When the time comes for your district to make a large technology purchase, you must often straddle the line between finding the best fit for your district and staying within the constraints of a burdensome request for proposal (RFP) process. Having responded to hundreds of RFPs from a diverse group of schools, districts, and state agencies over the years, we have been fortunate enough to gain some insights into the difference between a smooth, effective process and one that results in wasted effort and disastrous post-decision outcomes. We are more than happy to share five steps that most often lead to a well-informed purchasing decision.
1) Own your specs
It is common practice in the K-12 market to “borrow” RFP templates from other districts or turn over the requirements to a consulting firm. There is nothing wrong with this practice – it saves days and days of tedious legwork – but the specification template should serve as a starting point for your district, not an end product. No two districts are exactly alike in their day-to-day operations, so it would stand to reason that no two districts should put out an identical list of requirements for their technology solution.
The most effective project leaders take the time to actively solicit feedback from stakeholders, both internal and external, and revise or add requirements based on those results. The solution that was best for your neighboring district may not be the right thing for yours. An accurate, personalized set of requirements is a great way to determine whether or not that is the case.
If you are using a consultant to help with your RFP process, it can be helpful to double-check their specs as well. We are aware of several widely used templates in circulation right now that contain duplicate and/or outdated requirements, both of which can skew the evaluation process and make a prospective vendor look like a better – or worse – fit than they actually are.
2) Compare apples to apples
Technology companies take varying approaches to training and implementation; some methods have a proven track record of setting teams up for success, while others are designed with the bottom line in mind. While pricing is always an important factor in your decision, it can help to dig a little deeper into the proposal and determine where your vendors are diverging. If one vendor is proposing a $50,000 implementation package, while another offers services totaling $5,000, something may be amiss.
The devil is in the details. Use the RFP process to find out what each vendor’s idea of “implementation” is, including project management, consulting, and training. This is a big project you are undertaking – does the vendor display an understanding of the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) and Project Management Institute (PMI) standards that are so crucial to a successful implementation, or are they sticking to the role of “software provider” and relying on your district to make it work? Is each vendor proposing consulting services whereby they will learn about your district, personalize your training sessions, and configure the software to meet your needs out of the box? Is training delivered via a multifaceted, flexible approach, or are vendors cutting costs by lumping all training into self-directed, online learning options?
Data migrations can make or break an implementation, but very few RFPs require any information about this procedure outside of cost. In the absence of additional information, districts will naturally have a tendency to lean toward the cheaper option, only to find out later that a vendor’s idea of data migration is to drop a massive import spreadsheet into your lap and ask you to fill it out and send it back when you’re done. The best way to guard against this kind of disappointment and waste is to ask for specifics in the RFP document itself. Too often, the proposals included in a RFP response end up reflecting cut corners and manipulated numbers, with vendors taking a “we’ll cross that bridge when we get there” attitude.
3) Be mindful of hidden costs
Hidden costs can creep up in strange places if you don’t guard against them in your RFP. They can take many forms, some more obvious than others, and completely flip the script on the procurement process. The biggest risk lies in the fact that you may not even realize they’re there until you are too far along to turn back. One of the inherent flaws of the RFP process is the fact that it encourages vendors to take any measure necessary to come in with the lowest price, even if it results in a completely inaccurate picture of your district’s total cost of ownership.
Districts have caught on to this and are coming up with new ways to reveal hidden costs before the fact, including a stated requirement for vendors to include all travel expenses in their proposal. Another effective tactic you can take is to require adherence to a “not-to-exceed” pricing condition that forces vendors to satisfy the scope of work as presented in the RFP document given a mutually negotiated and executed project plan.
4) Ensure that what you see is what you get
Many edtech vendors have come up with clever ways to answer “Yes” to as many specifications as possible by talking themselves into roundabout workarounds that may or may not require custom programming to satisfy. You can avoid this ambiguity by clarifying your definition of “out-of-the-box” functionality and requiring vendors to specify which requirements will hinge on district-driven customization vs. vendor programming that may or may not be included in your proposal costs.
Sales jargon is also a frequently-used shield for vendors to hide behind. If you include a Support section in your RFP, vendors that don’t do a great job with ongoing customer service may talk about how “highly trained support specialists” are always available to “quickly” and “effectively” answer your call, which really tells you nothing about how good (or bad) they actually are. Instead of framing your questions in broad terms, ask for specific statistics about the number of support calls, average response time, and average resolution time over the past year. It’s hard to dance around a black and white requirement like that.
Live presentations usually make up the next stage of the RFP process after written responses are gathered and finalists are determined. There is a common misconception that what you see in the demonstration is what you get, but a little verification can go a long way. We have heard on a number of occasions from districts who were frustrated with their new technology because it failed to do all of the things they saw in the demo just a few months earlier. Keep in mind that some vendors will configure and customize their demo databases to match the requirements of the RFP without ever disclosing the fact that the software you end up buying may not look the same or even have the same features.
5) Don’t take our word for it
Technology firms employ, train, and develop people for the sole purpose of responding to RFPs and increasing the company’s win rate in an ultra-competitive landscape. While response format may be dictated by your detailed RFP document, make no mistake about it – the messaging and content are carefully crafted to accentuate the company’s strengths and brush aside its weaknesses. “Over-promising and under-delivering” is a common theme in the K-12 edtech market, and it can be tough to weed out the perpetrators if you rely too heavily on your requirements matrix and category weighting.
Make sure to leave room for reference checks, company research, and market perception within your process. Scour the internet for red flags; if you immediately come across signs that a vendor is not delivering on promises they have made elsewhere, the chances are good that your own experience will be less than stellar. Limit the scope of references to those that are similar to yours in culture, size, and/or location, depending on your district’s priorities. Make sure that the process is designed to favor honest vendors with a proven track record over those who promise much, but fail to deliver once the contract has been signed.
The biggest risk of the RFP process is not that you will choose the wrong vendor – it’s that you’ll end up having to go through the process all over again long before you should. The RFP ideology is sound in and of itself; a transparent, competitive, and objective procurement model is one to be desired. When managed correctly, RFPs can ensure that you end up with a solution that is the best fit for you at the best price for your budget. Make sure your procurement process is designed to circumvent as much confusion as possible so you can make an informed decision based on facts, not spin.
Do you have an edtech RFP success story or cautionary tale that you’d like to share with the K-12 community? Send an email to email@example.com and let us know your thoughts.
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