The Ultimate Security Questionnaire Guide for Vendors


12 Jul 2023

Ultimate Security Questionnaire Guide

New to responding to Security Questionnaires? You’ve come to the right place!

Welcome to our guide on Security Questionnaires (SQs)! We’ll cover everything you need to know about SQs, including a complete breakdown of what they’re all about, what risk assessments look like from a prospective customer’s POV, and best practices for the vendors responding. Let’s get started!

The Basics of Security Questionnaires

In this section, we’ll cover the basics of Security Questionnaires, such as what an SQ is, what it covers, why you would receive one in the first place, and the difference between a Request for Proposal (RFP) and SQ.

What is a Security Questionnaire?

A security questionnaire is a standardized set of questions designed to assess the security practices and measures implemented by a vendor or organization. They serve as a tool for evaluating the security posture of vendors or partners to ensure that adequate safeguards are in place to protect sensitive information and mitigate potential risks. Organizations often use security questionnaires as part of their vendor procurement process to ensure they are engaging with trustworthy and secure entities.

What’s covered in a Security Questionnaire? 

These questionnaires typically cover various aspects of cybersecurity, such as network security, data protection, access controls, incident response, and compliance with industry regulations. 

Other areas covered include: 

  • Application & Interface Security
  • Audit Assurance and Compliance
  • Business Continuity Management & Operational Resilience
  • Datacenter Security
  • Encryption and Key Management 
  • Governance and Risk Management
  • Identity and Access Management
  • Infrastructure Security
  • Hiring and personnel policies
  • Security Incident Management
  • Supply Chain Management, Transparency, and Accountability
  • Threat and Vulnerability Management

Why would you receive a Security Questionnaire?

If you are being asked to respond to a security questionnaire, it’s because your org is being considered as a potential vendor or partner and they want to make sure you are compliant, low-risk, and are taking the right measures to protect data. As you gain more access to sensitive client data, organizations will prioritize holistic information gathering and the implementation of security practices across their vendor ecosystem. To facilitate this, organizations may request that you provide information through security questionnaires, which will enable them to centralize and comprehend their entire vendor landscape. Being prepared to respond to these questionnaires accurately and timely is crucial as a vendor in today’s data-driven environment.

What is the difference between an RFP and an SQ?

The Request for Proposal (RFP) process provides a structured and effective way to gather information, evaluate options, and make informed decisions about which vendor to choose. The RFP business document goes into detail about what product or service the buyer wants to purchase. Once this is sent out, vendors can review it and submit their bids. 

Security questionnaires (SQs) are technical questions created by IT teams, and are typically used to determine a vendor’s security and compliance posture. If a company is interested in hiring a vendor, the buyer will ask them to fill out a security questionnaire. The buyer wants to make sure that the vendor meets their security requirements before potentially advancing to the next stage in the sales process with said vendor.

To figure out which kind of tool can best answer an RFP or Security Questionnaire for your org, check out our breakdown on RFP software vs. Security Questionnaire Automation.

Starting your Security Questionnaire journey

Now that we’ve got the basics covered, let’s jump into what risk assessments / security reviews may look like from prospects, as well as best practices for responding to them.

What prospects will ask from vendors

During risk assessments or security reviews, prospects may request the following from vendors:

  • Updated and accurate policies and documents
  • Clear contractual provisions for information sharing
  • Monitoring and renewal of insurance certificates
  • External reports and reviews
  • Legal checks for credibility and compliance

To get a better understanding of prospects’ thought processes during these reviews, check out Vendor Risk Assessments: 3 Common Mistakes to Avoid

Best practices for the vendors responding 

From the perspective of the vendor – the individual or company that supplies services for another company (or for that company’s customers) – vendor assessments can be a huge pain. The assessment itself can be quite complex, and that paired with an SLA that requires you to have the assessment complete in an absurdly short amount of time adds to the pressure. Oh, and let’s not forget that you’re probably not the only company the prospect is talking to, either. When that contract is on the line and the vendor assessment is one of the final hurdles, you won’t have a choice but to move fast. 

But speed means nothing if your company fails to provide satisfactory, accurate responses during the assessment, so let’s dive into the best practices that you should keep in mind. 

When responding, make sure to:

  • Review the assessment carefully 
  • Gather (the right) information 
  • Be honest 
  • Address any gaps
  • Keep it secure 
  • Build in efficiency 

Read Best Practices for Responding to a GRC Vendor Assessment for more details on the above. After that, be sure to check out the 10 things to keep in mind when completing security questionnaires.  

Maintaining your Security Questionnaire Process

Now that you’ve got a solid foundation of SQ knowledge, prospect insights, and best practices under your belt, it’s time to talk about one key element… pain. Because let’s be real, they aren’t fun, but there are ways you can optimize your security questionnaire process so it’s smooth and painless.

Common security questionnaire challenges

Regardless of whether your company is still heavily reliant on spreadsheets, or you’ve (thankfully) made the transition to digital practices, there are a few pain points that arise from the security questionnaire process, such as:

  • Lengthy questionnaires: Security questionnaires are detailed and time-consuming due to their comprehensive nature. Establish a consistent data gathering process to handle the length of questionnaires efficiently.
  • Information gathering: Determine who should be involved in gathering the required information and consult subject matter experts (SMEs) for each relevant area.
  • Process establishment: Establish a standardized process for answering questionnaires and ensure its consistent implementation throughout your organization.
  • Reporting: Move away from ad hoc reporting and strive for uniform and consistent processes to minimize errors in security questionnaire responses.

Best practices to overcome security questionnaire challenges

Fortunately, you can minimize and even eliminate some of the challenges that security questionnaires may pose. Below are some of our recommendations:

  • Remove the irrelevancies: To begin, remove any irrelevant questions from the security questionnaire that do not apply to your specific circumstances. Compile evidence and reasoning to support why those questions are not applicable. Seek clarification on any unclear questions to ensure a thorough understanding and provide comprehensive answers. Failing to address all parts of a question may put your customer relationship at risk.
  • Have a remediation plan on deck: Have a solid remediation plan ready to address security vulnerabilities identified in the questionnaire. Demonstrate ongoing efforts to align security posture with customer expectations. Discuss the potential for another assessment questionnaire after implementing new controls. Taking responsibility for control gaps and providing a remediation plan shows honesty, accountability, and a proactive approach to earning customer trust.
  • Keep it short and sweet: Make sure answers are concise, assess strengths and weaknesses honestly, involve subject matter experts, communicate openly with partners, and ask for clarification when needed to provide accurate information to assessors.

Additionally, the advent of AI in the security space has played a significant role in streamlining security questionnaires, providing several benefits for businesses, such as:

  • Having a live, self-sustaining security portal: Certain automation solutions for security questionnaires create portals that publicly showcase an organization’s security and compliance status. These portals highlight security credentials such as certifications, attestations, and compliance reports. TrustCloud’s security portal serves as an example. Apart from the public-facing information, additional details can be shared by invitation, utilizing enhanced security features like NDA click-wrapping. By proactively sharing this information, organizations can decrease the volume of security questionnaires they receive from potential clients and customers. The cherry on top? You don’t have to manage a knowledge base,  because these portals maintain themselves by connecting and pulling information from your security program. It’s accurate, up to date, and much less work.
  • Faster and more accurate responses with Security Questionnaire automation: These smart solutions help you save time by pre-populating answers and make collaboration among teammates easier by allowing you to assign and tag the right people for the right answers.