Wednesday, June 24, 2015

On Successful RFPs and Circuit Breakers

This morning, I read an article that appears in the June issue of Plan Sponsor magazine. What attracted me to it was a blurb in the email blast "NewsDash" that magically appears in my inbox every weekday morning (actually, I highly recommend NewsDash for benefits professionals).

What I found strange about the article is that it is largely a compendium of quotes from a few defined contribution recordkeeper search consultants. But, it never quite brings them together to inform the plan sponsor on what makes for a successful RFP. Instead, it is somewhat akin to listening to a roundtable discussion, but only hearing about 1 comment in 20 and that without any context.

Since this article left me somewhat cold (and that on a day when our heat index is supposed to exceed 105), I decided to think about this myself. I've been involved in RFPs (not necessarily defined contribution or even benefits) in what I view are all of the possible contexts:

  • A bidder
  • A search consultant
  • A proposal evaluator
  • An end user (the client)
Ultimately, in my opinion, the client is looking for the best value, however they define value. Some place a very high value on the relationship with the provider. Some consider it most important for participants to have a great user experience. Others focus on employee education. Still others think that price is the winner.

Each of those may be a reasonable position to take. But, it is also important to understand that there are more than just the issues of value. 

A typical proposal scoring process assigns a weighting or point value to a number of categories. Finally, the bidder with the highest weighted score is usually the winner. 

I'd like to make some changes to this. In doing so, I am going to steal some terminology from other areas.

We all know that having a relationship manager who doesn't care about you makes the relationship untenable. It's a turn-off and it should kill the deal with that particular provider. Similarly, if you are going to be the point person (on the client side) for the relationship and you just really dislike the relationship manager, that relationship won't work either.

I refer to this and other similar deal killers as circuit breakers. That is, if the breaker is turned off, the circuit doesn't connect and the deal cannot happen.

The client should establish circuit breakers. You might also think of them as minimum standards. Here are a few to consider (with a DC recordkeeping bias):
  • Unacceptable relationship manager (if you really like the potential vendor other than that, you might be able to force a relationship manager of your choosing)
  • Fees above a certain pre-set level
  • Poor participant experience
  • No projection tool on the vendor website
  • Requirement to use a particular percentage of proprietary funds
I think this is fairly clear, but suppose it's not. Consider that Vendor A has the best scoring proposal. That is, Vendor A, using the pre-determined scoring mechanism gets a score of 185 out of a possible 200. Neither of the other two potential vendors scores above 160. But, you have heard from a friend at another company that the assigned relationship manager does not usually return phone calls in the same week that they are received. You view this as unacceptable. If Vendor A will not give you a different relationship manager, then they have triggered a circuit breaker and they are out of the running.

Triggering a circuit breaker outweighs a great score. Think about it. It makes sense.

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