Cloud or off-the-shelf enterprise software selections are journeys of discovery where organizations learn their software requirements. A request for information (RFI) is part of the discovery process, especially common with government agencies. Since RFI’s are significant work for both buyer and seller, what strategies can you employ to maximize the return on your effort?
Some organizations seem to think software is a commodity that a number of vendors could supply, but rarely is this the case. Invariably one software product is a better match for your particular needs than any of the others, and that product will maximize your ROI. Your task is to find that best-fit software, and the RFI can be an important step along the way.
RFIs and RFPs
What’s the difference between an RFI and a request for proposal (RFP), and how do they fit into the purchasing process?
- The main purpose of the RFI is to get an idea of potentially suitable software products, along with vendors and prices. The RFI may also be used to adjust the scope of the project, and to eliminate unsuitable products.
- The RFP occurs later in the purchasing process and incorporates information learned from the RFI. It is used to solicit more detailed requirements information and also proposals from vendors, which is the start of the purchasing negotiation.
Confusion can occur because both the RFI and the RFP include requirements, but the RFI is in the discovery phase of the purchase, whereas the RFP is the start of the negotiation phase.
Maximize the value of an RFI
The primary goal of your RFI is to collect information from vendors, but because of the amount of work involved they often decline to participate. To make matters worse, many RFIs start with this kind of discouraging preamble quoted from a U.S. Government RFI:
The notice is issued solely for information and planning purposes and does not constitute a Request for Proposal or a promise to issue a Request for Proposal in the future. The RFI does not commit the Government to contract for any supply or service. The U.S. Government will not reimburse the vendor for any effort completed under this RFI.
Instead of responding, vendors just look for an upcoming RFP. So where does this leave your RFI? If no suitable vendors respond, all that happened was your project was delayed. However, there are steps you can take to maximize vendor responses and the corresponding value you gain from the exercise.
1) Set the stage
2) Well written requirements
Most enterprise software selection projects start with a few software products in mind. Some research on the Web usually uncovers a few more. In addition to requirements based on organizational needs and pain points, use the process of reverse engineering the main features from these products to catch requirements you may have missed.
Make sure you have well-written requirements, e.g. written as closed questions that can be answered from a drop down list. Rate requirements for importance. Remember that detailed requirements not used in the RFI will later be used in the RFP.
3) Make it easy to respond to the RFI
The less work the vendor must put into your RFI, the more likely they are to respond. Making it easier to complete the RFI also shortens the cycle time.
- Minimize the number of requirements by restricting the RFI to showstopper requirements only. These will be used to filter out unsuitable software products.
- Discourage (but don’t prevent) vendors from adding comments to their responses. There is no effective way to consolidate these comments, so they don’t make a material difference at this stage.
4) Allow vendors to form relationships
An effective way to sell enterprise software is through relationships, and these start with questions and conversations. Most vendor questions can’t be answered by procurement. If the vendor can speak to the person managing the software selection, they are far more likely to respond to the RFI if they feel their product is a reasonable fit. Hence include your contact details on the RFI.
What do you do with the information returned in RFI responses?
- Score the products against your requirements (RFIs and RFPs use the same scoring). Based on the product scores you decide if it is worth proceeding with the project.
- Adjust the scope of the project. For example if you wanted document management functionality, but no products have more than rudimentary features in this area, consider removing these requirements from the project scope.
- Shortlist the software products by eliminating those that score too low against your showstopper requirements.
- Prepare the RFP, which is where you expand the list of requirements to include all requirements rated important or higher.
This article summarizes ideas on maximizing the value of an RFI. The key strategies are making it as easy as possible for vendors to respond to the RFI, and of allowing vendors to talk to the project decision maker. In other words, help the vendors to help you take a step on the journey selecting the best-fit enterprise software for your particular needs.