Home > Best Practices, Features > Why Your RFP May Not Get You the Best Learning Management System

Why Your RFP May Not Get You the Best Learning Management System

It’s a Request for Proposal (RFP) response week for me. I have two proposals on my plate, both due at the end of this month. I write one or two of these per month, as do my colleagues. As a group, we’ve seen excellent RFPs and some that were both demoralizing to complete and obviously ineffective tools for the evaluation and selection of technology.

Some organizations believe that the best way to acquire a learning management system (LMS) that most closely matches its needs is to:

  • Create a committee of stakeholders to identify requirements
  • Compile these requirements into a detailed RFP
  • Send the RFP to a large number of LMS providers
  • Read, score, and rank the submitted RFPs
  • Invite the top scoring vendors to provide demonstrations of their technologies

In theory, all of this should work. In practice, though, this approach often fails.Stack of papers

Here’s why:

If your RFP is poorly designed, some of the vendors you have invited to participate will not respond. Suppliers who do not respond may have the best technological match for your requirements, but, you’ll never know. It isn’t that these no-show vendors don’t care about your project, they just need to manage their time and establish priorities like everyone else. Given the choice between having productive meetings with existing and prospective customers or spending three days writing one RFP, the vendor will at times pick the former.

Here are some tips for issuing a RFP that will generate responses from more vendors:

Keep the RFP short. The proposal I’m completing today will be about 40 pages long and will have taken about three days to write. This is about average. If the organization issuing the RFP receives 10 similar-size proposals, they will need to sift through 400 pages of information to create a short list of systems. Are we having fun yet? Eliminate low-priority requirements from your RFP; save the nice-to-have features for the demo phase of your technology selection.

Avoid questions no one will answer. I’ve actually seen the following questions in a RFP:

  • “What tactics or activities do you currently use to generate sales leads? Provide a list of your top lead sources and the percentage of leads that are generated from each source.”
  • “Provide a copy of your strategic plan for the next one, two, and three years”
  • “Provide annual reports, including year-end financial statements for the past three years”

This may come as a surprise but companies tend to be a bit private about sharing things like strategic plans. Also, whereas public companies need to disclose their financials, private companies do not. So, you’re unlikely to get Profit & Loss and Balance Sheet reports submitted by private companies. As for public companies, you can find their financial information online without asking for it.

List near the beginning of the RFP a small number of must-have features and mention that vendors who don’t meet these top-priority requirements have no need to complete the RFP. All vendors will love you. Vendors who can fulfil the top-priority requirements will be happy to answer how they meet or don’t meet your lower-level requirements. Vendors who don’t meet your top-priority requirements will be thrilled that they didn’t need to spend three days writing a proposal that didn’t stand a chance of winning.

Don’t issue an RFP “just to see what’s out there.” A respected learning professional once mentioned to me that she knows of one organization that issues a RFP for a learning management system every year just to get a sense of what’s going on in the industry. This organization has no intention of acquiring a LMS. Are you curious about how LMS technology is evolving? Ask vendors to give you a demonstration instead of asking them to respond to lengthy RFPs.


A request for proposal may uncover what a learning management system can and can’t do, but a RFP isn’t a good way find out HOW a system does what it does. Importing a SCORM course, for instance, may take a minute in one system and an hour—with the vendor’s assistance—in another. In their respective proposals, both vendors will say they meet the importing SCORM course requirement.

If you work for an organization or within an industry that requires issuing RFPs for the acquisition of technology, then by all means do so. Keep in mind, though, that scripted demos, where the client tells the vendors what they would like to see, quickly identify which systems will be the best fit.

  1. Don
    July 24, 2012 at 8:28 pm

    Great post Richard!

  2. Richard Nantel
    July 24, 2012 at 8:32 pm

    Thanks Don. By the way, I sent in the 40-page RFP today and realized that with all the supporting documentation such as terms of service, security documents, implementation resources, checklists, API documents, etc. the full deliverable is likely about 200 pages in length.

  3. Sean Power
    July 25, 2012 at 3:13 pm

    A great post, I am all to aware of the irreverence that an RFP / RFQ / RFI / RFP can contain (the second RFP stands for Request for Procurement, I’m sure I have seen several other takes)

    I also feel that the RFP process as a whole is on the wain, it creates too much of a masking between buyer and supplier. I think of them like a resume, a chance for vendors to sing and dance and say what they do best, without focus on any potential shortcomings.

    A good example of this is one of the security tenders for London 2012. After the tender process it was granted to a company who hugely inflated their staffing and supply levels. The games get closer and its revealed that they are 3000 short in staffing numbers, with the recent outcome of armed forces being drafted in to compensate.

    I am sure that any investigation will trace back to the initial RFP structure and the way it allows such vendors to say yes or chose 5/5 for every question asked in order to progress and qualify.

    With LMS I believe it is important to note key functions and requirements on a ‘must have’ and ‘would like to have’ list and send out an initial questionnaire to applicable vendors that outlines the common and the niche functions and capabilities of each. Once this questionnaire is filtered a second round of demonstrations and trials, where a buyer asks to see functions rather than be shown, will give a clearer picture of who is most suited to their need.

    Once again a great article, especially your observations on the questions seen in the past, I have seen similar questions and await the RFP that asks for the shoe sizes of everyone that has worked at the company for the last ten years!

    Sean Power

  4. Tim
    July 26, 2012 at 12:29 pm

    Good points – I especially like your point of the critical items on top. A bonus outcome of that is it makes the RFP creators think through what is really important to them.

    So I can think of many suggestions of my own, but will limit myself only one. (A favorite btw)

    If your RFP format is to list your requirements on a spreadsheet, discipline yourself to one requirement per row. I’ve seen RFPs with more than 5 requirements in a single cell. Sometimes they aren’t even related to one another.
    Two good things come from this. First, better responses from the vendor. And second, if you are using a scoring system, your tabulations will be far more accurate and meaningful.

  5. spartacus
    July 27, 2012 at 11:39 pm

    the entire RFP process has become totally insane. Even long term partners are put through the pain of having to answer pages and pages of inane questions and provide pricing with no input or room to provide creative rationale for our product. Sales and marketing teams seem to have become helpless to control procurement and their reign of terror. net result will be price wars where everyone including the customer walks away unhappy with the result. Selling a product based on price leaves no room at the table for value and market distinction. If we were making pencils, I could see it. But we aren’t. At least not yet.

    I’ve heard horror stories of corporations making companies bid together in an online process to see who will drop their prices the most. All for the “prestige” of becoming a preferred supplier where you get beat up even further to do business. In fact, some companies are even asking suppliers for cash rebates. Its insulting and stupid to invite 12 companies to bid when they really only want to give the business to one company. But we all fall in line. or if you are smart, walk away. There must be a better way. Sell your product before it goes out to bid. and once you do, keep an eye on the account so it doesn’t end up on the street.

  6. September 4, 2013 at 5:37 pm

    I’m currently researching a solution for a 7,000 seat LMS opportunity. As an independent Learning Strategist, I’ve developed the following approach to selecting an LMS:

    1. Create a feature list derived from a customer needs analysis (17 total questions for my current project).

    2. Target 5-7 vendors based on recent industry awards – I like the Brandon Hall Smartchoice award, which Absorb has won.

    3. Critically review the vendor sites.

    4. Set up a live demo / sales call with the top 3-5 vendor matches.

    5. Do one more call with the top two. This is the brutal facts session – talk specific concerns, terms, etc.

    6 Negotiate final terms with one or both. Choose the best contract.

    I approach this process with good faith and full disclosure. Matching the customer to the solution should be enjoyable and so far, this has proven to be a positive process, requiring as little as a few weeks to complete.

  7. October 8, 2014 at 9:07 pm

    This is superb Richard and I couldn’t agree more. I personally look forward to the day when open communication replaces written documentation for large opportunities, surely the efforts that go into establishing, delivering, submitting, reviewing and selecting through a written process are more time consuming, and less appealing, than drawing up a list of ‘must haves’ and ‘nice to haves’ and doing a bit of shopping, even if the requirements are complex and many?…..

    When defining requirements buyers should consider the ‘must haves’ and ‘nice to haves’ both initially and for the long term, can a vendor grow with your long term strategy with their out of the box functionality, what is the development roadmap etc….

    The other big issue I have with the RFP process as a whole is that it allows vendors from all industries and of all types to sing and dance just to land the business, I hasten to outline that its not a practice or mine of Firmwater but it does happen all too frequently, and then the buyer finds out, often slowly, that the vendor does not meet many of their needs and they are effectively back at square one.

    London 2012 and G4S is a prime example where the world was promised but a small island was delivered……

    And I don’t envy you having to write them one bit, the word ‘templates’ springs to mind!

  1. February 21, 2014 at 8:17 pm

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