Why You Should Use SMEs to Select the Winning Proposal

Vendor proposals can be massive; choose Subject Matter Experts and end-user staff wisely to review themTell me: Who is best equipped to select the winning vendor for your project? The stakeholders? The procurement department? Your Project Manager and her leads?

From my experience it is the Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) (and/or end-user representatives). Client staff that are loaned to the project have the most to gain from an optimum vendor selection – and the most to lose.

This article is written from the perspective of a client organization soliciting the services of an IT provider, rather than from the perspective of the IT provider requesting bids for various project needs. However, the ideas are useful in any procurement process.

In an earlier article, I discussed in detail how an organization might develop a procurement management plan (“14 Steps to a Great Procurement Management Plan”. From that plan would come an invitation to bid, typically in the form of a Request for Proposal (RFP). This article then follows with my observations on how to select the winning proposal from the many varied responses to the RFP.

Distilled to its most basic form, the selection of the winner has two steps: a compliance review and a technical review. Clearly, if the proposal is non-compliant (e.g. pricing was included in the technical section even though prohibited; beta software was proposed though prohibited; past performance references were fabricated, and other such non-compliant factors), then the technical review is moot and can be terminated.

Assuming compliance, however, the technical review scores each IT provider’s functional, technical, staffing, and administrative responses against the requirements of the RFP. The IT provider that best demonstrates its ability to deliver the project according to what was requested in the RFP will earn the highest score.

The typical proposal response in the industry in which I worked was several thousand pages. I’m not sure what was most challenging during my career – writing proposals as an IT provider, or reviewing proposals as a consultant to client organizations. My strength was my domain knowledge, and in supporting client organizations I was typically assigned to advise the functional teams as they reviewed the applicable sections of the proposals. As a contractor I could not serve on the selection committee, or even prompt reviewers on how to score; but I was requested to assist them in understanding the proposals.

From this experience, I concluded that the following actions provide for a stronger review of the offerors’ proposals and selection of the proposal that is most advantageous to the organization:

  • Use SMEs and/or end-users to perform the detailed proposal review. Better yet, use the same client staff that helped develop the RFP functional requirements in the first place. This staff holds the overall vision that was fleshed out while writing the RFP. Who better to evaluate the IT provider’s proposed solution against that vision?

    As a consultant to several client organizations for their IT procurements, I distinctly remember two such organizations because their procurements were for very similar projects. I had led both clients’ end-user teams in developing the high-level functional requirements, the detailed processes in which the IT provider would engage client staff, and the expected working relationship between provider and client.

    The similarity ended during the proposal review process. Client A’s selection committee was comprised of senior level division staff brought in specifically to score the proposals. On the other hand, Client B’s selection committee was made up of rank-and-file end-user staff and SMEs, the same staff that had contributed to the development of the functional sections of the RFP.

    Which team do you think did the more thorough job of reviewing vendor proposals? Let me rephrase that from a selfish standpoint: Which team do you think relied on my support the least?

    If you said Client B, you are correct. The end-users had been loaned to the project from their day jobs from the inception of the project. The functional requirements they had developed, and were now comparing to the IT providers’ proposals, were second nature to them. My assistance was requested whenever they did not completely understand the proposer’s intent, but otherwise they managed the review largely on their own.

    Client A, on the other hand, used management staff to conduct the proposal review, even though the RFP requirements were also developed by end-users and SMEs. As managers, they were one step removed from both the RFP requirements and the day-to-day job requirements the new system would support. In the end, Client A made a good selection, but my assistance was required in depth to help explain the vendors’ proposals.

  • Ensure SMEs and/or end-users validate proposal responses against the RFP requirements. The proposal review is not the time to add or change the RFP requirements based on what the reviewers like about one or more of the proposals. Once this is completely understood, I have found that the end-users and SMEs will review every detail of every response diligently against the RFP requirements. These reviewers have developed a sense of what the new system will do for them in their jobs and will work hard to ensure that the most thorough responses are scored the highest.
  • Help SMEs and/or end-users understand what it will be like to work with the IT providers. I always advise client organizations to include a request in the RFP for the IT provider to describe how it will work with the client organization during the course of the project execution. The response to this section is designed to give the proposal review team a sense of how the client staff will be utilized on the project.

    For example, the vendor’s response should address questions such as the following:

    • Will the client staff be relegated to gopher status, serving as glorified administrative staff to the IT project team, or will they be full partners with IT?
    • Will their questions, concerns, and input be carefully considered; or will they be dismissed out of hand?
    • Will IT be patient with the client staff as they navigate this new world of IT project delivery, or will they be left to flounder as they attempt to complete their tasks?
    • Will the client staff be trained in their new responsibilities (e.g. how to best participate in requirements definition, how to prepare user acceptance test case scenarios and scripts), or will they be left to figure them out on their own?

By recruiting the same client staff to review the proposals that helped develop the RFP requirements, they can also begin to develop a sense of what it will be like to work with each vendor. Vendors that describe an equal partnership with the client staff will often fare better in the scoring process.

  • Include SMEs and/or end-users during the oral presentations of the vendors’ proposals. By the end of the proposal review process, we would have reduced the number of qualified bids to a handful that met a pre-defined threshold. These more qualified vendors would then be asked to describe (and even demonstrate a prototype) their solutions over the course of a day or more.

    The vendors’ proposed key personnel would be required to conduct the orals so that our proposal review team could witness their interactions with each other, their proficiency in describing the proposed solution, and their responses to questions from the reviewers. In this way, the client staff got an even better impression of what it would be like to work with the proposed IT project staff.

Throughout this series of articles as I focus on the people aspects of project management, I contend that nothing is more important than involving the client’s SMEs and end-user staff in every facet of the project. This should start with the development of the RFP, proceed to the selection of an optimum vendor, and continue with participation in every phase of project execution.


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