Recently this blog and many others have covered the trend of suppliers rebelling against the RFP process. Particularly in the services industry, suppliers are walking away from business rather than participating in a process that requires a great deal of upfront work (often with strict timelines) and little upfront customer engagement. The weak economy has only compounded this issue, with companies scaling back and requiring more get done with less resource. Sales teams have become selective in reviewing what business opportunities look real and which are long shots, and allocate resources appropriately. In the past, disqualifying suppliers due to a late bid (or no bid) was common practice, but these days you could be severely limiting your competitive landscape with that approach.

So what is a strategic sourcing professional to do when suppliers still need to be evaluated and qualified, but are unwilling to commit to a formal written response? Recently, I’ve started looking for opportunities to shift away from formal RFP’s and utilize supplier presentations as the initial qualifier during the sourcing process.

Supplier presentations have traditionally been reserved for the later stages of the sourcing process (with some exceptions), after the list of potential providers was narrowed from 10+ down to 2 or 3. This saved time and effort on the buyer side, and allowed the sourcing staff to bring in a cross functional team and any interested end users to see what the landscape looked like, but only from a select group of suppliers that could best meet the customer’s requirements.

Moving to supplier presentations on the front end can be a great deal more time consuming, because each supplier needs 1-2 hours of your time up front. You can limit the time investment though, by mapping out exactly what your requirements for the new supplier are in advance of any meetings. Once you do that, you may find that out of the 15 potential suppliers, only 3 or 4 are really a good fit based for your organization.

Allowing suppliers to present rather than provide a written response can make impartial qualitative comparisons a difficult process, but there are easy ways to “force format”. Start by giving suppliers a list of key concerns, and make sure they are going to cover each of them during presentation. Before the presentations, show them your scorecard system, and make sure they know the importance of each category of the scorecard.

I’ve been on both sides of the table during a “pre-qualifying” presentation process, and I have to say it’s been effective. On the sales side, during one of these presentations I spent five hours in a meeting room with a potential customer, including multiple end users and other decision makers. While it became clear early on that we weren’t the best fit for what this customer needed, it was still preferable to spending a few days (and nights) filling out a word document and expecting the same result. In addition, I had the chance to meet face to face with a large group of purchasing professionals, which was a great networking experience. The likelihood is if there is a better fit down the road, they are going to remember us more clearly from that meeting than from a written response.

On the sourcing side, I’ve found the process actually cuts timelines dramatically. Allowing suppliers to utilize their standard format (or sales pitch) and add to it based on my primary concerns means they don’t have to reinvent the wheel, just customize it a bit, and I can setup a presentation within a week rather than waiting 2-4 weeks for a written response to come back. Plus, suppliers are much less likely to ask for a time extension if they have already confirmed a face to face meeting.

Overall, I would recommend bypassing the initial proposal process for presentations whenever possible. Suppliers are often much more motivated and engaged when taking this approach and it becomes clear very early on if the suppliers actually listened to your concerns or just gave them lip service. In some cases a written response may still be required, and a formal quote will definitely be needed, but as a pre-qualifier, the process works well.
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Joe Payne

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