Blog | Walsworth

Creating a Successful RFP: A Guide for Associations

Written by Sarah Scott | August 24, 2017

Creating a clear and solid Request for Proposal (RFP) sets the foundation for a successful printing project. When it comes time to solicit bids, there are several steps you can take to ensure potential vendors understand what you want. This will save everyone time and effort. You don’t want to waste their time, and you don’t want a printer to commit to something outside their capability wheelhouse because they misunderstood your wishes.

Throughout the entire process, you’ll want to hold yourself and your prospects to two standards: clarity and efficiency.

The terminology

An RFP is a document soliciting proposals. You want to do a little research before submitting an RFP. Creating a proposal is a lot of work, so you want to make sure the companies you’re requesting from are able to meet your basic qualifications. You can get this information through queries prior to submitting an RFP.

A Request for Information is typically made during the planning phase. You submit an RFI when you want to know about the companies that may be able to meet your needs.

You may sometimes hear of organizations asking for an RFQ. This can mean two different things, which are both different from an RFP.

A Request for Qualifications is another way to screen for candidates. Your association may or may not use an RFQ in your RFP process.

A Request for Quote is based almost solely on price. This is typically only used when you need a fixed amount of a very specific product.

A Request for Proposal takes other factors into consideration. For example, what additional services are available? An RFP allows more room for problem-solving than an RFQ.

Keep it clear

Be concise and simple. Make your questions as straightforward as possible. If any one question has too many requests, break it up so prospects can effectively respond piece by piece.

Sign an NDA. Supply a mutual Non-Disclosure Agreement with all prospects. This allows for a free flow of information between you and the prospects and protects any information you do provide. An NDA can be provided by either your association’s legal counsel or downloaded and edited from an online source.

Define print specifications. Keep your details around print specs short and to the point. Now is the time to note whether you’ll accept proposals for alternate paper types or other details. If this is something you don’t want, make sure that’s clear to the prospects.

Ask about alternative papers. While you may have found the perfect stock for your publication, ask if prospects can provide an alternative stock that can either save money or optimize production times. More often than not there is a similar stock and method that can produce almost identical results while saving you a lot on material costs.

Provide a sample print schedule. Importantly, ask prospects if your print schedule can be met. This is a critical element of your RFP process, as printers need to be able to clearly indicate whether they can.

Describe your mailing situation. Explain your current mailing and distribution process, including where issues arise. Also, ask the prospects whether options exist for saving money on mailing or whether co-mailing is an option. For your prospective print partners to provide an insightful response as to how best to optimize your mailing situation, you will need to provide your mailing list. While some may be apprehensive about such an action, having a solid, dually signed NDA in place will legally protect any misuse.

Timing. Give your print prospects ample time to respond. Rushing them through the proposal process will eventually hurt all parties involved. Every printer who is vying for your print is putting a lot of energy into their proposal, so please respect their efforts. Check out our recommended timeline below.

Once you’ve set and shared a timeline, stick to it! Printers put lots of thought and some long hours into finding you the best price and product. Your prospects will work to meet your timeline, and in return you should meet their expectations – meet your deliverables on the dates you prescribed, especially the date for choosing the winner.

If the timeline must change, and sometimes it does, clearly communicate the changes to all prospective printers.

Additional services. You may need more than print. Printers often provide apps, fulfillment, mailing, website design and other services in addition to printing. These services can often be bundled together. Let your prospective partners know if you need additional services and ask if they can perform them internally, or have an established relationship with a third-party partner. If the prospect does use a third party, request case studies showing the success they’ve had with other associations.

Presentations. If possible, require an in-person presentation of the proposal. This will allow you to meet and get to know your potential future print partner. It also allows for a detailed review of the proposal with its author.

Decision criteria. Be very specific about what you’re looking for. If you’re unhappy with your current print partner or some aspect of how they do things, include those shortcomings as requirements in this RFP. Make sure the prospective partners have a clear idea of why you’re unhappy and allow them to provide examples and details of how they plan to solve these problems. This way, they can get to the root of where you are experiencing issues and respond to them directly.

Background information. Ask the print prospect to tell you their story. You want to know more than what’s on their website. It’s good to know where they came from and where they’re going. This gives the prospect a chance to explain why they’re bidding and why their company will be a good fit for you.

Timing is everything

Here’s a sample timeline of what should happen once you send out the RFP. This can, and should, be adjusted to fit your team and their schedule constraints. Be sure to give ample time for every step. We said it before and we’ll say it again: rushing through the RFP process ultimately hurts your organization in the end.

Week One – Printer Prospect Choices
Choose at least three prospects to participate in the RFP process. Check references before sending out the RFP. Once you’ve sent out the invitations, set up a kick-off call with each print prospect. Give them at least a day before the call. They’ll have had a chance to review it and come up with appropriate questions.

During the call, review details such as the timeline and criteria, and address any questions. Identify the lead contact within your organization – all communication will be channeled through this person. Establish whether you prefer contact via email or phone calls. The frequency of communication will ultimately be up to the vendor, but in our experience, an open line of communication is best for the RFP process.

Week Two, Tuesday – Q&A
Your review call should have covered most of the questions with the print prospects, but it’s likely some will arise as they develop timelines, estimates and responses. Require them to email a list of follow-up questions to the lead contact. Once you receive each prospect’s questions, consolidate them into one list, and start answering!

Week Two, Wednesday through Friday – Answers
At this point, staying on track is your responsibility. Vendors will likely be asking questions around a detail or approach. Your team may not have yet agreed upon these specifics.

Block out time with key players at your organization. Sit down together so you know you’re all on the same page with answers.

Delegate answer ownership. This is important, as it makes individuals responsible for completing their answers. Simple, easy and straightforward questions can be completed quickly. For the more difficult or detailed questions, work together as a group to sort out an agreed-upon answer.

Don’t let time get away from you. It’s easy to disrupt the timeline, and staying on track is your organization’s responsibility right now.

Week Three, Monday – Delivering Answers
Send the completed, consolidated question-and-answer document to every prospect. Set up a conference call with all print prospects to discuss the answers. Taking 30 minutes now will ensure all prospects understand everything, and could save your team hours of emailing back and forth.

Weeks Four-Six – Proposal Development
Allow at least two weeks for prospective printers to develop their proposals. Again, allowing ample time for them to research best solutions for your situation will benefit you most. Always have an open line to the prospects in case they have questions.

Week Seven – Proposal Submissions
Your RFP deadline should fall somewhere this week, probably Tuesday through Friday.

Ask for it at the end of the day, not close of business. The potential for different time zones could add to the stress and confusion. This also gives prospects extra time to polish their proposals and deliver a solid, unrushed response.

NEVER make it due on a Monday. Print prospects will just be starting their week and will likely want the day to re-review the proposal. Giving them that day will likely result in better proposals. Plus, let’s face it, you’re just beginning your work week as well and the likelihood that you will review any submitted proposals on a Monday at the end of the day (or evening) is less likely, therefore unnecessary.

Week Seven and Eight – Proposal Reviews
Once the proposals come in, it’s time to start reviewing them.

You will probably want a spreadsheet covering each criteria necessary to your project. Identify the top four or five people on your team most relevant for making the decision. These stakeholders will score each print prospect on the established criteria.

Criteria can include:

  1. Schedule. Does their print schedule meet yours?
  2. Mailing. Can they meet your distribution needs? Do they save you money with new solutions?
  3. Fulfillment. Do they have a fulfillment solution? Is it right for your organization, or would it be better to contract out to a separate fulfillment provider?
  4. Apps. Can the prospect offer an app solution for your publication? Is this something you need or would be beneficial to your organization? Do the app solution costs fit your needs?
  5. Price. Are they meeting your print pricing needs? Are they above your needs? If they’re above, is it simply more expensive or do they offer extra value that would validate the extra cost?
  6. Experience. Does the prospect work with other associations? Do they understand the detail and operations involved with association publishing? Will they be able to meet your specific needs?
  7. Services. Does the prospect offer any additional services that you might want later on? Many printers these days are taking a holistic approach to content distribution and even content strategy. Think about the possibilities as new programs develop.

Assign a point value to each criteria. The total should equal up to 100 points. Weigh each score as is appropriate for your association. The vital criteria will be worth more points than the less important points.

Have each stakeholder complete the scoring spreadsheet, then compile their answers into one. This gives you a clear and straightforward view of where each prospect lands in the proposal process. It will make it much easier to pick your finalists.

Week Eight – Follow Up
If you’ve found the right print prospect for the project, congratulations! You’re almost done with the project. Skip ahead to step eight.

If you’re still deciding between two or three prospects, it’s time for a presentation and follow-up.

Reach out to the top prospects for a follow-up. A maximum of three prospects is recommended at this stage. If you must have more than that, reach out to all you deem worthy of further discovery.

Submit the follow-up questions via email. Make sure you ask for any forgotten or additional information.

Be clear on your desired format for submittal, as well as the date and time they are due. Does this make any changes to the timeline? If so, address the changes.

Create a spreadsheet like you used with the initial round of prospects. Weigh the follow-up responses against each prospect’s first RFP score. This may bring a winner to the forefront.

If you’re still having a difficult time deciding, take it one step further. Schedule a plant tour, presentation or both.

A plant tour gives you a good feel for the prospect, how they maintain their facilities, how their people work, and their company culture.

A presentation allows you more insight into their proposal. You’ll be able to speak about certain details and the prospect will gain a clearer understanding of your needs.

Week Eight – Decision
It’s time. Once you’ve made your decision, call or email the winning prospect to inform them they’ve been chosen. Let them know they cannot publicize this information until you give them permission. This will allow you to first reach out to all prospects.

Contact all the prospects who weren’t selected and let them know why you chose a different company. It’s best to do this by phone. Be kind and respectful. They spent a lot of time and effort to present this proposal. The least you can do is inform them directly. Give them the chance to learn where they were underperforming in the bidding process.

Having a concise, clear path toward developing and executing a print RFP is the easiest way to get the print partner you want. Keep an eye on details, follow a schedule and keep your actions clear and openly communicated. This way you’re always guaranteed to have a happy decision team, a print partner who knows exactly what they’re walking into and ultimately the best possible person for the job. Again, as we stated in the beginning, clarity and efficiency will be your best friends and produce best results.

We hope this helps!