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Aug 24, 2023 | 5 minute read

2001 Called and It Wants Your RFP Back

written by Jamus Driscoll

As a vendor in the commerce industry, Elastic Path is in a central position to see how our market thinks about adopting commerce technology. And after serving 1,000+ such documents–and processes that are built on them–we wanted to write an interventionist post. With great and deep respect and from a vantage of a company that is obsessive about customer success, we think you’re doing it all wrong.

Imagine that you’re walking into a friend’s living room. There, you see a circle of chairs, all occupied by your closest friends and family. One chair is empty.

It’s yours.

Grab a seat.

In the world of commerce, standard corporate RFP-processes are hammer-seeking-nail approaches and have unintended, and negative, consequences that result in weaker outcomes for the customer. Some of these are as follows:

  • All the things we might need, someday, right now: As we all know well, commerce is a field of rapid and ever changing requirements. It is an industry in constant flux. That is what makes it so exciting. The question becomes, how do we procure a core commerce system that safeguards against the unknown? How do we spec requirements for things that have not yet been invented? To our observation, we safeguard against this by asking for all the things. All of them. Things we don’t really need now. Things that we might not ever need. Things that we imagine we might someday need. It is a natural hedge. Perfectly understandable. Yet, trying to tame the wildness of digital via RFP is an exercise in futility. (Side note: John McPhee’s epic read, Control of Nature, is a perfect parable). We submit: it’s better to focus on the ability to adapt than specify and require all the things that might change, or that might exist that you may never need.
  • Consensus is the enemy of innovation: Behind every RFP process sits a committee that wrote it and it’s very rare to find committees that drive innovation. Innovation, real innovation, is disruptive. Not everyone agrees. The intent of committee-centric processes is to see all the angles, assess all the risks and opportunities and make the best decision for the business. All good in that respect. However, commerce is inherently entrepreneurial, fluid, adventuresome. And the act of driving consensus–while nobel in its intent–biases toward conservatism…hedging…safeguarding. Collaboration should be the objective, not consensus. If this balance is not managed carefully, the grandeur of a bright and vibrant digital future inevitably lands at a concession-filled decision where the operative outcome is not to drive the vision, but to not-be-wrong. So we end up incrementally different from where we started.
  • Warmed Over RFPs: When one sees as many RFPs as we do, one also sees patterns. To our observation, our industry has an underground exchange of RFPs as we see the same questions, written the same way, in the same formatting, time and again. We get it; writing RFPs is a pain and it’s tough to think of “all the things” to ask (see above). Please: don’t do that. For all the vendors, it clouds the ability to see what really matters to you and our ability to respond. Trust us: we all know when the RFP has been “mailed in.” Question for you: what do you think that signals to vendors?
  • Talk to Procurement: Many of the RFP-centric processes that we see are run by procurement. Procurement has an invaluable role in the business: safeguarding responsible financial decisions in purchasing to the best-possible outcome for the company. Vendors understand and respect that mission (at least good ones do). However, many RFP-processes start and end with procurement. Unfortunately, this leads to poor outcomes for the company. RFPs specify what the company thinks it needs in the next system. However, that process, without direct vendor engagement by business and technology stakeholders, blinds the company to what it does not know. Time and time again, we see companies trying to solve a problem with requirements that are woefully out of date with modern practices.

In the spirit of offering a better way, which we have seen run very effectively by digital leaders, here’s a revamped process

  • Engage the vendor community long before an RFP. Invite them in. Pick their brains about what’s working and what’s not. What is the state of play in their domain? What customers are doing really interesting things? Be clear that this is an information-gathering phase and not a purchasing phase. For as big as digital is, we are still a small community and (most) vendors will respect the intention of learning.
  • Gather your team internally. Set the ground rules. Who will be the ultimate decision maker? How will the team engage? Is this consensus-driven or collaboration-driven? Is the company committed to this, and if so, under what terms? We ask, because roughly 70% of commerce evaluations end in no-decision, which is a lot of time spent for customers and vendors to make no progress. Be clear with yourself and with others on the grounds at which the initiative would be canceled (to the extent that can be forecasted).
  • Write down your objectives. What, exactly, does success look like? How will it be measured? Assuming not everything is possible, force-rank what’s most important to you. This will help you later.
  • Draft your RFP, if that is how your company operates. Don’t cut corners with copy/paste. We appreciate that writing them is hard. So is answering them. Let’s all respect one another’s time. Bring forward all the things that you learned and want.
  • Share your critical objectives and draft RFP with a short-list of vendors. Ask for their feedback about what’s missing. Some you will take; some you will reject. No issue there. Have the discussion though: Vendors need to be clear on what you are trying to solve to be most helpful.
  • Run your RFP and decision process. Be clear with vendors on bad news; we can take it.
  • Host feedback sessions for the vendors that were not selected. Be clear with them as to why. Vendors understand that not every process will result in a selection and every process should be a learning opportunity. We thank you in advance.

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