There’s an old joke that goes something like this: A young boy asks his  father where he came from. His father nervously clears his throat and begins a long-winded explanation of the birds and the bees.

“Well, son, as you probably know your mother and I love each other very much. And when two people love each other and decide they want to spend the rest of their lives together…”

After he finishes, he says: “Well son, do you have any questions?”

“Hmmm. My friend Billy’s dad said he comes from Detroit.”

The joke underscores one of the first lessons of parenting: When a child asks a question, listen carefully to the question, pause and think about what is actually being asked, then answer the question and only the question.

The same holds true with requests for proposals, or RFPs.

We recently did an email vendor evaluation with a client and invited four vendors to participate. As is always the case in selecting an email vendor, the client had a unique set of needs. As I have said throughout my career, there is no best email vendor. They’re mostly all excellent in their own way these days.

There is only the best email vendor for a particular client and their current and near-future needs. RFPs are an early step in the process of finding that one best fit. Many email vendors offer vertical-specific features and services that are certainly relevant to clients that need them, but mean nothing to clients outside that particular vertical.

Including information in an RFP on a vertical-specific feature that means nothing to the perspective client is worse than offering no information. It needlessly clutters the process.

In this recent evaluation, our RFP included a series of succinct, straightforward questions aiming to start homing in on which of the four participating vendors was most likely the best fit for this particular client.

Two answered the questions well.

One sent some material that was clearly roughly repurposed from boilerplate material used in previous pitches. Their demonstration was so good that the boilerplate didn’t eliminate them from consideration, but it sure didn’t help. When being pitched for such a long-term, highly considered purchase, the client wants to see that the vendor has researched their company and is responding based on their specific needs.

Finally, one vendor sent a 50-plus-page document describing in detail its every capability. The answers to our questions were probably in that document somewhere, but if we were going to get them, we would have to dig them up ourselves.

An RFP is not a call for proposals that create more work than is already involved in a labor-intensive process.

An email vendor/client relationship typically lasts around three years. Depending on how accurate the vendor evaluation is, that relationship can be three years client satisfaction or three years of pain. And when it’s painful, it’s painful for both the client and the vendor. Not only that, when the client ends the relationship, they will they will not be a good reference.

It is in both parties’ interests for a vendor/client match-up to be a good fit. Finding that fit starts with answering an RFP’s specific questions completely and answering only the questions in that RFP.