Are RFIs Asking the Wrong Question?

A number of service providers I’ve spoken with recently have told me of a noticeable increase in the volume of RFIs issued by client organizations. This suggests that clients are interested in learning more about what providers have to offer in terms of new services and innovative solutions. However, it also suggests that clients don’t quite know what they’re looking for. While a useful tool for understanding a provider’s capabilities, in many cases the RFI casts too broad of a net, and is frequently not actionable without significant work to sift through unqualified and unstructured responses. Rather than exploring client capabilities,, clients would be better served by engaging in a more focused discussion centering on their specific business requirements.

In other words, an RFI basically asks, “What can you do?” A better question would be, “How can you solve my problem?”

We’ve discussed how the Request for Solution (RFS) can be an effective alternative to the traditional RFP, which defines a rigid and highly prescriptive set of requirements. This can stifle creativity and limit a provider’s ability to demonstrate innovation. Given that today’s increasingly complex business problems often have more than one right answer, the RFS can allow a client to evaluate alternative approaches and see which approach is the best fit.

So, while the RFP can be overly specific and prescriptive, the RFI can, at the other extreme, be too vague and open-ended. Here again the RFS provides an alternative. By defining a problem or set of problems that need to be solved, the RFS focuses on a specific requirement, while providing leeway for innovation, creativity and alternative approaches. The pace of change in today’s market requires participants to be more open to new solutions and approaches. By preserving some structure from the RFP (e.g., the problem statement) and some of the open-ended aspects of an RFI (e.g., no prescribed solution), the RFS offers a hybrid approach ideally suited to today’s dynamic market.

We’re seeing increasing interest in both the provider and client communities in the RFS concept. I’ll be discussing the RFS and other emerging trends as part of a panel discussion at the upcoming 2013 ISG Americas Sourcing Industry Conference on how changes in the sourcing market are impacting relationships and contracting.