The purpose of a request for proposal (RFP) is to communicate your expectations for a given project. How detailed the RFP is depends on the technical expertise of your staff. It might name specific products or manufacturers you would like to work with. Or, it could simply outline how you intend to use whatever technology you are looking for and whether or not you have any specific needs regarding its design or implementation.
In most cases, a school will not provide technical specifications and that’s OK. The most important thing is that the end user is able to communicate their goals and what they are looking to achieve.
“Many times we have a situation where all the technical stuff has been taken care of, but on the end user side there is no understanding of how the technology is going to fit into their processes,” says Scott Lord, director of Innovation and National Accounts for the Kansas City-based integration firm, All Systems.
Lord recommends schools focus on creating an RFP that includes performance-based specifications, meaning that the document should focus on requirements in terms of results rather than laying out how those results should be achieved. This will help the integrator to design a solution that works for a school and makes sense within its culture and with its current infrastructure.
What Goes Into An RFP?
An RFP should have three major sections: general requirements, products and expectations. You should start with your general requirements. For example, you want the integration firm you work with to be insured and to operate within certain codes or specifications, depending upon the project. This is also the section where you would indicate the timeline of the project. If you know there is a hard stop date then be sure to communicate that.
The product section should contain a list of equipment. If there is a specific manufacturer you wish to work with, include that here. You should also indicate quantity. For example, you are looking for 20 security cameras for your new system. If you do not have the technical expertise to outline specific products, then it is fine to indicate that you expect the integrator to come back with a parts list or product recommendations. If you would like to hire a consultant for your project, they can help put together a list. If not, don’t worry about parts. Less tech-savvy schools have nothing to fear.
“My advice to them is if they’re not technical, don’t try to be technical. Just focus on performance and work results,” says Chuck Wilson, executive director of the National Systems Contractors Association (NSCA).
The expectations section of an RFP describes what the AV system should be able to do and how it should work within your school. For example, you need the system to be able to do X,Y,Z, with no bottlenecks or choke points. The more you can tell your integrator, the better their design will reflect your needs.
Beyond the Basics
If you do happen to provide an equipment list in your RFP, it is helpful to allow integrators the ability to substitute a product with an equivalent alternative. Not having that ability can make it difficult for an integrator to find you equipment at the best price. Some schools will go so far as to write “No substitutions of any product” at the bottom of the RFP and that can be problematic.
“I would say that is one of the most frustrating things when I open an RFP and I see that,” says Will Dunham, K-12 Sales manager, CCS Presentation Systems. “I might have the ability to value engineer something with another manufacturer that has a product that will do exactly what they’re looking to do, with the same quality results, at a less expensive price. If they do not allow me the opportunity to sub in then my hands are tied.”
Prohibiting substitutions may also signal that you are not a serious prospect and that you may be going through the motions when it comes to collecting those three bids most schools are required to obtain. In that case, you may not get the best proposal, or an integration firm may choose not to respond to your RFP at all.
In addition to the basics, like scope of work, there are several other elements that are a good idea to include in your RFP. Number one is training. Otherwise you may end up with an AV system that is technically perfect, but impossible to use.
“Making sure there is a training component is really, really important,” Lord says.
Any integrator you work with should make sure that you understand all of the features and functionality of the system they installed. It’s a good idea to specify that you expect training on your new system to ensure you are realizing the full benefit of the technology you paid for. You might also consider requesting a follow up to take place 60 to 90 days after the AV system has been installed. That way you have the opportunity to ask questions or request changes after you have had a significant amount of time to use the new technology.
“Having that follow up, I’ve noticed, allows the end user to be more empowered and to get full beneficial use out of whatever technology they’re asking for,” Lord says.
Who Should Write Your RFP?
Some school districts have a purchasing and procurement department that will handle the RFP. Other schools leave that up to individual departments. For example, if a school is looking to install a new security system or an access control solution, then the school or district’s security department will write the RFP. It all depends on how your district is structured. However, it’s a good idea to include a representative from every department affected by the project. If the new equipment is going to be put on the school’s network, then IT should definitely be involved. When decisions are made in silos problems tend to arise.
“It’s a disservice to the school when the district puts in 500 cameras, but the only people who know how to operate them is the IT department,” says Lord. “Then IT ends up with the problem of maintaining and supporting that technology because the people who need to use it day-to-day haven’t been trained, or, it wasn’t implemented in a way that works for them.” The same is true of the reverse situation. If the security department designs a system without input from IT, the school might end up with a system that cannot be operated within the school’s current infrastructure.
You also want to ask a school administrator to be involved in the RFP process. They have a different perspective because they are concerned with the school as a whole and are not necessarily caught in the microcosm of “just IT” or “just security.” An administrator has a hand in everything.
“We’ve noticed that when you have an administrator that’s part of the process, the buy in for implementation and training is much more well received,” Lord adds.
An RFP doesn’t so much decide who will build the system as it weeds out which firms are not a good fit. For schools, there is an added wrinkle to the final decision as they are often required to go with the integrator that offers “the lowest responsible bid.” There is no cut and dry definition of “responsible” here, but it’s likely the firm that offers the lowest price and whose company has the experience and financial capabilities to meet your expectations is the one that you will choose.
Before hiring an integrator, find another school system who has used the firm before. If you can find a school with a similar AV system to the one you’re looking for, then make it a point to visit that school so you can see the technology in action. Ask questions. Are they happy with their system? What were their major challenges and how did they solve them? What was the school’s experience with the integration firm and would they recommend the company?
At the end of they day, price may be the deciding factor, but don’t forget about customer service. Depending on the type of project you’re enlisting an integration firm for, they may end up being a longtime partner.