Technology
Many new portals and applications are out there in the marketplace that offer great benefits for typical RFP processes. As the marketplace is crowded with many technologies that offer many functionalities and tools, the RFP manager must decide on which technology is suitable for the purpose of his/her specific RFP before embarking on the undertaking.

I strongly recommend doing some research before deciding on which technology to utilize. I recommend going with the technology that is simple enough to streamline the process, and enable proper flow of the RFP, including communication with the vendors, sending out the RFP’s, receiving bids, and submitting counter-bids. The technology has to be simple to use and accessible for all vendors equally. As best practice, you need to ensure that the vendors do not have to purchase any licenses or additional software in order to have access to the technology, as this could lead to vendors dropping out of the RFP, and loss of opportunity for both sides.

Implementing a Project Management Approach
Buyers must realize that an RFP undertaking is actually a project, with a beginning and end. It is not an ongoing process. Therefore, it is critical to run the RFP utilizing a project management approach, by which I mean, to identify the requirements and end results, key stakeholders, key evaluation criteria, and most importantly, key milestones and timelines.

The communication with the vendors has to include all of the project components mentioned above, and it must clearly identify to the vendors the specific milestones, and timelines. The Buyer, as well as, the vendors must adhere to these timelines to ensure that the project is kept on track, and the required results are fully attained,
Sometimes, especially when the participating vendors in an RFP have other business relationship with the Buyer (and whoever is managing the RFP), the line between the RFP process and the other business relationship could become blurry. Participants could discuss multiple business issues on a conference call, and timelines could become overlapping and confusing for all parties. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the Buyer to keep things on track, and clearly separate the business pertinent to the RFP from other business. This circles back to my second point of assigning a project manager to run the RFP, and it would be even better if the appointed project manager happens to be independent, or at least, is not involved with the vendors in any other business during the RFP process.

Evaluating The Bids
Another hurdle that the Buyer has to address before embarking on an RFP undertaking is on what criteria the bids will be assessed on and contracts will be awarded. The Buyer has to be clear and decisive on the criteria, and make sure to communicate that to the vendors.

Generally, the criteria stem from the goals and requirements of the Buyer. What are you looking for in the vendor/or the service provided, to be able to make the decision to award the contract or preferred status to that vendor? Some criteria to consider: (mainly for hotel commodities)
- Rates or discounts
- Amenities like breakfast, internet, etc
- Proximity of hotel location to a corporate point of interest, facility, or client location
- Chain affiliation; loyalty program
- Market tier; luxury, upscale, mid-scale, or budget
- Extended stay viability; especially if your travelers travel on long stay projects (like engineers or consultants)

Knowing the criteria from the beginning enables to project manager to prepare a more focused solicitation list, as well as, manage the RFP process more efficiently.

Contracting & Performance Measurement
Contracting and performance measurement are critical components for any successful RFP undertaking, and any procurement practice. The Buyer has to be clear and up front with the vendors on how the contracting will be executed, when the contracts will be drafted, and by whom. In addition, it has to be clear whether the contracts are electronic or in hard copies.

Performance measurement has to be part of the contracting process as well. There has to be clear measurement indicators in the contract for both parties. For example, in a hotel contract, there has to be clear understanding that the hotel will load the accepted rates and inclusions to the applicable Global Distribution Systems by specific timeline. In addition, there has to be some sort of quarterly or monthly reporting that reflects the room nights being spent by the Buyer’s travelers, and how much they are paying in terms of room rates, and amenities. All of that has to be clearly indicated in a contract to ensure transparency and clarity.

Performance measurement does not only guarantee the rights of the Buyer, but also, aids the vendors in case there are certain revenue thresholds or business production levels that the Buyer has agreed to during the RFP.

Managing a Global Program
Finally, as businesses are growing globally with the emergence of markets in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, it is highly likely to be involved in managing a true global RFP. This increases the complexity of RFP undertaking management, by getting involved with vendors from different cultures and backgrounds. Some of the incremental challenges for managing global programs include:

Language barriers; Buyer needs to deal sometimes with non-English language speakers
Time zone differences; Buyer needs to deal sometimes with vendors with 12-hour time difference
Cultural differences; this could become an issue during negotiations or regular communications. Buyer has to be sensitive to any cultural differences that could impact the relationship with the vendors
Technological differences; not all countries are at the same level of internet adaptability, or accessibility
Business practice difference; not all countries have the same set of business practices or cultures. This increases the need for enhanced communication to be able to clearly articulate the Buyer’s needs and objectives from the proposed relationship via the RFP

In conclusion, while the above mentioned challenges include most of the potential hurdles that the Buyer would typically face during a typical RFP undertaking, there could be more hurdles to consider based on the Buyer’s industry, requirements, or even economical environment. The main point is that the Buyer has to clearly define and anticipate all potential challenges that could face the RFP undertaking, and to proactively, address each one of these potential challenges to ensure a successful and efficient RFP process.

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