When it comes time to pick a managed services provider, many organizations use a Request For Proposal (RFP) to solicit applications from potential IT partners. In over 20 years of IT consulting, Mytech Partners has seen our fair share of them…and we’ve learned it’s often difficult to make them work for managed IT services.
Although RFPs can be a useful tool for scoping potential partnerships on a variety of transactional projects, we do not believe they work for identifying a mutual fit for managed IT services. In fact, they aren’t just unlikely to get you a well-aligned IT partner…they’re likely to drive you towards an even worse fit.
Why RFPs seem like a good idea
There’s a lot to value in the RFP format. By establishing the scope of a problem and laying out the desired solution, an organization can clarify its project needs and limitations to potential partners and (sometimes even more importantly) internal teams. Having seen success in using RFPs for other aspects of their work, organizations will often attempt to apply the same format to managed IT services: they describe their organization’s work, their tech challenges, and their criteria required from any potential IT partners.
On the surface, this seems like a good thing for business planning: the organization has demonstrated that it understands the IT problems it’s experiencing, and is seeking a solution that can address those specific concerns. However, this dynamic goes downhill quickly in the submission and selection phase, due to how RFPs omit the most important aspect of a successful IT partnership: dialogue.
How RFPs can sabotage an IT partnership from the start
At its core, an RFP is a list of questions that the potential IT partner is expected to answer. The questions might be highly specific, but there is rarely any back-and-forth discussion between the organization issuing the RFP and the applicant. A few follow-up questions sometimes happen, but most often, a proposal is simply chosen from among the pile of applications without any further discussion.
As a result, every potential IT partner makes their proposal without any idea of what’s actually going on inside the organization’s IT infrastructure; they only know what was mentioned in the RFP, and what might have been available about the organization publicly. These responses are made with incomplete information, which means the final choice will also be made with incomplete information…leading to missed deadlines, broken promises, and dissatisfaction on both sides of the partnership when discrepancies inevitably emerge, like the world’s most costly game of telephone.
Managed IT isn’t a project – it’s a process
Again, while a cut-and-dry approach might seem like the proper way to scope out a project that requires such a large investment, the core problem is that ongoing managed IT services isn’t really a project at all! It’s a continuous relationship that requires consistent input, strategic planning, and a shared understanding of the entire organization’s tech needs.
Think of the difference between purchasing over-the-counter medicine and getting a checkup at a clinic. When you buy cough medicine at the grocery store, you already know what you need (or at least you have it narrowed down). Your partnership with the cashier lasts exactly as long as the purchase does – maybe a little longer, if you asked them which cough medicine they recommend.
Contrast that with a visit to the clinic when you’re feeling ill. Your problem is likely much more complicated, and you often don’t even know what the root cause is…all you know is the symptoms you’re feeling. You’re not there because you’ve already decided on the solution: you’re there to get a solution.
In much the same way, posting an RFP for managed IT services is equivalent to mailing every doctor in town a list of your symptoms and asking for a prescription. Without a thorough discussion and examination of your overall wellbeing, these treatments aren’t just unlikely to work…they could even be downright dangerous!
What to do instead of an RFP: talk it out
Even if RFPs aren’t a one-stop solution for finding the right managed services provider, you don’t need to throw out all of the work you’ve already done; a lot of the intention behind RFPs can still be a big help in your search! Understanding the scope and impact of your tech challenges is still one of the best things you can do to prepare for finding a potential partner.
Taking an account of your organization’s needs (e.g. number of technology users, amount invested in IT, age of hardware) is the first step towards a productive discussion with prospective IT providers, and can help you gauge how they would support you in the years to come. And a big-picture awareness of your overall technology goals will help you to select a partner whose strategic intentions are aligned with yours, so you can ensure your tech problems stay solved even as your organization’s work evolves.
Beginning your partnership with mutual engagement
To extend the analogy from before: the doctor you see for your illness has developed a tried-and-true method of examining and diagnosing problems exactly like yours, so it’s important that they are able to fully gather the information they need to propose a treatment plan. But that examination also won’t work if you don’t have a clear picture of what’s wrong!
In the same way, your perspective and understanding of your organization’s tech challenges is also critical to the selection process. Mytech understands that our prospective clients are the experts on how their tech challenges are hurting them, and so we are willing to engage in that discussion however it works best for them. Although we often avoid standalone RFPs, we are always happy to respond to RFPs as a jumping-off point for a larger conversation: taking that initial list of symptoms and exploring it fully alongside you, to determine the best way to solve the challenges you face.
Managed IT services aren’t a transaction: they’re a partnership. Just like any healthy partnership, both parties benefit from clear expectations and open communication. By starting off your search for an IT partner with intentionally collaborative dialogue, rather than a one-way application, you’ll vastly improve your chances of finding a partner who understands exactly what you’re hoping to get out of your IT investments.
We hope this article has provided a bit of insight into how RFPs work in the managed IT services industry! If you’re currently searching for an IT partner and want to learn more about how you can prepare, check out our short pdf “10 Questions to Ask a Managed Service Provider” to refine your search even further.