By Tanya Seda

With increasing frequency, we see enterprises with large IT projects tempted to skip the Request for Information (RFI) stage and go straight to a Request for Proposal (RFP). The enthusiasm to move things along is well-intentioned, but sometimes a full-blown RFP is not necessary, and just serves to delay the project they’re trying to accelerate. When working with our customers we develop an RFI at the beginning of the vendor evaluation process. These RFIs include a description of the enterprise and the project. It also includes a list of key requirements for the new services. It is not an exhaustive list but includes essential functionality and processes that are needed. Vendors are asked to respond with their ability to satisfy those key requirements. Vendors are not asked for a cost proposal at this time. We typically make the RFI available to as many vendors as we think are qualified to respond, or to those that express an interest in responding—usually five or more.

The RFP is published near the end of the evaluation process, after each finalist vendor (typically 2-3) has conducted its demonstrations or proofs-of-concept. Vendors are then asked to provide a cost proposal, along with their proposed agreements and a high-level implementation proposal with costs,  schedules and service level agreements

There are several reasons that customers try to skip the RFI step and go straight to an RFP: first, customers sometimes view the purpose of the RFI as simply a way to determine which vendors should be on the short list for the RFP.  For example, an enterprise looking to move to the cloud may believe that only AWS and Azure are qualified for the short list. They question the usefulness of and RFI if they already know who should be on the list. Why, they ask, define requirements if all the answers will be yes?

Second, IT may also think they can shorten the selection process by skipping the RFI. Writing the RFI, soliciting responses, and analyzing results can add weeks or even months to the project schedule. If the team can skip this step and go straight to an RFP, significant time can be saved from the evaluation schedule. Right?

The third reason is budgetary. The cost of any new design is only determined at the end of the process, so if the customer is budget-constrained, by jumping right to an RFP they would understand new system  costs so they can decide the feasibility of moving forward.

Let me give you different perspective. The way we see it, the value of an RFI comes from what it brings to the overall process, and therefore IT should not skip this important step. Here are some important reasons:

  1. Missing New Vendors. IT sometimes thinks they already know which vendors should be on the short list. Most of the time, though, they only know the usual suspects, but unless the organization spends time staying up with the market it is very possible to miss newer vendors which can provide important new capabilities for the future.
  2. Educating the vendors. The RFI presents necessary information about the project and key requirements, which allows vendors to respond with their capabilities in a straightforward way. They do not need to respond with a detailed cost proposal, lowering their presales effort, making them more likely to respond, and giving them more time to consider the best options for you.
  3. Demo Strength. The RFI defines key requirements and provides a preliminary evaluation of a vendor’s capabilities. This is an essential foundation for developing good demo scenarios. During the demo, you can focus on areas of importance to the business, as well as areas where the vendor’s capabilities may be uncertain. Without an RFI and a vendor’s response, you may develop generic demo scenarios, or the vendor may simply give its standard canned demo, missing key elements that may be important to your project.

Most importantly, an RFI will not add time to the process if it is done right. If you skip the RFI stage and jump right into the demo and RFP stages, the vendors will need more time to gather information which the RFI process would have garnered. RFPs are expensive for the vendor to respond to, and without a clear understanding of requirements, some simply walk away.

We highly recommend issuing a concise RFI to a longer list of candidate vendors. Based on their responses, you can then narrow down the list and decide who to invite for a more in-depth evaluation. Depending on results, you can decide whether a full RFP is needed. Often just providing more detailed information will enable the vendor, and you, to make an informed decision and move to the proposal stages.