If you decide to outsource your fuel management needs, you may choose to evaluate several vendors simultaneously via a request for proposal (RFP). You might know exactly what you’re looking for to meet your fleet’s fuel needs, whether it’s national fuel card acceptance, usage and security controls, or online reporting. But if you don’t properly convey those needs in the RFP, you might find yourself scratching your head at the responses and no closer to finding the right provider for your fleet.
We spoke to several fuel management companies, as well as fleet managers who have been through the process, to find out what makes an effective RFP and ultimately leads to the best fueling solution for your fleet.
Here is what we found.
The Devil’s in the (Fleet) Details
Clear, reasonable requirements are great in an RFP, but they’ll still be difficult for a vendor to respond to if you don’t include the basic information about your fleet. A good RFP includes details such as the types and number of vehicles and estimated annual fueling volume, as well as what your fleet is currently doing to meet its fuel needs. Also include information on the fleet’s function, such as whether the fleet primarily serves sales or pickup and delivery operations. Without this information, vendors will have a difficult time tailoring a response to your specific fleet. “Many times we receive lengthy RFPs that contain all kinds of great information, but leave out important details like the number of vehicles and estimated fueling volume,” says Julie Rosenthal, sales project manager for Wright Express, a fuel management company based in South Portland, ME.
Another must-have that might seem obvious but is sometimes overlooked is specific contact information for your fleet, as well as instructions on how you want to be communicated with during the RFP process.
Tim Fortson, vice president of national accounts at U.S. Bank Voyager Fleet Systems, says one key to an effective RFP is to include “specific rules of engagement.” In other words: “How [you] want to be communicated with during the RFP process,” Fortson says.
Define Your Objectives
If you know going into the bid process that you require 24/7 online account management and controls on what grades of fuel your drivers can purchase at the pump, then make those requirements clear in your RFP. This holds true for any products or services you’re looking for in a fuel management provider.
“Really hit your bullet points,” says Dennis Clarke, fleet sales manager for Arco. Three big things fleets are looking for these days, Clarke says, are security, convenience (locations and customer service), and cost savings.
Since vendors have different offerings, the only way to find out if they can meet your specific needs it to ask up front in the RFP.
“You want to be sure to provide information on what you’re currently doing and explain your objectives as clearly as you can,” says Rosenthal.
Brevity is a virtue in RFPs. Avoid unnecessary or vague questions. Remember that if you’re sending your RFP to multiple vendors, you’re going to receive multiple responses. Too many unnecessary questions will result in hundreds of pages of responses that you don’t have time to read.
Do your homework prior to issuing your RFP. Get a sense of what vendors are out there and what they have to offer. That way you’ll be better able to focus on your specific fleet needs when you sit down to write the RFP.
Don’t Be Afraid to Dig Deep(er)
If certain requirements are more important than others to your fleet, don’t hesitate to let potential vendors know that in your RFP. That way, vendors know to focus more of their energy addressing your particular needs in greater detail. Take security features, for example.
“There’s probably a greater acknowledgement today of the potential theft that can go on with any kind of company fueling program,” says Steve Smith, senior vice president of sales, FleetCor Technologies. “So I think there’s more attention to detail to the kind of controls that each card has.” Still, different vendors might offer different responses and actions as a result of these controls. For example, if you ask, “Do you offer security controls with your fuel program?” all of the potential vendors might simply say “Yes.” By being more specific, you can find the best fit for your needs.
“There are really all kinds of controls, and I think the questions even get down into, ‘If something is denied, then what happens?’ In other words, what are the choices with the different vendors?” adds Smith.
“The vendors have more options available than they used to,” Smith says. “Therefore, [fleet managers] are learning now to dig in a little deeper and find out what is the difference between vendors on some of these security issues,” for example.
Wright Express’ Rosenthal adds that if one area is more heavily favored in your fleet’s final selection criteria – whether it be security, locations, or another requirement – it is helpful to include that information in your RFP.
“If, for example, online capabilities are weighted at 60 percent, that’s a good thing for us to know so that we can respond to those needs with the appropriate amount of information and emphasis,” says Rosenthal.
Put Faces (or Voices) to Names
Most vendors recommend a mix of telephone and face-to-face interaction during the RFP process, in addition to the written questions and responses.
“It’s very effective, especially if there is a specific question or entry in the RFP where you need to get clarification,” says Fortson of U.S. Bank Voyager Fleet Systems.
This is especially useful when deciding between two or three finalists with similar offerings.
“I think that the best RFPs conclude with the finalists being invited in to provide clarification on areas identified by the fleet manager, as well as to provide additional information on their program and why they feel it is the best choice for their fleet,” Rosenthal says. “I think trying to make decisions just by reading the answers on a piece of paper is nuts,” says Smith. “[The RFP] should be a guideline for discussion.”
Talk to Your Peers
Face-to-face interaction with potential vendors is important, but how do you ensure you get a complete and objective picture of your options? Talk to other fleet managers. Find out what they’re doing to meet their fuel needs, and ask for an honest assessment of their vendor(s).
Arco’s Clarke said he is often asked “What companies do you have on this program?” He also said many prospective customers ask for testimonials or references from other fleets who have implemented the same program.
Fellow fleet managers who have been through the RFP process before can also be an invaluable resource for putting together your own RFP.
Tom Gustin, program officer for the State of Montana, General Services Division, manages approximately 8,300 vehicles that use an estimated 5 million gallons of fuel per year. The fleet issued its most recent RFP because its previous contract had reached its statutory time limit of five years. Proposals were sent to 20 potential vendors; seven responded and four were considered in the subsequent evaluation process; and Wright Express was chosen as the fleet’s new fuel management provider.
“It is vitally important to structure the evaluation criteria to meet the specific needs of your fleet,” Gustin says. “Montana is an extremely rural state, nearly 700 miles from border to border, and it’s not uncommon to travel an hour or two without encountering a gas station. Infrastructure and universal card acceptance were equally as important as, say, cost or controls.” Dave Drinkard, manager of fleet operations, fuel group, for Verizon (70,000 vehicles; 56 million gallons annual fueling volume), says the company went out to bid after the merger between Bell Atlantic and GTE resulted in a fleet that had six different fuel cards. Verizon sent out eight RFPs that outlined the fleet’s top needs: one card with excellent reporting and security features. Verizon selected U.S. Bank Voyager Fleet Systems.
“Put a team of subject matter experts together who can ensure that all of the corporate needs are in the RFP,” advises Drinkard. “Then, do not waver on those items during negotiation. If they were important enough to write, they should be important enough to ensure.”
Drinkard also says project management skills and experience prove very useful in the RFP and implementation process.
While it’s important to focus on your fleet’s specific needs and requirements, keeping an open mind throughout the RFP process will increase your chances of ending up with the best possible fuel program.
“Be very cautious not to establish overly-stringent pass/fail criteria in the RFP process,” Gustin says. “Make sure to give your evaluation committee the flexibility to select the proposal that best meets the needs of the fleet.”
Vendors, too, suggest allowing for the possibility that there might be a better way to do things.
“You should try to leave room for vendors to suggest alternative ways of doing things,” says Rosenthal of Wright Express. “Because if you’re too rigid with your specifications and requirements, vendors may not be able to offer alternatives that could ultimately save you time and money.”
Go with What Works
There is no miracle rule for writing an RFP. But if you follow the basic guidelines and the experiences of others, you’ll likely learn your own lessons along the way and be able to fine-tune the process to meet your needs.
An open mind will likely serve you well. Remember that you’re looking for the best fit for your fleet. Ultimately, what works is up to you.
Five Things to Remember to Include in Your RFP
Sometimes it’s the basics that fall through the cracks when writing an RFP. Vendors aren’t mind readers, so treat your RFP as an introduction to your fleet. Be sure to check off this list of must-haves to avoid problems during the RFP process.
1. Contact Information. Don’t assume that vendors know where to send their responses. Be clear who the point person is for vendors to contact with questions and/or responses. Include the person’s phone number, address, and e-mail address when possible. Consider including a back-up contact in the event that the primary person is unavailable.
2. Fleet Size. The size of your fleet can affect what kind of program or services a potential vendor will offer, so be sure to specify the number of vehicles that you operate.
3. Fleet Mix. Likewise, the types of vehicles in your fleet can factor into a vendor’s response to your RFP. A fleet that primarily operates diesel trucks will have different needs than a fleet comprised entirely of sedans.
4. Annual Fueling Volume. Giving vendors an estimate of how much fuel your fleet uses each year will help them provide their best proposal for your fleet.
5. Current Program. Let vendors know what you’re currently doing to meet your fuel needs and why you’re looking to change. This will alert vendors to specific needs or problem areas that they should address in their proposal.