Need Advice? Try A Consulting Firm Consultant

When Mr. Smith's waste management company was going through some tough times, he decided to find a consultant to "fix" his company.

"Let's go on a fishing trip to prepare a request for proposals (RFP)," said Smith. "Then we'll throw the RFP out on the street and see what we get."

This extremely casual approach assumes that qualified consultants will flock to the door, the low bidder will be selected and the problem will be solved. However, most qualified consulting firms probably will not respond to this low-key approach. If a company or mu-nicipality is not willing to risk the time and money to prepare a detailed RFP, then most consulting firms will not take the bait.

Step-By-Step The RFP is the first step to finding the most qualified firm for a project. A specific, inquisitive and thorough RFP will set the tone and lay the groundwork for the entire project. Issues and philosophies that are stated in the RFP will affect the project well into its future. Likewise, errors, misrepresentations and incomplete information will haunt the project from beginning to end. There-fore, take the time and effort necessary to develop a RFP that will attract a good proposal.

To select the best firm for the job in an efficient manner, analyze the problem at hand and determine what services are needed. Next, determine what kind of consulting firm will perform these services. Prepare a statement about the project's history and background and clearly define the services needed. The next step is to es-timate a budget for the project.

It is equally important to obtain a list of qualified bidders or, if one is not available, to establish a list of firms that are already experienced in the type of services being solicited. Issue a formal request for a Statement of Qualifications (SOQ) to the firms on the bidders' list and/ or advertise in the open market. Firms should use the SOQ to state their general qualifications and to emphasize any relevant experience. After reviewing the SOQs, invite three to five firms to respond to the RFP.

The RFP should follow a simple format so that responses can be easily compared during the review process. An "apples-to-apples" approach simplifies the comparison process and prevents those involved from making their own assumptions.

The RFP should begin with a section stating the general requirements of the RFP. It should express what services are requested and describe the scope of the work as well as what is to be delivered. Also in-clude the evaluation criteria in the first section.

The proposal should state any pertinent dates, places and times for meetings regarding the project; a contact person who can provide further information; and ways that additional information will be disseminated, including issuing ad- denda.

A section also must be designated for the project's history and a summary of why the project is necessary as well as the events which led to the decision to hire a consultant. The facts in this section will help the consultant respond to the RFP.

The RFP also should include the following elements:

* Proposal Requirements. State how many copies of the proposal must be delivered as well as the date, place and time of delivery. Also, include the address and the person to whom the proposal should be delivered. Any delivery restrictions should be stated in this section. For example, some companies or municipalities do not accept faxed proposals.

* Qualifications. Request a qualifications statement from the respondents who were not prequalified. Even if a firm has been prequalified, seek specific qualifications for those individuals who will participate in the project. For example, find out if the project manager is professionally registered in the state where the project is located.

* Project Organization And Staffing. Ask for an organizational chart to identify which individuals will be responsible for each of the project's tasks. Also request the resumes of key staff members and proposed subcontractors. Ask for a contact name and phone number of a consulting firm representative who can clarify any questions in the proposal.

* Experience. Request detailed information on the experience of firms who have not been prequalified, or from those who provided in-sufficient information. Specifically ask for experience that is similar to the proposed project.

* Approach. Ask the consultant to describe the approach that the firm will take to develop and complete the project. Also request a work schedule.

* References. Request that the firm provide the names, addresses, and phone numbers of at least five references with whom the firm has had a professional relationship.

* Fee Schedule. If a service fee is required, state how the fee will be presented. Options include a lump sum fee, which covers all the tasks in the scope of work; hourly rates, with an estimate of the number of hours to be expended on each task; or hourly rates, with a not-to-exceed ceiling on costs. Request the fee in a manner that will make all the proposals consistent and comparable.

* Method of Evaluation. List the evaluation criteria and any weighing of the criteria that may be taken into consideration. Examples of evaluation criteria include: compliance with the RFP, the firm's qualifications and capability, experience of personnel assigned to the project, understanding the project and the scope of work, prior experience, etc.

* Selection Process. Outline the procedure that will be followed in the selection process. Include a schedule with dates for shortlisting, presentations and selection.

* Contract Terms. If a contract format and terms are required, include a copy of the proposed contract with the RFP. If only certain terms must be in a contract, list them in the RFP. By doing this, the consultant will know what will be expected if contract negotiations occur.

The Aftermath Once the RFPs have been received and reviewed, it is time to hold a pre-proposal meeting to allow respondents to ask questions about the project. If appropriate, hold the meeting at the project site. Following the meeting, transcribe and mail the attendees the questions that were raised at the meeting. Make sure that all information is disseminated equally to all interested firms.

Have a review team evaluate the proposals, paying special attention to the selection criteria established in the RFP. If no firm clearly stands out, develop a "shortlist" of the top contenders and invite them to make an oral presentation of their proposal. Once all necessary information is in hand, rank the firms and invite the top firm to negotiate a contract that includes the scope of work, re-quired fees and the terms and conditions of the agreement.

A good consulting team has the tools and experience to execute a project successfully. Unfortunately, the right consultant will not knock on your door. By preparing a logical, detailed RFP, an impressive group of experienced candidates will be likely to step forward.