The Request for Proposal was 40 pages long, single spaced, and it wasn't a multiple-choice test. Think of the most diabolical, all-essay final exam you took in college and multiply it times 20.
I knew right away we had a two-week project on our hands, but I also knew that to be a preferred vendor to the major pharmaceutical companies, this was the price of admission.
Ten or 15 years ago, your reputation could put you, or keep you, on a preferred vendor list. This is no longer the case. Pharmaceutical meetings have decreased; industry guidelines are more stringent; and cost controls are tighter than ever.
Pharmaceutical companies want to know that you are experienced in controlling and containing necessary expenses and avoiding unnecessary ones. This means managing a budget even when meetings grow, venues change, or airfares increase. And it means knowing how to work with other vendors in an integrated supplier strategy: for example, by handling meeting logistics while a travel agency handles airline tickets and another firm negotiates with hotels. Firms with good systems for capturing and reporting meeting spend demonstrate the ability to control costs.
The PhRMA guidelines are complex, changing, and subject to interpretation. Pharma companies that scrupulously follow the guidelines don't want to train planners in compliance—they want planners to help them stay compliant. In addition, the pharma industry is highly competitive, and planners must be able to maintain the confidentiality of meeting content and attendee information.
Flexibility means accepting the predetermined aspects of an assignment—a conference in Berlin in two months, or finding a venue within two weeks—and then making all of the elements fall into place, even with last-minute changes from the client. That is why RFPs will delve into areas such as your organizational chart, subcontracting relationships, data management, reporting systems, and prior experience. Vendors must be capable of adapting to a client's specific systems and processes; they want coordination to be easy.
Clients want to know that you are there when they need you—maybe not physically in the same state, but available and responsive. They want to know that your team has enough depth so that there will be people to deal with problems as they arise. After investing millions of dollars in research, they want vendors ready to manage a meeting wherever and whenever.
Big pharma companies entrust meeting planners with hundreds of thousands of dollars in deposits and payments. More than ever, they want to be assured you are financially stable, with solid financial controls in place. No one wants to be Madoffed, or run the risk of an ethical vendor running into financial difficulties.
Is it worth the effort?
If you are relatively small in the pharmaceutical industry, is it worth going through the RFP effort? Yes, you're on their radar. Selection is a feather in your cap and useful in marketing to others. The RFP process helps you identify areas where you can strengthen your company, and, as arduous as the response process may be, you get better at it over time.
And finally, if at first you don't succeed, don't despair. You may get another shot in a year or two. Preferred provider lists are guarded like nuclear codes at some companies. You don't know who else is on them or who might drop off at some point.
If you are selected as a preferred vendor, pop a cork on that champagne bottle, or order pizza. Let the troops know they did a good job. But temper your satisfaction with the knowledge that you are now just one of several companies on call for meeting services. Never forget, you're only as good as your last meeting.
Judith Benaroche Johnson is CEO of RX Worldwide Meetings, Inc., and a preferred vendor for six major pharmaceutical companies. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org