Embracing the RFI-RFP Combo

I have been leveraging the Request For Proposal (RFP) as a tool to evaluate vendors for 30 years. Over those three decades, I have soaked up everything I could find on on how to create the perfect RFP.

In 2005 I started a consulting firm focused on vendor selection and in 2014 I found the ideal enterprise-level online RFx platform and moved my RFPs online. Then everything changed in 2017 when I decided it was time to innovate a more efficient vendor selection process.

RFP Scoring Challenges

I was struggling with several issues while facilitating RFP scoring sessions with client vendor selection teams:

  • Question Clarity: You realize reading vendor responses to a question that some questions could be interpreted differently and therefore the vendors answered different questions. This meant the whole question had to be thrown out as you didn’t want to penalize a vendor because your RFP question wasn’t specific enough.
  • Scoring Bias: I would know from working with a team that some members had a dislike for a particular vendor they had worked with in the past. I would see this during RFP scoring where that vendor would get a slightly lower score on each question (hard to argue a 6 vs a 7 or 4 vs a 5) and that death by a thousand cuts would kill the vendor’s overall score by the end of the scoring effort.
  • Scoring Fatigue: Scoring 6-8 RFPs can take a significant amount of time. I would notice that during the first third of the scoring effort, members would read each vendor response to a question and carefully score them as accurately as possible. By the second third of the scoring effort, fatigue would set in and members would start grouping vendors into tiers and every question would get scored similarly after scanning the question responses. By the last third, the team is spent and just phoning it in to get the scoring effort completed. The challenge here is that the most important questions might have been in the last third of the RFP.

Additionally, clients were using my base RFP as a starting point and only adding a small percentage of new questions that were specific to their brand. That meant I would have to sit through the same 4-6 week process with the same vendors and scoring the same questions over and over. I started thinking, there has to be a better way.

What if I could get the vendors to fill out my RFP in advance and score it myself prior to meeting with a client? All I really need from the client is to understand their priorities (ex: do they have drive-thrus? do they need kitchen routing? what third-party integrations are required? etc…) to create a weighting model to apply to the RFP response data.

In pondering how I could get the vendors to fill out my RFP in advance and refresh the data periodically, I came up with the idea of publishing a leaderboard as incentive to the vendors. Additionally, this would mean they could fill out one RFP and have it used by multiple prospective customers. And our RFx platform allowed them to import the previous response and just update what has changed, saving them a lot of time keeping the data fresh going forward.

Grid Decision

I decided to brand these leaderboards as “Grid Decision” and for several years published technology leaderboards in the restaurant, retail, and hotel markets.

By now you might be thinking, what the heck does this have to do with your Embracing the RFI-RFP Combo title? Here’s what happened next:

Clients and vendors embraced Grid Decision. Approx 30 vendors participated and we used it successfully in several large enterprise selections.

Splitting the RFP into an RFI and RFP

Vendors were not interested or able to share some data typically included in an RFP due to confidentiality. This caused me to split the RFP into a Grid Decision RFI (Request for Information) and client-specific RFP. Here are the differences:

  • Grid Decision RFI: includes all informational questions that aren’t confidential or client-specific (ex: functionality, service, integration, technology)
  • Client-specific RFP: includes only client-specific and/or confidential questions (ex: pricing, references, vendor financials, timelines)

This model worked extremely well because we could apply a client’s weighting model (priorities) to pre-scored RFI data from 20-30 vendors in a Round 1 elimination process. This allowed us to drill into the data to help educate clients on the differences between vendors, especially those on the fence for whether to eliminate or move forward to Round 2 (RFP round). It also meant less Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDA) were needed as they weren’t needed until after using the RFI to short-list vendors.

Over time, this RFI continued to grow to several thousand questions (we’ve also continuously eliminated questions that didn’t differentiate or add value) and provided a very thorough and quantitative way to short-list vendors. Additionally, we moved the RFI to a format of 100% drop-down boxes with auto-scored answers. This effectively meant the vendors are scoring themselves and solved the RFP scoring challenges described above.

Best of all, we could now spend one day with a client and produce the
same output as the old RFP process that took 4-6 weeks.

The Streamlined RFP

By moving all informational/educational questions to the RFI, this enabled the RFP to become what the name implies, a request for proposal. That means the RFP includes requests for confidential information and provides all the information a vendor will need to know about the client (requirements, priorities, timelines, volumes, etc…) in order to prepare a proposal (timelines, costs, implementation and integration needs/plans, and approach for deploying their solutions and services). There’s no need to include questions about the solution as those were already covered in the RFI.

With this model, the RFI includes hundreds to thousands of questions
whereas the RFP might only include 20-50 questions.

After leveraging this RFI and RFP combination over the past 4 years, I can’t imagine going back to the old model of cramming everything into one big RFP and trudging through the RFP scoring process.

What’s the Latest?

We stopped publishing the Grid Decision leaderboards this year for several reasons: 1) Due to COVID-19, vendors couldn’t prioritize refreshing the RFI data this year due to staff reductions and clients put all vendor selections on hold to focus on surviving the lock-downs, 2) we have always struggled to define one universal weighting model at the market-level for the leaderboards because the chains are all so different, and 3) it took a lot of time to produce, publish, and publicize the leaderboards without much of a return on investment (our clients were engaging us based on our reputation, not the leaderboards).

So what now? Our new process looks like this:

We leverage the RFI to educate clients and short-list vendors to receive a mini-RFP in Round 2.

If you are still stuck in the painful old 4-6 week traditional RFP process, contact us for some pain relief and a more streamlined/effective selection process.