Proven ways to successfully navigate the RFP process

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Chad Ulman
Chad Ulman

One of the greatest benefits of the request for proposal process is that it brings structure to the often-demanding decision-making process that comes with both new construction or remodeling projects.

Great clarity can be the product of quality work and thoughtful decisions in the early stages. A well-executed RFP process increases the likelihood of making the best choices that can bring the greatest benefit to your organization.   

All RFPs are not one and the same, however, and shouldn't be treated as such. Although it is wise to garner insight from other senior care providers and colleagues, it is probably not the best approach to take their RFPs and consider them your own.

At times, we've received RFPs with outdated information that cost valuable time to both proposing firms and those organizations sending them. Be sure that you're clear on everything that is conveyed in your RFP.

If you do use a template, be certain to remove any references or statements that are vague or are not relevant to your project. Even though you may have used 20 questions in a previous RFP, it may be that 10 will get you the necessary answers and information this time. Consider which questions and elements are most appropriate for your current project.

The selection committee

As a general rule, your selection committee should consist of individuals who have strong technical knowledge and experience in building design and construction. It also is wise to have at least one board member on the selection committee. Smaller organizations may simply depend on the vice president of operations to handle the RFP reviews and make recommendations to the management team. 

If you do create a selection committee, then all members should possess a thorough understanding of the RFP as well as the evaluation criteria. Be certain to give them sufficient time to review and understand the submitted proposals. They will need time to study each proposal, develop follow-up questions and determine initial rankings of the firms. After reviewing the submitted RFPs, the selection committee members then can create their shortlists of firms to interview.

Establishing your vision

Throughout the initial planning stage, you're establishing your image for success while also gathering insights about potential firms that will guide the process. As you clarify the project goals and needs, note the specific services you are seeking. Determine your vision and project goals; convey them simply, clearly and in your own words.

Typical critical components of this stage: 

  • Developing a timeline
  • Identifying the selection committee
  • Defining your criteria for evaluation
  • Creating an RFP
  • Gathering a list of firms to invite to respond

Share as much information about the pending project as possible in the RFP. If you are seeking multiple services, inform the firms that you are open to receiving proposals for all services from the same company.

Be certain to give the responding firms adequate time to produce comprehensive proposals in response to your RFP. One month normally considered is reasonable.

Establish a deadline for firms to ask questions, and clearly state your point of contact. Sometimes, organizations want firms to go through one person who will be the designated representative of a board or committee. This practice may keep it simple for the senior care provider, but it often is helpful for firms to hear multiple viewpoints and opinions.

To find appropriate firms for your RFP, use a variety of sources, including peers who have completed similar projects, industry experts and local members of national associations such as the American Seniors Housing Association, LeadingAge, the National Center for Assisted Living and Argentum. When requesting proposals, bear in mind that responses can be lengthy and detailed and will require diligent review. 

Onsite tours add value

In the case of a facility renovation, a compulsory walk-through for all interested parties is mandatory in many RFPs. You can use this as another opportunity to evaluate firms and their genuine interest. Track the firms that initiate contact to ask clarifying questions or inquire about visiting you and touring your facilities.

Whether you have mandatory or voluntary tours, allow firms to schedule them at least two weeks before the proposal due date to adequately prepare their responses and consider any new insights gained from the walk-through. If the project is new construction, then the firm also should visit other properties developed by the owner to get a sense of the style, expectations and sensibilities related to space use and function. Demonstrated initiative will help identify which firms truly are interested in your project.

Another option is to provide a group tour for all interested firms. This approach saves staff time and avoids bias while also providing the necessary acumen to aid teams in preparing quality proposals.

Developing and distributing an FAQ document after the tours are complete is a best practice. It is common for the questions that are asked during tours to shine a light on critical pieces of information that inadvertently may have been left out initially or represent items that had not been identified before the tour.

The interview process

It is imperative to provide an interview evaluation form that is well understood by the committee before conducting interviews. Using a standard form to evaluate the shortlisted firms provides the committee with side-by-side comparisons of each firm's skills, experience and creative angle. Communicate to the participating firms what the audio/visual and interview room accommodations will be so they can be adequately equipped to present. Projection capability, easels and a white board are common expectations. All firms should receive the criteria that will be used for assessment.

Most interview teams choose to schedule all interviews on the same day (or at least within 36 hours) to keep the content fresh and the scoring consistent. Sixty to 90 minutes should be ample time for each firm's presentation, allowing an extra 10 to 15 minutes for follow-up questions from the committee.

It may seem like a good idea to schedule interviews back-to-back, but that doesn't allow time for the interview team members to document their findings, take a break or participate in dynamic discussion.

After the interview, share your timeline for selection and how presenters can expect to find out the results — and of course, convey your appreciation. Remember that every shortlisted firm has put in numerous hours in planning and preparing for a presentation to you.

Evaluation: The tough decision process

The way you evaluate the proposals should be consistent with your project, needs and organizational culture. I certainly would suggest using qualifications-based selection criteria, however. Choosing a firm based on qualifications will give you the best chance of working with a professional who can position your organization for success.

Relying on cost as the primary determining factor is a mistake best avoided. Cost does not equal value, especially when it comes to selecting professional services.

Important factors to deliberate:

  • The firm's portfolio of comparable projects
  • Key personnel and their skills and experience
  • Demonstrated interest
  • Comprehension of the project and scope of work
  • Creativity and approach to design
  • Value of additional support services
  • Rapport and personal connection
  • Anticipated project management (schedule, cost management, communication, etc.) approach and services

Coming to agreement

Once you select a firm, begin discussions to establish a professional services agreement. This state of the process is the time to refine key elements such as goals, project requirements, anticipated scope of services and fees. This is the time to begin to develop the collaborative partnership that will make the experience more enjoyable and productive.

Once the scope of services has been determined, the selected firm should provide a comprehensive fee proposal. In the unlikely event that you cannot agree on the fees and scope of services with the designated firm, you should then negotiate with the next highest-rated firm. 

You may find that the selected firm proposes using a standard form of agreement developed by the American Institute of Architects. This is a common practice and an appropriate solution in most instances. 

Your successful RFP process

Using your experience, the wisdom of your peers and the lessons presented here will lead you to a successful RFP process. You and your organization will benefit as you find the clarity that will guide the multitude of decisions that are necessary throughout the planning, design and construction phases of your next building project. 

Chad Ulman is director of architecture for Hoffman Planning, Design & Construction Inc. and has 20 years of experience in the design and construction profession. A graduate of the University of Minnesota with both a Master of Architecture and Bachelor of Arts in Architecture, Ulman is a member of the American Institute of Architects, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, and the Society for the Advancement of Gerontological Environments, as well as a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-accredited professional. You can reach Ulman at culman@hoffman.net.

McKnight's Senior Living welcomes guest columns on subjects of value to the industry. Please see our submission guidelines for more information.

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