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Here, you will find some tips to help clarify what you can expect from your specific situation and how to avoid potential communication issues between parties.

The following chapter is excerpted from my book, "Things You Should Know: 25 Lessons I’ve Learned About Selecting Content Technology and Services". Download the full version of the book.

Lesson #18: RFP responses are often a team effort of multiple providers, which can be confusing

We’ve discussed this a bit before, but it bears repeating: Software implementation projects are usually a combination of product and services. Consequently, these projects exist on a spectrum of the number of parties involved.

On one extreme, perhaps you’re planning to integrate the software and host it yourself. In this case, you literally only need software, so that’s all your proposal needs to ask for. You should get responses from software vendors for their product, full stop. 

Or perhaps you’re looking at an open-source system, and you just need implementation help. Again, you’re getting a proposal from an integrator only.

However, the other extreme is quite common: you have nothing but a need of varying levels of definition – exact and detailed or vague and amorphous – and you’re looking for a coterie of vendors:

  1. You need someone to plan the content, design, and marketing strategy
  2. You need new CMS software
  3. You need someone to integrate it to meet your needs
  4. You need someone to host the resulting website
  5. You need someone to support it over time

Bias against assembled RFP responses is problematic

There are all sorts of companies to cater to these needs. The problem comes when the RFP is sent to organizations not capable of providing all the needed services, and then responses are evaluated with some bias against an assembled response.

Looking at the list of needs above, understand that no single organization will probably do all of that. Most integrators work with software they didn’t develop – they partner with a commercial vendor, or they use open-source software developed by a larger community.

Some vendors do offer professional services, but often this is just advanced technical support, and doesn’t include entire site implementations. If the vendor does do full implementation work, there’s very little chance they would also provide the marketing strategy services necessary for higher-level site planning.

So, where do you send your RFP?

You can divide it up into pieces – a software RFP, a hosting RFP, a services RFP, etc. – and send them to different companies. However, this is a lot of work, and the pieces don’t exist in isolation. The software vendor will need to work with the integration vendor, the support vendor will need to work with the hosting vendor, and so on. Now you’re in the position of both evaluating the vendors and evaluating whether or not they can work together.

More likely, you’ll send a single RFP for all services to a single recipient and understand that they’ll recruit other companies to fulfill all your needs.

  • If you send the RFP to a software vendor, they’ll select an integrator to provide that part of the response
  • If you send the RFP to an integrator, they’ll select a software vendor to provide that part of the response1

Benefits of the combined RFP response

The result is that the response to your RFP will be a combination of companies who claim they can work together to do what you need. By submitting a combined response, the group of companies is tacitly certifying they have self-vetted their skillsets and relationships and they believe they’re offering full coverage and coordination to the problem presented in the RFP.

Often, questions in the RFP alternate between those directed to a software vendor, integrator, hosting vendor, etc. When these companies come together to coordinate a response, they have to negotiate who is going to answer what.

Understand the relationship between the parties

However, some customers still get confused by this. They expect a seamless, uniform response, and they have trouble processing a collaborative response from more than one party. And sometimes they don’t understand this before they write the RFP.

To sort this out, you need to understand the relationship between the vendor, the integrator, a bunch of other service providers, and you. When the software is sold, do you still have a relationship with the vendor, or does everything go through the integrator? What if you and the integrator have a falling out? Will the vendor help you find a new integrator?

Furthermore, for the purposes of the demo, you need to know who is showing what. If a vendor and an integration partner are combining on a demo, is the project going to be vendor-led or integrator-led? These relationships run the spectrum – in some cases, the integrator is just kind of along for the ride or vice-versa. Who is your primary relationship going to be with? Know that before you agree to buy anything.

What if there can be only one?

If you’re determined to only have one company to deal with, then I recommend selecting an integrator – either one who represents the software vendor you’re interested in, or one from which you’re willing to accept whatever software they believe is right for your project. Look back at the list of services you might need, and it’s clear that an integrator has a better chance of providing most of them. Most can do all the strategy, planning, and implementation work, and many offer managed hosting as well.

You might still have a separate software vendor, unless the integrator somehow “fronts” the vendor.

  1. The integrator might implement an open-source CMS, which, as we’ve discussed before, doesn’t have formal vendor representation
  2. The integrator might resell the vendor, which means that all business dealings with the vendor are “proxied” through the integrator

Only in those limited cases are you genuinely going to deal with a single organization.

Yes, it would be wonderful if everything was handled by one company so you always knew who was responsible for what, and you never had to worry about communication issues between parties. But this usually isn’t realistic.

Be flexible about RFP responses

So, be flexible about responses. You might want a clean, singlesourced relationship, but don’t automatically reject other options. You can probably get the same result you’re looking for around accountability, it just takes clear communication about your concerns. The best you can do is ask good questions and make sure you’re clear on who is responding to what.

1. “Select” is probably not accurate here. Very rarely will the integrator survey the entire market and select a vendor just for your project. More likely, they’ll just propose the vendor they use for everything else. The only selection criteria will likely be what they believe your budget capacity is.