Sept. 21 2015 02:10 PM

When Hollywood’s aquatic star Esther Williams retired from acting, she reportedly was asked the same question so often that she eventually carried a pre-printed card with the answer: “Yes, I still swim.”
Williams’ rote response comes to mind when I think about last-mile delivery RFPs, because even though these documents are created by different types of companies, there’s often a remarkable similarity to the kinds of questions they ask — and the kinds of things they don’t.

In fact, over the years I have come to believe that while most companies have a fairly firm idea of what they’re looking for in a delivery partner, it’s rarely conveyed accurately or fully on their RFPs. As a result, they may not be getting all the information they need to make the decisions that will work best for their company or their last mile.

To help prevent this from happening to your company I’d like to offer up a few practical dos and don’ts gleaned from more than two decades of being on the receiving end of these all-important documents.  
 
Don’t confuse your RFP with your marketing materials.
 
We all understand the importance of preserving our companies’ reputations when communicating with external audiences. However there’s a big difference between putting together an RFP and creating an ad campaign: An RFP’s about managing your logistics; an ad is about managing your image.  

Aim to be as candid as you can about all of the factors that inspired your last-mile delivery search — the good, the bad and even the ugly. Don’t withhold information about any constraints that could hamper your potential delivery partners’ ability to deliver your goods or meet your expectations. And forget about trying to put a positive spin on things just so respondents will think more highly of your company. After all, if you can’t trust candidates enough to show them the unvarnished truth about your challenges, why would you be willing to trust them to handle your products?
 
Do attach a legally binding two-way confidentiality agreement.
 
Believe it or not, many of your respondents may be just as reluctant to share certain details about their companies as you are, especially if they think that their recommendations, answers or pricing could eventually fall into any of a competitor’s hands. An official document like this will go a long way toward protecting everyone’s privacy and proprietary information — and pave the way for a higher comfort level that could elicit far more candid and strategic responses.
 
Don’t hesitate to include a couple of telling questions.
 
As you’re preparing your RFP, bear in mind that this is almost certainly not your respondents’ first rodeo. In most cases, these last-mile providers have been responding to RFPs for years, with a healthy collection of highly polished responses to show for it. To help cut through at least some of the rhetoric, ask a couple of open-ended, real-life questions that require respondents to go off-script and provide more detailed explanations. One particularly evocative one is, “Tell us about a time when a shipment or start-up you executed for a client had an issue and walk us through what you did to resolve it.” Another is, “Provide us with a process map of how you’d fulfill an order for our business.”
 
Do consider corporate chemistry.
 
Waiting until after a contract is signed to find out what makes a provider tick is akin to forgetting to ask your dual skydiving partner if he remembered to strap on the parachutes until after you’ve jumped out of the plane. If you and any potential 3PLs have discordant corporate cultures or work styles, it’s always best to find this out sooner, rather than later. By the same token, if you discover that you complement each other well, it could serve as that “aha” moment when you realize that you haven’t just found a good provider; you’ve found what could be a great partner.

Although your RFP won’t be able to help determine everything you need to know about your potential partners’ personalities, a question such as “Tell us about your company’s corporate values and explain how they’re reflected in how your company does business,” could serve as an excellent starting point. So could a query along the lines of, “What’s the last piece of business your company said no to – and why?” You can learn a great deal about a potential provider by taking a hard look at the work it turns away.  
 
Don’t be vague or unrealistic about KPIs.
 
One of the biggest fallacies many companies buy into is that it’s not necessary to convey the true nitty-gritty of their needs, goals and objectives at the RFP phase, because there’ll be time enough to address those later down the line. Unfortunately such a mindset often deprives your candidates of the critical information they’ll need to a)make a decision about whether they’re really a good fit for your business b)decide whether your business is a good fit for them and c)thoughtfully weigh in on just how fair and achievable your requirements and expectations are while there’s still ample time to adjust them.

If possible, be forthcoming about your Key Performance Indicators right out of
the gate. Just as important, be sure that all of your KPIs have at least some grounding in reality, bearing in mind that there’s a fine line between service/pricing expectations that are ambitious and those that are absurd. While it’s more than okay to aim for improvements, it’s rarely a good idea to deviate too far from the real-life baseline of your current logistics costs and service levels.
 
Don’t forget to look within.
 
Finally, don’t forget to ask your own company some important questions too, because in the grand scheme of things, selecting the right 3PL delivery partner is only half of what it takes to make a successful shipper-provider match. First and foremost, ask what you company’s track record with other 3PLs and suppliers has been like – and if you come up with an answer that’s less than positive, take time to identify and correct any causes of conflict or confusion. In addition you should carefully determine who’s on board with your decision to send out an RFP — and who isn’t — because even though unanimity isn’t required, a general consensus can make for a more successful outcome.

If you do these things, you and your providers of choice will have a much better chance of getting along swimmingly. If not, you may find yourself in the unenviable position of having to consider yet another pool of 3PL candidates for the same assignment in the not-too-distant future.
 
 
Will O’Shea is the chief marketing officer of the XPO Logistics last mile business, the largest provider of heavy goods, last mile delivery and installation in North America. XPO facilitates approximately 8 million last mile deliveries a year with more than 6,000 independent contract carrier/white-glove delivery teams, 1,000 installation/assembly professionals and cutting-edge technology. XPO Logistics (NYSE: XPO) is one of the world’s fastest growing transportation and logistics providers. 
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