1996 Oct 01

Pragmatech Software The RFP Machine
by David M. Raab
DM News
October, 1996

For a simple procurement tool, the Request for Proposal (RFP) generates an awful lot of passion. Buyers agonize for months to write them; vendors complain bitterly of the labor involved in answering them; and nobody feels they really provide the basis for a sound business decision. But still the process goes on–because nobody has found a better way.

The purpose of an RFP is straightforward: to define the buyer’s needs in enough detail that a vendor can propose a solution. In addition, the buyer usually asks for information about the vendor’s experience and background. The goal is to allow a fair and objective comparison of different alternatives. Both buyers and vendors agree this is desirable. So what’s the problem?

Actually, there are several. One is that RFP’s often do not include enough information for a vendor to actually respond with a specific proposal: either necessary information such as processing volumes is not available, or functional requirements are not specified in detail, or requirements are very detailed but give no sense of priority. RFP’s can also be overly specific in describing the tasks to be performed, preventing the vendor from proposing alternative solutions and perhaps favoring one vendor over another. Even a good RFP can be sent to too many vendors, which means wasted work for the buyer and the vendors, may discourage the best vendors from responding seriously, and unnecessarily spreads confidential information about the buyer’s business. Perhaps most fundamentally, RFP replies are not truly comparable from vendor to vendor, since the quality is affected by the respondent’s workload, writing ability, and (shall we say) concern for accuracy.

Some of these problems can be avoided through careful drafting and appropriate procedures. Others, particularly the need to get a sense of a vendor’s true character and capabilities, are handled outside of the formal RFP cycle. As a consultant, I feel well-executed RFP’s are indeed worthwhile, as much to document user requirements as to elicit information from vendors. Of course, people pay me to write them.

But whatever the merits of the process, the RFP is clearly here to stay. From a vendor’s perspective, this means a very substantial commitment of resources–sometimes weeks of work for a team of staff. Anything that lightens the burden would be more than welcome.

The RFP Machine (Pragmatech Software, 603-672-8941; http://rfpmachine.com) exists precisely to help speed and simplify RFP response preparation. This Windows 3.1 software uses a database of previously-defined answers to common questions, accessed through a hierarchical structure of categories and subcategories or by matching against key words assigned to each answer. The system also allows users to define synonyms for key words and to submit the text of questions taken directly from a new RFP. The RFP Machine will automatically find the key words within each question and prepare a list of answers ranked by the percentage of key words that match.

The value of a system like The RFP Machine is determined by how well the details of its interface make users productive. The RFP Machine provides exactly the features needed to speed RFP response preparation. For example, the system allows the user to import an existing RFP document and then scroll through it, highlighting each question, allowing the system to find a preexisting answer, and automatically placing the answer in the document. The system will automatically read the format (type size, font, style and color) of the input document and will place replies in a matching or contrasting format. Stored replies can incorporate graphics and tables as well as text. The user can work in a text processor provided with the system or in a Windows-based word processor such as WordPerfect or Microsoft Word. In fact, the input document can come from any Windows application such as a spreadsheet or database and output can be sent to any Windows device including a fax machine or e-mail.

Reaching this state of RFP Heaven takes considerable work, although The RFP Machine again makes it as painless as possible. Answers can be added to the database by loading a previous RFP reply and then highlighting each question, answer, and keywords and pick categories from a list–thus completing the entire entry without typing an word. Or users can add entries by typing them directly or by importing them from a properly a structured database. Each answer can have attached comments which will be viewed but not be printed on the RFP replies themselves. Once a database of answers has been created, it can be modified by search and replace functions for words in the answer text or in the categories or sample questions. It is also possible to extract a portion of the database to another The RFP Machine system (say, a salesperson’s laptop or help desk server) or a different database.

Although The RFP Machine does not contain any elaborate artificial intelligence capabilities, the system is able to “learn” as new questions are asked and answers are added. Users can create new answers as the questions occur or can log a question for later research. They can also create synonyms to help the system learn how to answer questions and can have the system “explain” why it picked a particular answer by showing the keywords it matched on. This allows users to modify or add new keywords to make answers more precise.

The RFP Machine also helps companies to manage the reply process with a database to track past and future RFP projects. For each RFP, the database store receipt date, reply due date, status, author, company, and other fields. Sections of an RFP can be assigned to different individuals and given their own due dates.

The system was released in October 1995 and costs $695 for a single-user version. It can also run on a network.

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David M. Raab is a Principal at Raab Associates Inc., a consultancy specializing in marketing technology and analytics. He can be reached at draab@raabassociates.com.

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