Not-For-Profits make decisions by boards. Because they use funds from donors or members, there is a high degree of scrutiny over their decision making. When it comes to purchasing technical solutions, the default is to do what is considered safe – the old tender process. I have been on both the buyer and the vendor side of expensive and lengthy tender processes, and after playing a part in hundreds of them, I have reached the conclusion – they simply do not deliver good value! There must be a way to tender smarter.
What are you trying to achieve through a tender?
Organisations in the market for a new CRM system usually submit to long (anywhere from 4-24 months!) and expensive tender processes. Consultants normally run these processes and are ironically often seen as being biased towards one technology or another. Organisations undergo this pain in order to:-
- Demonstrate to their boards and stakeholders that they have undergone due process in selection of a solution
- Get an accurate ballpark estimate for the project (because it is their board that needs to approve a budget)
- Select a technology that will work for them (many technologies would probably work – but how they are implemented matters)
- Select a partner that they trust and can work with (this is the most critical, and often neglected part – the human side of selection)
What do Not-For-Profits normally get out of a tender process?
- A beauty parade of how much resource a supplier can throw at a tender process (this favours the large and overly bureaucratic vendors – of course they will bill this in the end, somehow)
- How well the vendor can write and how well they can present – which are not the same skills as delivering a technical project.
If I had a penny for each time a selection was made largely because of how much time was put into the tender response – I would be rich. Instead I am left often bewildered by the short-sighted choice of technology. Yet, if you were paying by the hour for the vendor’s time in the sale, you would likely not be able to afford the tender process. Not all implementation partners are prepared to throw huge amounts of resources at tender processes. Smaller, highly capable vendors can feel the tables are stacked against them (by consultants running the tender or by the tender process itself)
There has simply got to be a smarter tender process that delivers better outcomes!
And there is.
Nowadays, it is completely feasible for an association or charity to run a valid selection process internally.
Here are 3 tips to getting good returns from such a process.
Tip 1 – Get to the shortlist fast!
Let’s assume that most technology solutions that have been out there for some time can do most of what you need. How different are you actually from other associations or charities?
There are really just a handful of key criteria that your organisation needs to use to select a shortlist of (say) 3 possible vendors:-
- Base technology. You are probably going to look at Salesforce from a .org partner along with some apps, or a Microsoft Dynamics based provider and a turnkey association or charity specific solution, like iMIS
- Maturity of cloud platform. In the modern world, cloud really is the only solution, but how mature is the cloud platform? Has it got a tested set of tools and APIs with a vibrant developer community? Can it connect easily to all the other web systems and do single sign-ons etc?
- Flexibility and self enhancement. Can you adjust it easily yourself, using tools going forwards. Will you be reliant on the vendor or partner to make costly changes?
- Community. What is the user community like? How well established is it and can you easily access and talk to other users?
- Partner landscape. Is there a network of qualified and experienced implementation partners for the solution. If so, it means that if you are not happy with the vendor or partner’s services, you can easily find another partner to continue with in the ecosystem.
Tip 2 – Don’t Demo! Run a paid Micro-Project
I demo’d CRM systems for nearly a decade, and there is a huge degree of showmanship involved. As a procurer, you can rarely get to the detail you need in the allocated demo time. And even then, what you see is not always what you get. A much smarter way is to create a mini project for your prospective partners. If you want to know what it would be like working with someone – try working with them!
- Define a small but distinct piece of work. Set a budget and a vague spec. This is deliberate -you want to see how the partner helps you to clearly define things and then deliver.
- Experience working alongside them. How do they react when things go wrong? How do they uncover information, and how do they deliver against a budget?
- Pay for your prospect’s participation. Set up a reasonable fixed fee for the work. This means each vendor will give the same resources, and implementation teams, rather than sales teams will do the work. It will still cost less than a full-blown tender process! It can also leave you with a specific piece of work that can be re-used in the implementation of the project. Suppliers may also give you another level of engagement when you pay them as opposed to a non-paying tender circus.
Tip 3 – Select a Preferred Technology Partner Early
Choose a preferred partner to proceed with early in the process. If for some reason choice #1 does not pan out (yes, this happens), you have 1 or 2 more prospective partners lined up from the previous step. Consider these things in your choice – –
- This is not just someone who is professional at selling. Your staff need to work alongside them for a good many years if your organisation is to meet its goals. What is the synergy and rapport between your team and theirs like?
- Did they put project governance tools in place, even for this microproject? Would that scale to a full-blown implementation?
- How easy was it to collaborate and escalate with the partner – were there clear channels of communication?
- Did the partner look beyond the current project and make you start thinking of the future and how your organisation could benefit from a long term relationship?
- Was the partner able to challenge your business processes and suggest improvements based on their experience, and then put those into practise for your staff?
The next step of engagement starts once you have chosen your preferred partner. Now is when you can request a detailed project estimate. Ask them to spend time showing you the system and how it would meet your organisation’s needs (as opposed to a sales demo). Get to know what other organisations they have worked with in the past and importantly, why they chose them and stayed with them.
This is by no means the only alternative to tenders – there are others out there, like Agile used for tendering process, or Agile for Fixed Bid Projects or Is there an alternative to the traditional tender process?
We’d love to hear what you think about this. What is your biggest obstacle to successfully selecting a solution and have you experimented with similar, more Agile forms of selection processes? What results have you seen? We’d be happy to share more of our experiences, or help you in your next selection adventure.