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How To Evaluate RFP Responses

"Survival of the fittest" is the best known distillation of Darwin's theory of evolution. Although the phrase was coined by someone else (Herbert Spencer), Darwin liked it, and thought it a better summary of his theory than "natural selection". He was concerned that the word "selection" implied some sort of divine agency at work.

One hundred and fifty years later the common usage of these terms has changed. Modern readers are much less likely to assume divine agency in anything. Our understanding of "the fittest" is now also very different. Darwin used the word fit in sense of "this jacket is a good fit" or "Alice is a good fit for the role". Today, we are more likely to equate fitness with strength and athleticism - a body builder kicking sand in the face of a weakling at the beach. We might therefore assume that "survival of the fittest" means "survival of the strongest".

To truly grasp Darwin's theory we must read "fittest" in the sense of fit for purpose, rather than strongest. Survival of the fittest means that individuals well suited to the demands of their environment are more likely to survive and reproduce. In a period of drought, when resources are scarce, the biggest and strongest may be the first to perish, and it's the skinny weakling at the beach that will thrive.

It may seem a stretch, but a similar distinction applies to the RFP process, and to the evaluation of RFP responses. Is the objective to identify the product or service that is "strongest" or that which is most "fit for purpose"?

The worst (but very common) goal for an RFP evaluation project is to "select the best vendor". "Best" suggests the existence of an absolute, objective scale of quality. Evaluators working to this goal set themselves up to fail. In order to find the absolute best, surely all possible criteria must be assessed? A vast RFP survey document will result. Lost in the resulting flood of information, power in the negotiation will be transferred back to the vendors. Canny salesmen understand this, and will gleefully copy and paste huge wordy responses to the RFP. Beleaguered evaluators will often revert to basing their decision on the basis of vendors' presentations - the dreaded Beauty Parade.

Things are very different if the objective of the RFP is defined as identifying the product or service that is most "fit for purpose", rather than the "best". Such an apparently subtle shift of posture can radically alter the character of the project.

The focus of the RFP is shifted away from the vendors and back to the buying organization. What does the organization need? What are the needs of individuals within the organization? Who is best placed to define those needs? If there are conflicting priorities, how are those to be reconciled?

Such questions are necessarily introspective. Organization-wide objectivity can be difficult, which is why an external consultant can be an invaluable resource.

Armed with the results of such an analysis, an RFP can be framed in terms of inviting vendors to describe how they meet the needs of the buyer. The project becomes more of a matching exercise rather than a competition. Salesmen that are genuinely confident in their product or service like responding to this type of RFP. It invites creativity for them to describe how their product or service matches up to the needs of the buyer.

Response evaluation should be delegated as widely as possible. If the RFP is framed by the buyer's needs, and those needs can be traced back to individuals with expertise, then those individuals are by far the best placed to evaluate responses.

The title of this article is "How to Evaluate RFP Responses". It's likely that anyone searching for this topic has already received responses from vendors. Fortunately, whilst it's too late to redesign the initial RFP, it is still possible to apply the same principles at the analysis stage.

If it hasn't already been done, make sure to contact the individuals that will be most affected by the product being evaluated. Ask them for their priorities and build up a matrix of evaluation criteria that aggregates the concerns of all affected groups. Then study vendor proposals with reference to this framework, and score accordingly.

"Survival of the fittest" doesn't mean survival of the best, or of the strongest. It means survival of those best fitted for their environment. When evaluating RFP responses it's essential to understand what that environment is - i.e. the set of requirements and priorities of the buying organization. A tight focus on that will enable the evaluation team to see through the smoke and mirrors of suave sales teams and to choose the vendor that best matches those requirements.