The technology used in the print and mail industry is changing rapidly. Every year, equipment speed and capability is improving. It's challenging to buy for the present and keep an eye toward the future. So how do we solve today's issues and prepare for tomorrow's needs?

There are four key principles to follow when buying and planning:

1. Recognize uncertainty - Nobody knows exactly what's going to happen tomorrow. We certainly don't know what changes will occur three to five years from now. It's difficult for leaders to admit that they can't predict the future, but they must recognize their limitations in order to prepare for an uncertain future. Your plans should include several options for when the future doesn't cooperate and events turn out differently than projected.

2. Clearly state known issues - Enumerate and describe the challenges facing your organization today. Consider the business problems facing your internal and external customers and how you can help alleviate those issues. Make a list of the operational problems impacting your unit. Expand on the list with the reasons for each problem.

3. Describe possible future events - Using recent trends, think through what's likely to take place in the next three to five years. Look at the changes in volumes of different types of documents your company is sending to its customers, and the methods for sending those documents. Examine the price points for buying or leasing new equipment and software. Review the innovations being introduced by industry leaders. While you can't guarantee the future, these indicators can help you estimate what's possible and probable.

4. Prioritize - Consider the likelihood of events and the impact on business requirements. For example, will email and e-delivery impact the future delivery of documents? Yes. But by what percentage for which types of documents? Past trends indicate a lower percentage than what many software and service vendors suggest. You also need to consider how your company will react to changes in technology. Do they aggressively adopt new methods or do they wait until the market has taken a certain direction?

The term "future" can mean several different timeframes beyond "tomorrow." For some businesses, planning more than five months out is considered long-term. But for other companies, long-term means five to 10 years. When buying technology, focus on the expected life of the purchase. Most software and equipment in the mailing industry only has a lifespan of three to five years. Because of that short timeframe, services with outsourcing providers should be limited to three to five years as well.

Of course, before you can move forward, you must understand the starting point. There's an old saying that you can't get to where you want to go unless you know where you are. What good is a map if you don't know where you are on that map?

Getting Where You Need to Be
Produce an accurate description of your operation today, including measurements and metrics for the work being produced in your operations. Create process maps that illustrate workflows, identify critical points, and demonstrate what technology is used at each step. That technology may be basic (e.g., mail carts and offline folders) or modern (e.g., scanners and inline booklet makers).

The information you collect provides a clear picture of where you are. Knowing where you are allows you to create a bridge to a future state. A future that's grounded in reality.

Creating your vision isn't something you would do on your own. The idea may be yours, but you won't be alone in bringing that idea to life. You want to engage others - both internal and external - to help you.

Internal resources include your employees, your management team, and the departments that are your internal customers. Your employees deal with the issues every day. Uncover what ideas they have about improving the situation. Talk with your management team about their vision, and how your department can support their plans. Meet with the various departments you service, including billing, customer service, claims, etc. Understand their goals and their expectations.

Externally, consider reaching out to the customers of your company, your peers, and industry experts. If possible, work with your marketing and sales departments to survey customers about the documents they receive. Through your network, discover how other companies have approached their problems. No matter how innovative you think you are, someone else has already implemented your ideas. Learn about their successes and failures before you buy.

This information leads to even more research that's key to preparing for success in the purchasing process. Search the Internet to find who offers which products and services. Check out vendor websites and have literature sent to you. Read through publications like Mailing Systems Technology, reviewing both advertisements and articles about the products and services you're investigating.

Use trade shows effectively. Visit vendor booths, especially vendors you don't know. Take the time to meet and network with fellow professionals. Find out who's using what vendors and why. Collect business cards and ask permission to follow up with additional questions. And then follow up with those vendors and your expanded network.

Beginning the RFP Process
With the information you've gathered, you're ready to begin the Request for Proposals (RFP) process. First, put together an RFP project team. The size of your team will be dictated by the scope of the purchase. The more money being spent, and the more departments impacted by your decision, the larger the team should be. Select people who have demonstrated interest during your research. Keep the team size manageable, but try not to exclude any particular group.

You'll definitely want to have representatives from legal and procurement on your team. Depending on the policies of your company, procurement may take the lead role on the project. If equipment or computer hardware is involved, get people from facilities management and information technology on the team. You should also invite the key internal customers impacted by this project. And don't forget the lead operators and programmers that will have to work with the equipment or software you purchase.

You may want to consider adding an external consultant to the team. An outside voice can be helpful when dealing with internal politics. But don't let the consultant tell you what to purchase. The selection of the software, hardware, or service is up to you and your team. The consultant's role should be limited to guiding you through the decision process.

You're now ready to draft and publish the RFP. Clearly state what you want to purchase at the beginning of the RFP. Stipulate exactly what the product or service must do in order to be considered. Then state what additional capabilities or options are desired.

Specify the format the vendor responses should take. If electronic, identify both the software (e.g., MSWord, PDF) and the version (e.g., Windows 2010). If you prefer hard copy, explain how you want it presented (e.g., stapled, bound) and how many copies you want. Most importantly, provide a clear deadline for receiving proposal responses with the date and time, including time zone.

If you plan on conducting a lease/buy analysis, have the vendors help you out. Require that their bid have both purchase and lease options with a five-year cost-benefit analysis. Make sure the vendor includes any formulas used in their comparisons.

You should consider holding a vendor conference after the RFP is published. All vendors are invited to submit questions in writing by a certain date. The team will draft written responses to the vendor questions, and invite all participating vendors to one meeting. At the meeting, review the answers one at a time, allowing follow-up questions and clarifications from the vendors. This meeting ensures that all vendors receive the same information at the same time, and keeps the process open and fair.

When reviewing vendors, you need to consider more than just the bid. If possible, schedule a team visit to the factory or company headquarters. Think about how you would feel working in that environment. Also, visit customers who are using the equipment or service. During the site visit, talk directly to the operators and programmers without any vendor sales staff around.

Vendors should be required to submit references from companies that are similar in size to your company, and are using the same or similar equipment or service. Call references and schedule a time to discuss the product and vendor. After the call, send a thank-you email to the reference.

Comparing Bids
An effective way of comparing bids is to use a scoring chart. A scoring chart provides a practical method of measuring how closely a vendor's bid matches your goals. When the responses are received, distribute blank scoring sheets to the RFP team. Each member should fill out the responses individually to prevent influence (implied or otherwise) from the senior members of the team. Use an electronic spreadsheet to collect the information and calculate the average scores for each vendor.

Your RFP team then meets to review the individual and average scores. Discuss any significant variances between scores. For example, one person may score the machine accuracy a "10" and someone else graded it at "4". This variance needs to be discussed, opinions considered, and if appropriate, scores adjusted.

Like price, the score shouldn't be the sole factor in selecting a vendor. Ask legal and procurement to conduct a comparison of the financial status of the top bidders. Review any feedback you received from references, both positive and negative. Request follow-up presentations from the vendors, so that your RFP team can ask more detailed questions.

After your team has made a decision, notify the selected vendor and all the competitors. Call each vendor to briefly explain the rationale for the team's decision. Send an email or letter, thanking all vendors for participating in the RFP process. You don't need to defend your decision to the other vendors, but remember you may be doing business with these vendors on another project.

You've awarded the bid, but you're not done. The contracts will need a final review by legal and procurement. Make sure to include testing and delivery dates in the purchase contract, with financial penalties, if a vendor fails to meet those dates. For service contracts, include a detailed service level agreement (SLA). The SLA will define mutually-accepted measurements and standards. If appropriate, include a section on operator training. Specify the factory and site acceptance standards that must be met before payment is issued.

Monitor the receiving and acceptance process very closely. Require the vendor to provide proper notification of delivery and installation. This step is critical for equipment and software to ensure that the space is prepared or access to systems is available. Don't allow the vendor to leave your site until the installation is completed in accordance with the contract. Meet with the operators to ensure that they're properly trained. Sign the acceptance letter after you've verified that the product is performing to the established standards.

When the project is complete, conduct an after-action review. Have the team members formally evaluate the process and the final decision. Encourage an honest and frank discussion on how things could've been improved. Meet with the vendors and get their feedback as well. Share the final report with all members of your RFP team.

At times, the RFP process may seem long and tedious. By creating an RFP team and following this process, you'll increase your chances of success when purchasing equipment, software, and services. Take your time and confidently purchase for today, while being prepared for tomorrow.

Mark M. Fallon is President & CEO of The Berkshire Company, a consulting firm specializing in mail and document processing strategies. The company develops customized solutions integrating proven management concepts with emerging technologies to achieve total process management.

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