Over the years, I’ve helped several companies identify partners for a variety of projects from manufacturing to creative services and I’ve managed many of those partners and service providers after they were selected. This post is based on that experience, and is intended to share some of what I’ve learned about the request for information (RFI) process.
I’ll discuss the RFI process in relation to a recent project I did with a Bay Area scientific device company, Wafergen Biosciences, for the development of their new SmartChip system. In my role, I worked closely with the project lead to identify a service provider who could take on an industrial and user-interface design challenge associated with the project.
Why do an RFI?
The RFI process has two goals, the first of which is to educate yourself, and your company, so you can make a strategic decision about partners and service providers. Certainly, there are times when you’ll already have solid candidates for a project in your network but even in this case, the RFI process can help you understand key points of negotiation, estimate fair pricing thresholds, learn about market trends, and understand contemporary capability sets.
The second goal is to make sure you get the right information from your potential partners and service providers. Often, these companies will have a wide range of services , which means that a general capabilities presentation won’t give you insight into the practice area you’re interested in. I’ve also found that the RFI process can help help support internal alignment around project goals, which in turn results in a more highly developed request for proposals (RFP) …. I’ll write another post about RFP’s soon.
In Wafergen’s case, we needed a firm that could handle both an industrial design and a user-interface design project. This significantly narrows the field, because many firms specialize in one area only. Which brings me to the topic of to find candidates to particiate in your RFI.
An RFI for your RFI?
The projects I’ve worked on have been primarily for private companies, so I’ve never had the requirement of publicly posting an RFI. Assuming this is not the case, you’ll want to make the RFI process as lightweight as possible. Thus, it’s important to start with some research on your own to find firms to participate in the process. In my case, the scope of my engagement with Wafergen would only allow me to consider 10 firms in the RFI phase.
I took a hybrid approach to identifying the firms to participate. First, I reached out to my personal network through e-mail and LinkedIn. I then reached out to the internal team at Wafergen. Finally, I used Core77’s Design Directory to turn up some additional candidates. At this point, I’d probably looked at 30 websites, which I narrowed down to ten with the help of the Wfergen project lead.
3 key points:
- Make sure you get a variety of firms to support a wider understanding of the field while allowing key points of differentiation to rise to the surface.
- Don’t limit yourself to firms that you already know (that’s nepotistic and lazy).
- Spend some time looking online to see what people say about candidates, rather than just looking at their websites.
A basic RFI outline
The structure of an RFI will vary a bit depending on the application, but here’s a general structure to get you started:
- A Statement of Purpose – why are you looking for help? (clearly stated goals)
- Response Guidelines
- when do you want a response? (participation criteria)
- in what format? (it may help to explain how the proposal will be reviewed)
- and, to whom? (contact information)
- General Questions
- what are the key points around which you’ll make a decision? For example, firm size, number of locations, range of services, business history, portfolio samples, case studies, etc (make sure that your questions will actually have an impact on your decision).
- request specific capability information related to your project (deliverable formats, software required, etc)
- provide an area for candidates to include some information that may not be directly within the scope of the RFI but which they think is relevant.
- clearly state how your selection process will proceed.
- identify how many firms will move onto the RFP process.
- provide a contact should the candidate have additional questions about the process.
- Fine Print
- if your RFI requires that you disclose sensitive information, make sure to get an non-disclosure agreement (NDA) signed before sending the RFI.
3 things to look out for
- The way that candidates respond to the RFI is usually indicative of their overall performance. Thus, if they’re too busy to be bothered, send you a canned response, or don’t respond on deadline proceed with caution. For example, In my Wafergen research I came across a firm whose answering service had no option for talking with an account manager, office manager, or salesperson. Ultimately, I had to leave a message with the accounting department to get someone to call me back!
- Watch out for candidates that don’t disclose partnerships that they may require to meet your project requirements.
- Be careful about having prolonged conversations with candidates, as this may give them an unfair advantage in the process. The idea is to give them enough information in the RFI to reply with what you’ll need to move to the next step.
3 project management tips
- Start a spreadsheet with all the candidates listed as you’re working your way through the process. It’s too easy to confuse candidates, contacts, and assets otherwise. For the Wafergen project, I used Google Docs to manage the process because I wanted the project team to be able to watch the process unfold, review candidates, and provide feedback.
- The way you handle the RFI process also sends a message to the candidate, so be professional, courteous, and respectful of the fact that they’re investing in the process at this point without getting paid. At the end of the process this means following up with the candidates that won’t be included in the RFP process.
- Start writing your RFP as you go through the RFI process. This will allow you to incorporate what you learn into the RFP while preparing you to smoothly move forward with the approved candidates.