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Selecting an e-learning solution, part 4
inviting the vendor to present

By Karl M. Kapp / March 2005

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After you have formed your selection committee and carefully written your e-learning RFP by avoiding all the common mistakes and following the ten RFP rules (see preceding article), you are now ready to invite the vendor to present. This article describes what you need to do to make the presentation process as smooth and effective as possible.

The first step is to narrow the field of potential vendors down to a manageable number (between 3 and 5). Then you want to invite those remaining vendors to present their proposed solution to your e-learning selection committee. This is where your committee will have an opportunity to meet some of the vendor's personnel, view a demonstration of the proposed solution, ask questions and raise concerns that may have arisen from the proposal.

Typically, by the time you have narrowed your potential vendor list to a few choices, these vendors have many similar capabilities. At this point, it becomes difficult to determine each vendor's distinguishing capabilities. The demonstration and presentation can make all the difference.

Sometimes these events are referred to as a "shootout" because the last vendor "standing" wins the business. The goal is for the vendor to put their best foot forward in terms of presenting capability and for you to determine which vendor has the best solution and best fit for your company.

One potential pitfall in this process is that each vendor may present different information or emphasize different aspects of their solution. When this happens, it makes it difficult to compare one vendor to another. One method of avoiding this type of confusion is to require the vendors to follow a pre-set agenda.

By providing an agenda to the presenting vendors, you accomplish a number of goals.

  1. You can learn how well they "listen" and their degree of flexibility.
  2. It makes completing the demonstration evaluation sheets easier.
  3. It ensures that all the topics you would like to cover are addressed.
  4. You can provide a "script" for the vendor to follow to see how their system handles your information.

Listening Skills and Flexibility

One of the things you want to learn during the shootout is how well the vendor listens to your wants and needs. It is one thing for them to provide a written proposal containing all of the required elements but, chances are, these vendors have responded to RFPs before and have standard responses. During the shootout, you want to know if the vendor will listen to what you are telling them or if they will continue to give you standard answers regardless of your needs.

I have found that the sales team of a vendor organization is an excellent foreshadowing of the support team and rest of the vendor organization (not always but usually). If the sales team is not willing to listen to what you are telling them and just follows their own agenda, then the vendor's implementation and support teams will probably not make much of an effort to listen to your needs either. Watch to see how well the prescribed agenda is followed and whether or not the vendor is addressing your needs.

Implementing an e-learning solution requires flexibility if nothing else. While systems and organizations are similar, no two e-learning implementations are the same. The vendor must be flexible enough to help your organization around any unique problems it may have. One early sign of flexibility is the vendor's willingness to incorporate your data (which you provide in the form of a script) into their presentation. Is the vendor willing to do that? Is the vendor willing to develop a quick prototype just for your organization? Is the vendor willing to change their "canned" presentation to meet your needs? I have seen several instances where a client provides an agenda and the vendor simply ignores it and follows their own agenda because it is "better" than what the client developed. In those cases, the vendor has a superiority complex that can be translated into the implementation process. This is not a good situation. Make sure the vendor can be flexible by asking them to simply follow your agenda and include your data. If the vendor can't be flexible in the sales cycle, they will not be flexible when dealing with paying clients.

Having said that…be flexible yourself. If the vendor has a sound reason and is not trying to be "pushy", you may want to alter the agenda. Don't make the process antagonistic; make it friendly and effective for both sides. If the vendor can make a sound argument for a certain agenda, accept the change. If the reason is not sound, you may want to stick with your original plan

Completing Evaluation Sheets

You need to develop objective, quantitative evaluation sheets for the vendor demonstrations. Usually shootouts are all held on the same day or over several consecutive days to accommodate the selection team's schedule. This means that one vendor's solution starts to run into another vendor's solution in the minds of the selection team. To help avoid this situation, it is advisable to develop an objective scoring sheet that is broken into sections based on the agenda provided to the vendor. This provides an easy method of scoring and comparing the vendors to each other.

One note of caution is that you should review the evaluation sheet as a team prior to scoring any vendor. This is because two different people can easily interpret items on the sheet differently. Have a mini training session so that each team member understands what is meant by "ease-of-use" as an evaluation criteria. What the IT person may consider easy to use might be considered difficult by a person from the line. You want inter-rater reliability. This simply means that each person rating the vendor uses the same scoring system. The use of an objective evaluation sheet and a little pre-training can help ensure inter-rater reliability.

All Your Topics are Addressed

As a reformed software sales support person, I know that if we had a particular weakness in our software program, we choose not to show that feature or functionality to the client (if they really wanted to know…they would ask). If no agenda is provided then the act of avoiding unsightly portions of the software becomes even easier. We would save that feature for last and "run out of time" or we would go off on tangents and "dance around" the functionality. If an agenda is not given, clients tend to forget about viewing a specific feature or functionality.

Every organization has key features and functionality that are required. These items must be placed on the agenda and given a score. At the end of each demonstration, review the evaluation sheet before the vendor leaves to make sure nothing was missed.

The agenda ensures that your topics and questions are addressed during the demonstration. Make sure you put items like on-going costs, how to report problems with the system, estimated response times and other factors of concern on the agenda. The shootout is the time to get into the real meat and potatoes of the vendors' solution. Probe to find what the vendor will do for you after the sale. The agenda provides a checklist to make sure that all your concerns are addressed.

Provide a Script

Even sophisticated users can become confused when all the references in the demonstration are dealing with the pharmaceutical industry when they are a financial institution. It is too easy to get caught up in the content and not the functionality if foreign information is presented. Don't let this happen, provide a script with your data and information. Request the viewing of certain reports and functionality in a specific order. If the vendors all show the same information flowing the same way through, then the comparison becomes easier.

While developing a script may take some time, it will save the team aggravation when they can clearly see how each system handles their data. A script makes it easier to compare the different systems.

Also, the willingness or lack thereof to incorporate your script into the demonstration reveals a lot about the vendor organization. A red flag may be raised if a certain area of the script is not followed or avoided.

By following the simple rules outlined above, you can make the process a little more objective and fair for both your selection team and the vendor organizations competing for your business.


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