As you begin your LMS selection process, an obvious question to ask is whether you need an RFP— a request for proposal. This is the document you provide to vendors that lays out the project description and lets them know what it is you’re looking for.
Why Use an RFP
To Articulate Your Business Case
John Leh, head of Talented Learning, a consultancy that helps organizations choose their LMSs, emphasizes that the use of the RFP forces you to articulate your business case requirements: what it is you need; how the LMS will be used; the role it’ll play to encourage channel partners to get proper training; and how that training will pay off for them in greater sales and pay off for you in greater revenue.
To Define Your Organization’s Uniqueness
Likewise, the RFP allows you to lay out what makes your organization unique. Too often, buyers and vendors use templates during the RFP process. (Practically every LMS company makes them freely available.) An LMS company will recognize that you’re using the same RFP they’ve seen 20 times before over the last year. And they’ll respond in kind—with their own boilerplate response. Unless you believe that your company and its needs are exactly like every other company out there, you need to show vendors that you’ve taken the time to define your requirements and your metrics for success, which will prove to them that you’re serious about the selection process.
To Help Make an Apples-to-Apples Comparison
The use of the RFP also enables you to do an apples-to-apples comparison by letting you set the criteria. If you were forced to assess a dozen LMS offerings by whatever criteria the LMS companies have set as important, you’ll spend a lot of time churning your wheels, trying to sort out what’s of value to you. How do you avoid this? By specifying your must-have priorities— the ones without which you have no deal—and by including use cases, examples of two or three activities that are of vital importance to your company and that you’ll expect the finalist LMSs to accomplish in front of you.
So Vendors Can Make a Good Impression
A well-written RFP can also help LMS vendors hit the ground running. They’ll know exactly what to focus on when they respond to your request. The alternative is to sit through endless phone calls in which they try to interview you and ask myriad questions to elicit what’s most important. Multiply that by a dozen vendors—or more—and suddenly, you’re sinking hours and hours into phone calls that could all disappear if all those LMS companies could simply refer to the RFP.
To Keep Vendors Honest
John Leh talks about how the RFP process can help “prevent vendor amnesia.” By forcing vendors to put their responses to your RFP in writing, you have recourse if the LMS implementation hits roadblocks and you need help from the company that sold it to you.
To Help Negotiate a Better Deal
The moment a vendor gets a well-structured RFP, the price you pay will in the end shrink. It’s a signal to those LMS companies that they’re in a competitive situation and need to pull out all the stops to win your business.
The Secret to Showing You’re a True RFP Expert
I’ve seen some RFPs with literally hundreds of requirements, usually copied and pasted by the LMS project manager from numerous lists emailed in by everybody in the organization who has an opinion about what’s important in the new LMS. These lists often are disorganized, chaotic and repetitive.
But sometimes—not as often as I’d like—I get RFPs that aren’t like that, and I know immediately that we’re dealing with somebody who has developed real RFP savvy. How can I tell? Simple. They’ve organized their lists of needs into categories. Each category will have perhaps five to 20 requirements. What kind of categories am I talking about? I’ll give you three examples.
Integration is a common one…
The LMS must provide the following forms of integration:
- CRM or customer service program;
- Webinar platform;
- Marketing automation system; and
- Social media tool
File types are another category. Once you’ve sorted out what forms your learning content will take, put that into a single cohesive list…
The LMS must work natively with the following file formats:
- Word documents;
- PowerPoint or Prezi presentations;
- MP3s or MP4s; and
- SCORM objects.
How you award learners is another category you might visit…
The LMS must recognize the learners in the following ways:
- Printable certificates;
- Digital badges; and
- Continuing education credits.
Granted, many of these are checkoff items. But by categorizing them, the buyer has shown that he or she understands the different functions of the LMS. And when I come across these RFPs, I instantly know that our conversations will be productive and time-saving.
Highlight What’s Important in Your RFP
Does this mean you have to start from scratch when you set off to buy your LMS? Not at all. I suggest you kick off your RFP process with a standard format, then highlight those requirements that are unique to you. Call out the top 10 or 12 requirements that will help you make your go/no-go decision.
Also, there are probably tricky or intricate technical items that are completely unique to your environment and need special calling out. While your checkbox functionality might number in the dozens of items, I’d encourage you to keep your custom functionality to your top-three needs. After all, the LMS you’re licensing won’t be custom-built for you; these days most software is delivered as software-as-a-service.
A note about customization: If you need more customization than that, it’s possible that you should consider changing your process to fit the software rather than the other way around. LMS companies have a lot of experience in many different organizations and have designed their software to fit the common use cases they see over and over. It may be time for you to re-engineer your business processes to fit industry standards.
Anatomy of an RFP
Now that you understand where to put the emphasis in your RFP, let’s cover some of the other basics, such as what sections to include.
- Project overview, where you summarize the LMS project and give some background on your goals for the LMS;
- Guidelines, in which you explain to vendors what you expect to see in their responses and how those will be evaluated;
- Description and requirements, where you lay out the details— including goals—of your LMS project;
- Use cases, in which you describe the different kinds of scenarios you would like to see during potential demonstrations;
- Project deliverables, in which you specify what you expect the vendor to deliver;
- Crucial selection criteria;
- Timeline, including:
– Deadline for RFP responses to be returned;
– Dates in which the RFP responses will be evaluated;
– Scheduling for online and in-person demonstrations;
– Selection deadline;
– Expected negotiation schedule;
– The date by which those vendors not selected will be notified;
– Kickoff meeting for a project implementation;
– Pilot timing; and
– Go live timing.
Where and How to Distribute Your RFP
Once you have your RFP in hand, it’s time to begin circulating it. I’d suggest developing a list of perhaps 15 vendors to send the RFP to. While there are hundreds of LMS companies doing business around the world, they don’t all cater to the unique needs of the channel partner market. Since that’s your arena, focus on those companies. Spend a bit of time online researching the most appropriate group of companies that serve that segment.
Even then, you probably won’t get responses to your RFP from all of them. I’d expect a response rate of about two-thirds. For every three RFPs you send out, two responses will come back.
Even 10 companies out of 15 is a lot to manage. My advice is to go through the responses and look for the ones that have paid attention to your highlighted requirements, acknowledged that they understand what you’re talking about and have gone above and beyond those copy-and-paste responses we’ve already covered.
Now, you’re ready for the evaluation phase of your selection process, but that’s a topic for another article!