RFI vs RFP? Which Should It Be?

9/29/17 4:02 PM David Hulsen RFP Issuing

You need to make a supplier selection. To make your selection, you need answers to your critical questions, but how do you ensure that you get the right answers?

How do you know when you should issue a Request for Proposal (RFP) and when to issue a Request for Information (RFI)?

Find out how they're different, and when you should use each below. Or, if you know you're ready for the RFP, this simple infographic explains how to write, send, and review an RFP in 9 steps or less

First, what's your end-goal?

While many jump to an RFP over an RFI, the two have very distinct purposes. So your first step is to clearly establish what are you trying to achieve. 

  • Do you know what questions to ask a vendor?
  • Are your questions very specific, or more general? 
  • Do you already have a preferred vendor list (a short-list)?
  • Do you need to bid out the work through a formal process?
  • Are you working with repeat, or 1st-time vendors?  

Ask yourself: what's your end-goal? Your answer is the destination that determines the path. 



What’s an RFI?

What it is
: It's the formal means of getting general information from vendors.

  • An RFI is a casual "1st date" in vendor management.
  • Questions should be open-ended and high-level.
  • Perfect if you're early in your buying process, or if you have vague project requirements.

What it does: It gives you a broad scope (landscape) of your vendors.

Advantage: They're fast. You could email your initial questions to a shortlist of providers, get responses within a week, and then use their responses to craft an effective RFP.

What’s an RFP? 

What is an RFP? It's the highly formal and structured way of getting specific vendor information (including pricing). 

  • RFP questions should be very specific
  • You should be prepared to share internal information about your process and needs
  • You should have clear-cut needs and be ready to buy
  • You should be ready to move beyond exploration and into commitment. 

What it does: Helps you compare vendors based on your priorities. 

Advantage: They're very thorough and offer a side-by-side, fact-based comparison of vendors' capabilities. 

Basically, if an RFP is an intimidate dinner-date, an RFI is grabbing a drink or getting coffee. 

Learn more: 

How do you frame questions in an RFI? 

Start very high level.

  1. Let vendors confirm or challenge the research you've conducted.
  2. You aren’t promising them work at this point, but dangle the carrot to keep them interested.
  3. You are gathering information and testing the waters. Be brief.
  4. Seek their perspectives, not their capabilities (you'll judge these later).
  5. See what questions they have. While it might seem counter intuitive, it can give valuable insight into how a company thinks and the level of their expertise. 

#PRO TIP: Start with an RFI and a wide net. Ask a number of vendors for some information. Surprisingly, not all suppliers post everything on their websites. A little directed interest can yield substantial benefits. 

Example RFI questions

Start by giving Responders some goal context.  Tell them who you are and what you're hoping to achieve. For example: you are ABC Company, and you're looking to strengthen your relationship with customers through social media channels. You currently maintain a Facebook page, Twitter account, and LinkedIn presence.

Your challenge is to engage current customers and use their networks to refer your products/services to peers. Based on this scenario, here are some RFI question you might ask: 

  1. What social media channels do you consider to be important for ABC Company and why?
  2. What are your initial impressions of our social media presence?
  3. How do you measure ROI for social media activities?
  4. For efficient integration between our internal marketing and external service providers, what people, process, and technology factors do you think are important to consider? Are there limitations we need to know about?
  5. As we get ready to prepare an RFP, what questions do you have for us?   

#PRO TIP: An RFI is especially helpful if you're new to your space (in this example, social media). Your bidders' responses will not only demonstrate their expertise, but also inform and educate you (with very little time invested by either party). Their answers can also help you nail down more concrete questions for the the eventual RFP. 

How do you frame questions in an RFP? 

Be specific. Give parameters for the types of service or product you're looking for. 

  1. Ask for examples of their work. If you're looking for specialized/customized service, ask to see an example of that kind of work done for other clients. 
  2. Avoid sticker shock by requiring a comprehensive pricing plan. 
  3. Be as in-depth as you need to be. At this point, you both have skin in the game, so make sure your priority questions are as thorough as they need to be. 
  4. If you're unsure of a seller's expertise or competency for your needs, address it. Ask them for the examples, certifications, or references that will put you at ease. 

#PRO TIP: Vague questions (at this point) don't do anyone any favors. You have specific expectations, whether you realize it or not. So if you're having problems writing exact requirement questions, collaborate with someone outside the situation who can help challenge assumptions. 

Learn more: 

Example RFP questions

Besides getting pricing and approach details, the RFP is a great place to get info on how you will work together. Ask how you can reduce risk, save time, and save money. Below are some examples.

  1. How will you approach implementation of X? (List an example that's specifically relevant to your business). 
  2. What steps can we pursue to control costs and/or limit cost overruns? (You want to partner with someone who will work to get you the best deal). 
  3. What risks to the time line or budget do you see, based on your understanding of our organization? (A high-level question like this gives you a sense of how much thought or effort they're putting into their response). 
  4. How are you monitoring and staying ahead of trends in our industry? (Works as a kind of litmus test). 

Learn more: 

Conclusion: RFI vs. RFP which do you send? 

Bottom line, RFI or RFP? If you're shopping for very specific services and know exactly what you want, then an RFP is your best best. But if you're "fishing" for ideas or trying to get a overview of your vendors, then the simpler RFI might be the better choice.  


Learn more: 

[Editor's Note: This post was originally published in April 2015 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.]