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Focus on the Abcs of a Proper RFP

What It Must Do, Says One Expert, Is Set the Rules of the Game.


April 1, 2003  


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Anatomy of an Installation

EDITOR’S NOTE: THIS IS THE FIRST IN A FOUR-PART SERIES THAT WILL EXAMINE THE INSTALLATION PROCESS FROM START TO FINISH. THIS MONTH WE LOOK AT THE IMPORTANCE OF THE RFP.

The success or failure of any structured cabling project hinges on the all-important Request For Proposal (RFP), something which Jay Hollander, a lawyer in New York City, describes as one of the most commonly used and misused corporate documents in existence today.

It can turn a job into a dream or living nightmare for both installers and an organization.

Hollander, who specializes in real estate and computer and Internet law, says RFPs are commonly used because they provide a company with the opportunity to communicate its needs in a detailed way of its own choosing and to solicit responses from a number of vendors very efficiently.

They are commonly misused, he adds, because companies often squander the opportunity by not understanding their own needs clearly enough in the first place.

A well-crafted RFP is indispensable to a company because it serves as its detailed map of its own needs,” he says. “It allows the company to clarify its own goals for a project and to visualize the details in the process of asking what it wants from a vendor.

“Many high-tech projects fail because the companies soliciting the bids don’t have a good enough understanding of how the solution they think they want will work in practice — in their own company, on their systems and with their staff.

“They often have only a basic idea of their needs in their mind and haven’t really visualized how that idea should translate into a customized system that will be flexible enough for them over time. Often, they don’t realize these problems until faced with an installation that won’t perform as they expected.”

The bottom line, says Hollander, is that while the process can be a “little” complex, it will pay for itself many times over when done correctly. His advice to organizations is this: Since proper and adequate planning is essential, the process should begin by assembling a team of knowledgeable staff and professionals.

In GigaLaw.com, an e-magazine that contains legal information for Internet professionals, he wrote that a company must set forth a schedule for completion of the RFP process, giving dates and deliverables for all stages of the competition.

These include such items as when responses are due, when interviews of the resulting short list of vendors will be held, when any supplemental information must be received, and when a decision will be made.

“A company cannot hope to know if it’s gotten a vendor response that meets its needs if it doesn’t really know its own needs inside and out. People inside the organization must be able to plot out exactly what the goal or vision of the project is, as well as what it will look like when it’s done. It’s vital to devote time to define and outline what the company really needs in the process and what a successful outcome will be.”

An article posted late last year on www.Japher.com, an electronic marketplace for outsourcing custom software and IT and Web development projects, spelled out the do’s and don’ts any company should follow when selecting and working with outside vendors and contractors.

It suggests that a RFP should be sent out eight to 10 weeks before the requested submission date, but not be sent out for the purpose of generating thoughts and ideas about a specific job or project. A company should also award the project on the date indicated and unless otherwise stated, award it to the lowest bidder.

“Nothing ticks a vendor off worse than to lose a contract if they are the lowest bidder. Suspicions of kickbacks, favouritism, politics, etc. soon circulate among vendors and others in your industry. If you are not going to award the project based upon cost, tell potential vendors what and how you will award the project. Be specific.”

On the subject of providing background information, the article states that “if you promise to supply storyboards, task analysis, illustrations and technical drawings etc., deliver these materials on or ahead of time. “It is very frustrating for a vendor to try and work for someone who can’t or won’t team with them on a project,” it states.

“If a project does fall behind and it’s your fault, don’t try to blame the vendor. You may get away with it, but you and your organization’s reputation will suffer in the long run. Finally, pay your invoices. Failing to do so will often break several financial agreements usually detailed in the proposal.”

Chuck Siebuhr, senior technical editor with Cabling Business Magazine in Dallas, Tex. is an expert in the RFP space, having spent 15 years either writing them up or teaching others about the intricacies involved.

And with more than 30 years experience in the telecommunications industry he knows of several structured cabling horror stories that could have been avoided had a well thought-out document been created in the first place.

“You get what you spec, not what you expect,” says Siebuhr. “It’s a case of pay now or pay later, and if it isn’t in writing it doesn’t exist. I’ve witnessed that on a number of projects.

“Most of the critical failures that I’ve witnessed over the years can be traced back to a poorly and loosely written RFP.”

One example of failure, occurred at a university in the U.S. A major structured cabling installation was well under way at a number of buildings throughout a campus setting when the school’s project supervisor decided to inspect the work that was being done. None of the cables had been laced up and when he popped the ceiling tile all the cabling fell down in a big pile on the floor.

It was a union job, recalls Siebuhr, and “the foreman on the job asked, ‘Oh, did you want those laced up? That will add $7,000 to every building we do.’ The supervisor had assumed it was part of the contract.”

In an even more troubling case, an unscrupulous installer severely gauged the owner of a warehouse. A project that was based on what amounted to a “verbal RFP” ended up being an unmitigated and expensive disaster that at one point was costing US$50,000 a day. The installation carried out was so bad that it ended up knocking the warehouse owner out of business.

To avoid this type of ordeal, a logical step for any organization, which hasn’t anyone on the payroll with RFP expertise, is to turn to an outside expert for help. “A client may know they want a state-of-the-art network, but they may not know how to phrase it,” says Siebuhr.

“They don’t want to become experts in our industry because they have their own jobs to do. I’ve never understood the reluctance to hire professionals to come in for a week or two, or a month or whatever time it takes.

“While there is no such thing as a bullet-proof RFP, I’ve been around long enough and learned from other people’s mistakes and bad examples, to know that you have to protect your customer.”

“I once sent an RFP I wrote to a friend of mine in California who runs a cabling contracting firm and asked for his opinion. He replied that he wouldn’t bid on the damn thing. That’s flattering. I had gone so far out of my way to protect the client that I’d left him little room to maneuver. There should be no wiggle room.”

A properly written RFP should address both technical and budgetary issues. A lot of pain can be avoided by drafting a document that not only details the work at hand, but also discusses return on investment, a payback period, amortization, depreciation and savings.

“RFP stands for much more than Request for Proposal,” says Siebuhr. “In the trade it’s also known as a Recipe for Protection. If you don’t have that recipe going in, what can you hope to have at the outcome?”

Despite the best-laid plans, Hollander says, an RFP cannot address every detail, but what it can and must do is set the rules for the game.

“I once sent an RFP I wrote to a friend of mine in California who runs a cabling contracting firm and asked for his opinion. He replied that he wouldn’t bid on the damn thing. That was fla
ttering.”


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