4 Questions Your Print and Fulfillment RFP Should Include

chosing a new print vendor partner

If your organization provides training manuals or other printed materials as part of an educational program, those materials are a critical component of the learning process. They need to be of the highest quality, be cost-efficient to produce, and of course, must be delivered to instructors and learners on time. If any one of these three criteria is no longer being met, it may be time to think about switching your print and fulfillment vendor.

The process of selecting a new partner can be time-consuming—time that your team doesn’t have to spare. And these types of changes come with risks—namely, the risk of the unknown. Will a new partner be able to deliver on all that was promised? Is the transition going to add work to your plate? Will you have to change some of your long-standing processes to fit into a new vendor’s workflow?

These are the questions we actually want answers to after an RFP process is complete. The problem is that most proposals are not designed to answer them.

The Standard Print and Fulfillment RFP Process: What It Does (And Does Not) Achieve

Many organizations undergo an RFP process that is meant to level the playing field by gathering standard, objective data from each vendor. The goal is to make an apples-to-apples assessment of costs and capabilities.

Most print and fulfillment RFPs are designed to assess three criteria:

  1. Capabilities match: do your needs fit within the print vendor’s “sweet spot?”
    • Print type & print run size
    • Finishing and binding options
    • Warehousing and inventory management
    • Shipping options
  1. Proof of quality: do they deliver as expected? 
    • Turn times
    • Order accuracy rates
    • Quality control procedures
    • Length of time in business/financial stability
  1. Cost alignment: do their costs align with your expectations?
    • You provide all specs and requirements of your print materials
    • They provide a quote, often at multiple quantity breaks

While all these metrics are extremely important, they should be considered a basic “cost of doing business.” Most legitimate printers with a long-standing history of success will be able to answer questions on capabilities and quality to your satisfaction. This means cost becomes the great differentiator.

Where these standard RFP questions fall short is they don’t really tell you what it’s going to be like to work with a vendor day-in and day-out. This leaves too much “gray area” around key details like processes and communication flow–details that are most likely to cause the small hiccups that can easily derail your day.

Going Beyond the RFP: Better Questions for a Better Print and Fulfillment Partner Match

While it’s important to have a firm understanding of printer capabilities and costs, a better RFP process will also answer the following four questions:

  1. Are they transparent?
    Do I feel they will be honest and forthright when challenges inevitably arise?
  2. Will there be any hidden or unexpected charges?
    Will you be charged additional fees for receiving, storage, and order returns, and what exactly is that pricing?
  3. Are they going to make things easier for me and for other stakeholders in my organization?
    Are they willing to create or customize processes and tools based on what we need, like reports and invoices?
  4. Are they just going to take my orders, or will they add value?
    Can I count on them to bring new ideas and recommendations to help us save time and costs?

How do you get to these answers? Include these specific requests in your next print and fulfillment RFP.

Request #1: A More Detailed Estimate

Most print and fulfillment estimates are calculated using some basic criteria:

  • Specifications of your printed material(s)
  • Print quantities and frequency
  • Order volume and frequency
  • Shipping destination(s)

In turn, the vendor will provide a total roll-up of costs that may include:

  • Price breaks for different quantities
  • Per-piece cost
  • Estimated shipping costs based on a sample destination
  • Warehouse storage and pick/pack fees

The challenge with this approach is that is provides only a surface-level view of costs and capabilities. It doesn’t answer the four questions listed above designed to secure confidence in a new partner.

Questions Your Print and Fulfillment Vendor Should Be Asking for More Accurate Pricing

Data your print vendor should request from you before creating an estimate includes:

  • How many titles do you have?
  • How many are your top sellers?
  • What is the annual sales volume of your top sellers?
  • How frequently does your content change? What drives these changes?
  • What are your current print quantities/frequencies, and why?

When providing the estimate, they should be able to show you how they calculated:

  • Average print cost per title and/or per course
  • Average number of items in a package
  • Average box weight
  • Average orders a month
  • Average cost of shipping
  • Total cost per class or course and the annual cost per class or course

Requesting this level of detail achieves three important objectives:

1. Know they understand your needs

Before you sign on with a new print and fulfillment provider, you want to be sure they truly understand how materials are fulfilled for each course, and how well they know your needs, processes, and workflows. Any print vendor can put ink to paper. But can they work with you in a way that solves problems and adds value? If all they have provided is a top-line estimate without getting to know the ins and outs of your print and fulfillment process, you’ll never know for sure until you start working with them.

2. Establish transparency

The more detail a vendor provides on their estimate, the less likely you are to miss any hidden or unexpected expenses, like warehouse location upcharges, so you can prevent any surprises to the budget.

3. Challenge the status quo with new ideas

If your vendor has gone through the detailed exercise of calculating not just the cost per quantity but the overall cost per title or cost per course, they will have significantly more visibility into how your training programs run. With this information, they can help to find new ways to save money or create efficiencies. For example, they could use your data to determine the best mix of print run methods for each title in your training library that reduce costs, maximize cash flow, and minimize spoilage.

Request #2: More Accurate Proof of Print Quality

Producing a high-quality product is something you would expect every printer currently in business to have down to a science. But that’s not always the case. Much of it depends on just how close to their “sweet spot” your project is. The further on the fringes, the greater chance of receiving inconsistent print and finishing quality.

Other factors that can affect print quality include:

  • How well-established their quality control processes are to catch pre-production issues, match color, etc.
  • The skill level of their staff, how well they communicate and set expectations to address potential issues
  • What type of print and bindery equipment they have, and whether that equipment is better suited for single-page projects like postcards and pamphlets, or higher page count projects like books and manuals

At some point in your selection process, you may request printed samples from potential vendors that have similar specifications to your piece. And most vendors already have a library of samples they can readily send. The problem with this scenario is twofold:

  1. You don’t have the appropriate context behind the piece to really measure the quality. How does it compare to the proof? How does it compare to customer expectations? How well does the piece hold up with continued use over time?
  2. Prospective vendors are, by nature, only going to send you what they consider to be their highest-quality examples.

Have the vendor print a sample of your book

Once you have narrowed down your pool of prospective print vendors, but before you have made a final selection, request a printed sample of your training manual or book from their presses. This allows you to see firsthand how well they will reproduce your book, not someone else’s.

This process also establishes a level of trust and transparency. It demonstrates their willingness to work with you and gives you the opportunity to see first-hand how well a project flows through their system, how well they communicate with you, and how well they understand both what you’re looking for and how the piece is going to be used.

If a print vendor is willing to have this level of dialogue with you about your materials, it puts them in a better position to offer improvement ideas that reduce costs, improve usability of the piece, and enhance your brand.

Request#3: Sample Reports and Invoices

Reports and invoices typically play only a small role in the RFP process. Yet this is one of the areas that can cause a significant amount of extra work for your organization. If you don’t discuss details like what types of reports you need, in what format, and how data should appear on invoices early in the process, you won’t know it’s a problem until after the fact.

This type of data not only informs decisions that impact programs and resources, but it also needs to be served up in a way that supports your existing processes so all departments—from operations to accounting—can do their jobs more efficiently.

The best way to understand what you can expect, and whether it’s even possible to meet your requirements, is to request sample reports and invoices from a prospective print and fulfillment vendor as part of their initial proposal.

Request #4: Introductions to Your Print and Fulfillment Team

We are continually surprised by the number of RFPs we receive that ask few if any questions about the specific team that will provide ongoing service and support. Your team is a critical component to the success of the relationship. As part of the vendor selection process, you should have full visibility into questions such as:

  • Who do you direct questions to?
  • Do you have a dedicated contact, or are you put in a support queue?
  • How should you communicate with them?
  • How will they communicate with you?
  • How often?
  • About what?
  • What should you expect of them?

Ideally, you will have the benefit of working with one primary point of contact for the duration of your relationship with a print and fulfillment provider. This will help streamline communication and provide congruency across each print run.

Your contact should be the person that handles all your day-to-day needs, including:

  • Answering print and shipping questions
  • Handling urgent orders
  • Tracking shipments
  • Managing international customs
  • Delivering meaningful reports

Having a consistent resource who will know and understand your organization—how it operates, how decisions are made, business objectives, challenges, and preferences—also means they can add value to the relationship. They will be able to offer ideas and suggestions that help you simplify processes, save costs, and make your job of delivering training materials easier.