How to respond to an RFI?

by Steli Efti
rfi-request for information

Have you received an RFI (Request For Information) from a large organization or government agency? This could turn into a huge deal—but there's a lot of complexity involved.

What's the best way to respond to an RFI?

First of all, the appropriate response to an RFI is this:

Keep it simple

Way too many people freak out when they receive an RFI. They see this huge opportunity, and their mind goes into hyperdrive—full speed in the wrong direction.

They spend hours and hours studying the RFI process, about the company that requested it, about the person in charge, about potential competitors and on and on. They discuss it with their team members and ask smart people for advice. They learn about procurement procedures, contract vehicles

Their mind drowns in a sea of questions, for which they try to come up with the answers in their own mind. They make all kinds of assumptions, they worry, they get caught up in their own head.

When you're getting caught up in a net of complexity, seek simplicity.

How exactly do you "seek simplicity" when you received an RFI?

Pick up the phone and call them!

rfi-call them

Look at the RFI letter you received. Do you see a phone number somewhere? Pick up the phone and dial that number.

Say this: "Hey John, I just got your RFI. Really awesome that you guys included us. I need five minutes of your time to ask a few follow-up questions, and make sure that we can make a good decision if we want to be a part of this or not."

That's it. A few simple, but important questions.

What should you ask them?

Ask them a couple of big picture questions. At this point it's really just about figuring out whether it's worth your time to actually put together and submit a response, or whether it would be a waste of time for you. 

  • How did you find us?
  • Why did you decide to include us in the process?
  • How many other vendors are in the process?
  • Do you have examples of winning bids in the past that could guide us in terms of what the most successful way is to give you the information you need?
  • Is there one of the participants that you guys have been further in the discussion with than others?
  • You said that there's ten things that are really important to you. Can we go through them really quickly, and can you give me some context on why these things are important?

The answers to these questions provide the context you need to make an informed decision. Can you win this deal? Is it a good fit? If yes, how exactly do you need to provide the information to the prospect? How do you have to play this game to win? 

But won't asking these questions make me seem amateurish?

rfi-amateur

Many founders and small business owners are intimidated by prospective government agencies and large organizations. They're concerned about blowing it by revealing their lack of knowledge, not speaking the right lingo, or not knowing what to do.

The important thing to keep in mind is: you're not asking them to hold your hand while writing the RFI. You're asking them legitimate questions to assess the opportunity.

What if you can't call them?

Sometimes you can't reach the right person by phone, or the person in charge isn't willing to talk with you. In that case, send them an email.

The important thing is to respond quickly. It's an opportunity to show them you're responsive and professional. It's an opportunity to demonstrate you're the kind of vendor they'll enjoy dealing with.

Is it worth it to work it?

There's no hack to simplify the complex buying process of a large organization or a government agency to a point where it can all be explained in one blog post. (Although you should definitely shorten the buying cycle by using the "previous contract hack"!)

Responding properly to an RFI takes time—it's not enough to just send them marketing materials. You'll need to put together a customized package that succinctly tells the buyer what they'd get from you, and answer their questions in a way that will make your response stand out from all the other vendors.

But before you go down that road, quickly find out whether it'll be worth your time. If there's a real opportunity for you to close a major deal, then it might be worth it to put in the effort.

But don't understimate this. Selling to large organizations is a significant investment of your company's resources. Long sales cycles with uncertain outcome can kill startups or small businesses.

Chasing the wrong rabbit just because they sent you an RFI can be a costly distraction. Simply asking the right questions will help you to keep your focus.

rfi-chasing wrong rabbit


Further reading on RFIs by others:

How to respond to an RFI
Contains some common-sense advice, and helps you to view the RFI process through the eyes of technical reviewer.

How to Respond to an RFI or a Sources Sought Notice
Lays out several points you can use to gain a competitive advantage to other vendors.

Considerations when responding to an RFI or RFP (a view from the receiving end)
3 solid tips that the person evaluating your RFI will appreciate.