9 Expert Tips to Help You Excel at Writing Certification Technology RFPs

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By Carlos Restrepo, MS, CAE
Chief Revenue Officer

Fall is here! And so are the changes that come with it. The leaves are turning, the weather is cooler, and we’re all thinking about what comes next. It’s change at its best – we expect it, we have a history with it, and we know what will come after it. It’s not like the radical change we’ve experienced in the past two years.

Perhaps fittingly, the change of seasons is often when businesses plan for the future and reach out to new vendors and consultants. If you’re adopting the new Business of Certification model that we’ve suggested this summer, you’re trying to operate like a for-profit organization while staying true to your mission. That means generating multiple revenue streams for financial stability and, at the same time, serving the needs of your industry.

Colleagues in the certification world call the fall the “RFP season,” referring to the large number of requests for proposals boards write this time of year. We’ve noticed it, too.

We’ve also noticed how much staff members at certification boards dread writing RFPs. It’s true that the better the RFP, the better the result, but providing needed information to potential vendors is not an intuitive process.

Transformational technology is simply technology that changes lives of people using it…

To help out, we went to some of the smartest people we know – consultants who provide a bridge between their certification-board clients and vendors – and asked them for their best advice about preparing to write an RFP for transformational technology. They write proposals every week, so we knew we’d get great tips. We talked to several of our favorite partners:

I feel compelled to mention that although we thought transformational technology was a clear term to describe a major technology purchase, our experts disagreed. They said transformational technology is simply technology that changes the lives of the people using it. Its transformative power comes from the results, not the size of the purchase.

For example, Moira Edwards remembers when she discovered that Google maps on her mobile device could show her where traffic jams were. She said it changed her life because from then on, she could choose routes that avoided bad traffic. It was small technology, but it had a major impact.

“Transformation removes the friction or barriers in our lives,” Moira said. “It makes our lives easier, even when we don’t realize it’s been hard.”

You might write an RFP for a completely new management system. Or you might write an RFP for a critical add-on that supercharges your existing management system. The real question is what do you need to consider before you begin writing the RFP so that the outcome is transformative?

Here’s what our experts said:

Expert Tip #1 – What business problem are you trying to solve?

“The first question I ask my clients,” Gretchen said, “is what business problem are you trying to solve and why?”

That question, she said, helps clients focus on what they’re trying to accomplish instead of their frustrated desire to “rip and replace” their existing system. She and Kathleen ask about the organization’s operations – which programs are growing, which are shrinking, and which bring in the highest member value and revenue. They also ask about programs that don’t bring in massive revenue but are beloved. They occupy a special place in the discussion about programs and process.

Expert Tip #2 – Talk to end users.

This tip falls in the category of doing your homework. Moira recommends that you talk to users about their “pain points.”

“Sometimes,” she said, “you can go around to the staff and ask, ‘How do you process this?’ to uncover pain points.”

By starting a specific conversation, you can uncover specific pain points in normal staff functions. Staff members can also tell you what questions they’ve answered for certificants and members or the missing information they have to track down.

Likewise, staff knows the system well, but certificants don’t. It’s easy to set up a test at a conference or annual meeting so that you can watch while certificants complete tasks in your system. What you see can give you many insights into their pain points. Once you know where the pain points are, you can explain them in an RFP. Vendors may have solutions you’ve not considered.

Expert Tip #3 – Tell a story about your company.

The more a vendor knows about your company, the more likely it is they can suggest a solution. One of the first sections of the RFP should be information about your company. Include your mission, goals, how you work and where your pain points lie.

This section should be written in plain English, not technology speak. You aren’t trying to suggest solutions, you’re trying to give the vendor information about your company that will help match your needs and corporate culture to the appropriate solution.

“You need to provide context,” Moira said. “Rather than just writing ‘we need an address,’ write ‘we need an address so we can send out certificates.’ By providing a little context, the developer knows why this bit of information is important. You can’t send a framed certificate to a PO box.”

“Share your business goals and needs with vendors,” Gretchen said. “They are your future partners not adversaries.”

Remember to include the technology you already use. You may need a total overhaul, but you might need plug-ins that will make your existing technology work better.

Moira suggests that you describe your aspirations in a separate section. Where does your organization want to go? Your answer will help a vendor design the best solution for you. Do you want to create new revenue streams, share information securely with partners, or help your certificants keep track of their CEUs? Each aspiration will help guide the process of selecting new technology.

Expert Tip #4 – Describe your “hard walls.”

Kathleen and Gretchen suggest that you address constraints that are imposed on your organization by others. Those restrictions may include government regulations, rules required by your governing board, or stipulations from your industry, just to name a few. Those restrictions, depending on what they are, may require additional configuration and business rules as a new product is developed for your organization. You can simply list them in a bulleted list then discuss in more detail with the selected vendor.

Expert Tip #5 – Don’t be a prisoner to your old system.

In the not-so-distant past, your board may have bought a large, complicated system or may have cobbled together a collection of technology solutions. It’s possible that whatever technology you are using now may not serve your current needs, but the tendency in many organizations is to keep it because staff members know how it works, it cost a great deal of money, and no one is sure anything else can do the job better.

“We try to get a sense of the client technology ecosystem,” Kathleen said. “Just because they have a giant system they implemented 15 years ago doesn’t necessarily mean they need that again – a complementary set of applications may be more appropriate. It depends on what their business goals are.”

The anticipated pain of change is sometimes enough to keep an organization from taking any action at all. Don’t be afraid to examine where you are, describe where you want to be, and search for a solution that can help you reach your goals.

Your best solution may not be to replace one large system with another. You might not have the budget for it, and a vendor may be able to help you move incrementally to the goal over time. Knowing where you want to go, what tools you have at your disposal and what budgetary restrictions are present can help a vendor craft the solution that’s best for your organization.

“Innovation and transformation may be a series of small changes that add up to a shift in behavior. Not everything has be a major project all the time,” Gretchen said. “Your transformation may be transforming a complex process so it supports your members better and reduces the system overhead. Or it might be an operational transformation that might not be very exciting, but it’s very practical.”

Expert Tip #6 – Be honest about your goals.

Don’t hide your true intentions in your RFP. All of our consultants have read proposals that provided only the minimum of information about the organization and its real goals. They agreed that minimalist RFPs don’t often lead to successful implementations. The technology vendor needs more information to create a package for each client.

In this situation, you aren’t the expert. The vendor is. They know the ins and outs of their system better than anyone, and if you’re dealing with reputable firms, they can be a valuable tool to help you be successful.

If you’re working with a consultant, it’s their job to guide discussions about where you are and where you want to be. Gretchen said once they understand what’s working, what’s not working and what might be missing altogether, it’s the consultant’s job to translate that information into business requirements that are tangible and will help you assess different technology platforms.

Some organizations issuing RFPs are concerned about being added to a vendor’s call list and having to fend off unwanted contacts after the RFP process is completed. Our consultants said that part of their service is recommending reputable vendors who aren’t out to make a sales-call quota at your expense. You can also control the response by vendors after the process by only issuing RFPs to those who have been recommended to you.

After the Decision Is Made

In addition to the six expert tips our consultants gave for preparing to write an RFP, they gave three tips for evaluating and implementing the new technology:

Expert Tip #7 – Ask vendors HOW things will work.

You might have a special need that’s outside normal specs of the technology you’re considering. Ask the vendor to show you how their solution will address that need. Don’t be shy about requesting a demonstration, either. If the vendor is the right one for your organization, demonstrating their products should be easy. Make a list of the items you want to see in the demonstration and make sure all your questions are answered.

Expert Tip #8 – Make sure ongoing funding is available.

Often, funding for the initial purchase and implementation of new technology comes out of an organization’s reserve or capital funds. If that’s the case with your RFP, do the budget work now to fund the ongoing expenses associated with the new technology. You’ll want to budget for upgrades and general maintenance, as well as salary and benefits for any new staff members necessary to keep the system running. Make sure there is an ongoing funding stream for maintenance.

Expert Tip #9 – Decide how you will manage change.

Once you have all the vendor proposals, have seen the demonstrations, and checked vendor reference, it’s time to make a decision. As you prepare for installation, you’ll want to consider how you’ll manage the changes brought by the new technology. Your staff may need to learn a new vocabulary or design a new process before the system is implemented. If your RFP brings a system-wide change, everyone will need to be trained and given a chance to ask questions about the specifics of their area.

Our experts agree that designating a staff member or a team that is versed in managing change is a great idea. Recognizing the disruptions change brings and working to mitigate the impact of change on your staff and your certificants can help make the transition successful.

We know how fall will turn into winter and then spring and summer. It’s happened every year we’ve been around. Technology changes can be just as predictable and can bring major benefits to everyone in your organization.

How Can Agilutions Help?

We hope that the advice we’ve provided from our favorite RFP experts has been helpful to you. If you’re creating new revenue streams (or would like to) and need technology to support your goals, we’d love to start a conversation with you. We promise we won’t bug you if you’re not ready to write an RFP right now, but if you have questions, visit the CredHQ website or send me an email.