January 21, 2023 • Thought Leadership

How to approach your next Vendor Day/Bidder’s Conference

Steps to Success: Applying a Challenge-Based Approach to Market Research to Your Next Vendor Day

Depending on your jurisdiction, your agency or department may bring in vendors a few times per year to brief them on the business problems you need solved. This is called “Vendor Day” – at least in California. Others call it a Bidder’s Conference.

Vendor Day is an exciting opportunity for your agency to tap into the wellspring of know-how your vendors have to solve the urgent problems you face. Vendors can be invaluable partners, and often have technology that is invaluable, too.

Here are some thoughts on how to organize your next Vendor Day for success … especially if your goal is technology acquisition.

At City Innovate, we’ve developed – and often use – an innovative approach to working with vendors called the Challenge-Based Approach™. One part common sense and one part cutting-edge business strategy, this methodology can make a Vendor Day an extraordinarily powerful, even transformative, event. Here’s how we do it:

1. Define the business problems you want to bring to the vendor community.

The foundation of the Challenge-Based Approach is letting vendors apply their expertise to your real-world problems. And properly framing those problems is an essential first step. These problems should be formulated in such a way that the solutions vendors propose are S.M.A.R.T – specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic, and time sensitive.

E.g. Agency X needs a way to ensure that all customers who callto set up an appointment receive a return call the same day. Currently, anyone who calls in after noon is unlikely to get a call back that same day; we have no system for tracking people who ‘fall through the cracks’.


2. Formulate the business problem as a challenge to the vendor community

A challenge is just what it sounds like—it asks vendors community to present a solution to the problem using their experience, drawing on their work in both the public and private sector. This is the real power of the Challenge-Based Approach: it asks not for technology or theories, but for no-kidding, real world solutions to real problems.

Here’s an example:

Provide us with a multi-faceted solution to address the call-back problem. Your solution could include using a combination of techniques to reduce call volume including: a self-help support site, the use of AI-driven chatbots, automated callbacks using a robot, or something else. Please identify solutions you would provide vs. those you’d integrate with that are available elsewhere in the vendor community.

(We have prompts built into City Innovate’s Market Research module that will help your agency prepare winning challenge statements.)

Don’t introduce more than 7-10 challenges at a single meeting. It is better to err on the side of fewer, well-articulated challenges rather than lots of loosely-described challenges. Remember, carefully defining the problem is critical.


3. Support your challenges with data so the vendor(s) understand the metrics they need to help you affect

Data really helps a vendor understand the problem and also how success or failure will be measured.


4. Do support each challenge with two flow diagrams

Not every challenge is suitable to flow diagramming … but those that are … Wow! A flow diagram is a powerful tool for highlighting and conveying the current state of your business versus its future state.

The first flow diagram should indicate the current state of affairs; the second the desired state.

If your current process is not such that you can flow diagram it, consider bringing in professional help to streamline the process. Do this well before the Vendor Day. (We can help you here; our professional services team is headed up by Marlon Paulo, former Deputy CTO to the State of California.

Try out your flows on people at your (or another) agency who do not know the process you’ve flow diagrammed well—to make sure the flow is clear and understandable.


5. Do implement a phased approach to evaluating vendors who respond to the challenges posed

The benefit of a phased approach is that you can throw your challenge out to a wide group of vendors (Phase 1) and then narrow your attention down to only those who ‘meet competitive standards’ (Phase 2).

  • Phase 1: Typically, Phase 1 assesses whether the vendor “meets competitive standards” in terms of things like longevity in business, location, number of employees with the specific experience you need, etc.
  • Phase 2: Once such “meet comps” are evaluated (HINT: use our platform and its built-in Evaluation Builder to do this), the winning vendors can move to Phase 2 where you ask them to create a Proof of Concept (PoC).
About the Proof of Concept

A Proof of Concept is neither a prototype nor a pilot. It’s a working model of how people will interact with the technology that you need built out to solve the problem posed. A Proof of Concept is not designed to be thrown away; it should give both you and the vendor a running start at a tangible solution to the problem posed in the challenge. Most of the time, you will want to pay all vendors involved for the time and effort spent developing the PoC. This is a best practice.

Another best practice is to ask the vendor to set up the PoC by role and/or use case—so that different people at your agency can see exactly how they would be interacting with the new technology.

Be prepared to go into detail with vendors on how you’ll be evaluating the PoC after it’s developed. Don’t be too prescriptive about the solution—give the vendors room to present novel solutions to your problem.

If you need help setting up or running the PoC—feel free to call on City Innovate’s professional services group .


6. Make your next Vendor Day a level playing field for vendors

Invite vendors you’ve worked with before as well as new, innovative vendors, vendors that are minority-owned/led, veteran-owned/led, women-owned/led, etc.

Our technology and approach will help you screen out vendors who don’t meet your expectations (see the “meet comp” discussion in #5 above) with ease, allowing you to be highly inclusive.


7. Rehearse

We always suggest holding at least two rehearsals: one as a run through to make sure the presentation technology works (“tech rehearsal”); and one so each presenter can practice and make sure their portion of Vendor Day will go smoothly and isn’t too long (“dress rehearsal”).

A word on who should do the presenting

While it’s tempting to have upper-level management at your agency present, we find that a hybrid model works best. Kick off your meeting with upper-level management describing the overarching service-delivery strategy and/or your existing tech stack and how you see it evolving. Then have the people closest to the problem(s) to be solved present the challenge statement and the before-and-after flow diagrams discussed above. When it comes to discussing a technological solution, the people who actually built out the flow diagram are usually the best ones to present it.


8. Hold a retrospective

The retrospective should happen after your Vendor Day has concluded. The focus should be on identifying what worked, what didn’t, and how to improve Vendor Day in the future.

Consider having someone not involved in the planning or execution of Vendor Day manage the evaluation process/retrospective.


9. Have fun!

We know “fun” isn’t a word often associated with government, due to the seriousness of the problems facing you and your jurisdiction. That said, the Vendor Days we’ve helped set up for California’s EDD and DMV – two of the largest agencies in the United States – were fun. People really enjoyed them. There’s something about a group of people striving to attack urgent problems with real innovation that makes everyone feel happy. It’s government at its best, doing what only government can do – attacking the really hard problems.

At a minimum, you want your agency’s leaders’ enthusiasm for what they are doing to be evident, and to motivate the vendor community to do their very best work.


Relevant Links

Sound interesting? Here are two ways to start working with City Innovate on your next Vendor Day/Bidder’s Conference