Some procurement projects are too important to leave to chance.
Indeed, when you need to find a vendor with deep knowledge and expertise to ensure success, a request for qualifications, commonly called an RFQ, is the right solution for you.
While you and your business undoubtedly have vast amounts of knowledge and experience in some areas, it’s impossible to be an expert in every field. Luckily, when you encounter a challenge that falls outside of your comfort zone, an RFQ enables you to compare expert vendors and find the one that’s the right fit for your need.
What is a request for qualifications?
A request for qualifications (RFQ) is a process used in procurement to compare the expertise of vendors. The RFQ document contains background information and context about the need or problem to be solved and questions for vendors to answer.
Typically, these questions focus on a potential supplier’s knowledge, experience, reputation and customer satisfaction. The subsequent vendor response to a request for qualifications is called a statement of qualifications (SOQ).
Request for qualifications vs. request for quotations – the two RFQs
In procurement, there are two documents that are commonly referred to as an RFQ: the request for qualifications and the request for quote or quotation. Unfortunately, this can cause confusion.
While these two documents are often issued and responded to by the same teams, they serve very different purposes and are almost opposites. As mentioned above, the request for qualifications focuses on vendor knowledge, seeking the best, most experienced vendor. On the other hand, the request for quotation asks vendors to respond with the best possible pricing and payment terms.
3 ways to use a request for qualifications
Now that you understand the difference between the two RFQs, we’ll cover how you should be using a request for qualifications. These include vendor comparisons, shortlist selections, and vendor cataloging. Let’s discuss each in detail.
When it comes to vendors who provide similar services, the difference is often in the details. By definition, a request for qualifications enables you to compare, you guessed it, vendor qualifications. So when your highest priority is working with the very best, an RFQ makes identifying that vendor much easier with an apples-to-apples view.
An RFQ enables you to validate vendor claims and dig deeper into their experience. You’ll quickly find that while 12 vendors may advertise nearly identical services, there are likely significant differences in their work history, approach and past results.
Speedy shortlist selection
The RFQ can be used as a stand-alone document, used to select a single vendor to win the opportunity. On the other hand, it can also serve as the first step in a larger procurement process. For example, you may issue an RFQ to a dozen (or more) potential vendors and use the resulting statements of qualifications to create a short list before issuing a full request for proposal (RFP).
Using this multi-step process, beginning with an RFQ, allows you to issue a shorter RFP to only the most qualified vendors. Consequently, the proposal evaluation process is simplified. In addition, thanks to the narrowed field, vendors know they have a good shot of winning your business. Consequently, this encourages more thorough RFP responses as well as improved vendor engagement and participation.
Ongoing vendor catalog
Many large organizations leverage RFQs as a part of their vendor onboarding process. Indeed, you can create an online, evergreen request for qualifications form for interested vendors to complete. This self-service approach enables vendors to submit themselves for future consideration without manual assistance from your procurement team.
3 basic steps in the RFQ process
As with most RFx processes, a request for qualifications can be broken down into three basic steps: creation, administration, and evaluation.
The process begins when your business identifies a need that requires the expertise of an outside supplier. From there, internal stakeholders and procurement work together to define the challenge, ideal outcome, vendor selection priorities and goals for the project.
Now, with this information in mind, you can write the RFQ. Remember, if you intend to issue your RFQ to more than six vendors, you’ll want to keep the number of questions as limited as possible to speed the evaluation process.
Generally, this step of the RFQ process takes one to two weeks. However, the timing varies greatly depending on the urgency of the need, the organization and availability of your stakeholders and whether you have an existing RFQ template to work from.
Next, it’s time to put the wheels in motion. The administration step of the RFQ process begins with issuing your request to vendors. After your vendors receive the request, give them a couple days to review it and collect any follow up questions. To save time, gather questions in a single, centralized document. Then, respond and redistribute the completed Q&A document to all vendors to ensure transparency and a level playing field.
Now, you simply wait for responses to come in. However, remember that it never hurts to send out a follow-up email a week or so before your deadline to ensure you have as much vendor participation as possible. In most cases, administration of the RFQ takes around two to three weeks
The final step in the RFQ process is evaluation. With the vendor responses in hand, you’re ready to dig into the data and begin vendor selection. Luckily, you can refer back to the priorities you established during the creation step to guide your response scoring.
Most requests for qualifications include many open-ended questions, which will yield subjective answers. In this case, it is helpful to invite subject matter experts to weigh in on the merit and score of complex responses. Additionally, to improve internal confidence in the outcome of the RFQ, it’s a good idea to re-engage stakeholders and leadership in evaluation discussions.
Depending on the number of questions to be scored and evaluators involved, this step may take one to two weeks.
A typical RFQ timeline
Naturally, the RFQ timeline varies based on the complexity of the challenge and length of the request as well as the number of vendors and evaluators involved. Generally though, from beginning to end, an RFQ typically takes five to eight weeks.
Day 1: Challenge or need identified by stakeholders
Day 2-5: Internal discovery and RFQ creation
Day 6: Select suppliers to include in RFQ
Day 7: Issue RFQ to vendors
Day 10: Vendor follow-up question deadline
Day 11: Respond to vendor questions
Day 12 - 20: Vendor response creation
Day 21: Statements of qualifications due
Day 22: Data organization and aggregation
Day 23: Response scoring and evaluation
Day 24: Stakeholder and executive engagement and discussion
Day 25: Final selection of short list or winning vendor
Tips to shorten the RFQ timeline
Admittedly, the RFQ timeline example above is very short and assumes that everything goes smoothly. Unfortunately, there are always some unexpected hurdles in procurement. Statements of qualifications aren’t always prompt or complete, and sometimes your internal participants aren’t available on your planned schedule.
However, there are few things you can do to shorten your RFQ timeline and increase the chances of being able to stick to your schedule.
Conduct a procurement project kickoff meeting with internal stakeholders
Use an RFQ template to accelerate your creation process
Include as much information, context and background about the project as possible
Provide your timeline, due dates and expectations to vendors
Stay in touch with vendors, send follow ups and reminders as needed
Use weighted scoring or a vendor scorecard to streamline evaluation
Limit stakeholder scoring involvement to individual fields of expertise
Who uses requests for qualifications?
There are two sides to the request for qualifications process: the professionals who issue them and those who respond to them. Generally, procurement teams create and issue most RFQs. However, in small- or medium-sized organizations without a centralized procurement team, department heads and stakeholders may act as the project manager for the RFQ process as well.
On the other side of the table are the teams who respond to RFQs and create SOQs. Typically, business development and proposal teams manage the response process. They are responsible for determining if the opportunity is a fit, creating a response plan and engaging subject matter experts and stakeholders within their business to respond. In some cases, up to a dozen different contributors may play a part in the finished statement of qualifications.
Common RFQ uses and when to use one
Procurement teams from both public and private organizations use RFQs to find expert partners for high-value, complex projects. For instance, RFQs are commonly used for construction, architecture, legal services, IT services, engineering, marketing and professional services.
So how do you know if a request for qualifications is right for your project? Here are a few questions to help you decide:
Do you know what you need? How do you plan to solve your problem? If you’re not quite sure what you need, you may consider starting with a request for information (RFI) instead of a request for qualifications. The RFI will help you gather information without placing a heavy burden on your vendors.
Is the project complex and high value? While creating, issuing and evaluating an RFQ is effective, it is also a time consuming process. So, it should only be used for projects that will deliver a positive return on investment. Carefully consider if the potential benefits outweigh the cost and time required to manage the procurement project.
Are you ready to make a purchase? While immediate intent purchase isn’t required when issuing an RFQ, vendors will be more apt to respond if they know their efforts are tied to a future opportunity.
Is expertise the most important consideration for the purchase? Requests for qualifications aren’t intended to find the lowest bidder or fastest service. So, if your priority isn’t to find the best qualified vendor, you may be better off issuing a traditional request for proposal or request for quotation.
Will you use the RFQ for cataloging, shortlisting or final vendor selection? What will happen at the end of the process? Establish clear expectations for the vendors responding to your request for qualification, no matter how you intend to use the information you gather.
How to write a request for qualifications
You’re finally ready to write your first request for qualifications. Here are the core elements you’ll need to include:
Start with your stakeholders
Stakeholder collaboration and internal discovery is crucial to writing an effective RFQ. There’s no better way to identify deal breakers, define scope and establish goals than working directly with the people most impacted by the challenge or need.
Questions to ask for internal RFQ discovery:
What is the challenge or need?
Are there specific requirements for the project?
What technical skills are required?
How much experience is needed?
Does the vendor need to have experience in a specific industry or set of circumstances?
Including as much context and detailed information as possible to your RFQ will ensure you receive relevant, high-quality responses. Not only that, but the detailed requirements and background will discourage unqualified or underqualified vendors from submitting a response, simplifying your evaluation process.
Build each section of your request for qualifications
Company introduction and primary contact: Introduce your business to your vendors and let them know who they should talk to if they have questions.
RFQ background, project description, and scope: Share information about the challenge you’re facing, any historic information and contributing factors. Provide a description of your planned solution, goals and project scope.
Vendor minimum qualifications: In this section, outline your deal-breakers. It’s not about discouraging people, it’s about ensuring that everyone spends their time wisely.
RFQ process, timeline, and due dates: This is where you set expectations. How long will the process take? What deadlines should respondents be aware of? When will you reach a final decision? What will the final outcome be?
Evaluation criteria: How will statements of qualifications be weighted and scored? Offering this information will enable vendors to spend more time providing detailed answers in the areas of the RFQ that are most important to you.
Submission requirements: Tell vendors what you want their response to look like. Do you want them to respond in a spreadsheet, Word document, PDF or online RFP system? Let them know so you don’t receive responses in multiple formats, making comparisons difficult.
General vendor questions: Ask basic questions about company information, organization, culture, values, staff, differentiators and background.
Project-specific questions: You likely have a lot of complex questions about how the supplier plans to make your project a success – now’s your chance. Ask away.
Experience questions: This section of questions should focus on what makes this supplier an expert. It will likely be the largest section of your RFQ.
For instance, you can ask about:
Staff biographies and expertise
Relevant previous projects
Customer success policies
Reference questions: Every vendor should be able to provide references from previous customers. Find out who those customers are, how to get in touch with them and why the vendor thinks they’re a good representation of what your experience will be like.
Contracting terms and conditions: If you’re planning to select a partner at the end of your RFQ process, including your standard contract, terms and conditions will speed the closing process.
RFQ templates and examples
Using the guide above, you can easily build your own request for qualifications from scratch. Once you’ve created a request for qualifications document that you like, it can then be adapted into a template to save time in the future. Your RFQ template can be continually customized and optimized to fit each project. If starting from scratch sounds overwhelming, check out this RFQ template for inspiration.
Benefits of using an RFQ
Here are three core benefits of using a request for quotations you should be aware of:
Helps you find the right expert partner for your project
Finding the perfect vendor is easier with the RFQ process. Indeed, it takes abstract vendor claims and creates a framework for scoring and comparing them. In addition, you can see anecdotal accounts of a vendor’s experience as it relates to your project. Not to mention, throughout the process, you’ll get a sense of the way they work, their professional style, business culture and more.
Validates and verifies to reduce risk
Managing risk is a key responsibility of procurement teams. In fact, a recent Deloitte survey indicated that 61 percent of chief procurement officers believe that procurement risk has increased. Consequently, risk management is one of the biggest benefits of using established RFx processes like the RFQ.
RFQs empower you to validate vendor claims and probe further into the specific solutions they suggest. In addition, talking with references provided in the RFQ response enables you to hear a first-hand account of how the vendor conducts business. There’s nothing more revealing than asking a peer what advice they have or what they would do differently in your shoes.
Ensures you’ve covered all your bases
Every vendor included in your RFP is a professional that knows their business inside and out. And if you’re lucky, you’ll find one that understands your business as well. Fortunately, most expert suppliers are eager to share insights and advice if they identify any gaps or potential red flags.
To take advantage of this, leave some room for creativity and see how vendors approach the challenge. They may have a solution that’s perfect, but you wouldn’t have known to ask for it.
Make the RFQ work for you
It is clear that requests for qualifications are a valuable tool for finding the right vendor with the perfect combination of technical expertise, practical experience and vision for your project. The RFQ process delivers crucial vendor information while helping your organization save money, make confident buying decisions and reduce risk. And now, you know everything you need to know about the request for qualifications.
You’ve explored the basics like what an RFQ is, how it’s used, who uses it and benefits the RFQ delivers. Then you learned how to write an effective RFQ, what sections should be included and questions to ask. Finally, you discovered four ways to use an RFQ to your advantage.
With this information, you’re ready to make the RFQ process work for you. So, the next time you need to call in an expert, you know exactly where to start.
Dave Hulsen is the Co-Founder and the Chief Operating Officer of RFP360. He has a background in technology consulting and has issued and responded to hundreds of RFPs, RFQs, RFIs and other information requests.