Why RFI? How Requests for Information Help Small Businesses Win

Ahh the RFI. Short for “Request for Information.” Precursor to the widely known RFP. Occasional thorn in the side of suppliers everywhere. And yet, a critical component in competing for government contracts and fueling small business success.

July marks the beginning of what we at Montage fondly refer to as the Federal Feeding Frenzy—peak season for government agencies to bid out contracts and award their unspent discretionary funding by the end of the fiscal year on September 30. As evidenced by data from The Pulse, this is a great time to take advantage of contracting opportunities. Quite often, that starts by responding to an RFI.

So, what are RFIs? Why do they matter? And how can you get them right? To answer these questions and more, we merged our expertise with that of Tommy Benz, Principle and Lead Strategist at GrowthLab, a consulting firm that partners with companies to help them grow and thrive in the federal government market. For several years, we have worked with Tommy to propel Montage forward as a top marketing communications firm in the federal space. Today, we’re sharing our collective insight on this topic with you.

What is an RFI, and why does it matter?

Let’s start at the top. Broadly speaking, an RFI or Request for Information is a market research exercise used in business and government sectors to gather information from potential suppliers before initiating a procurement process. Along with facts about the prospective contractor, RFIs commonly request details about products, services, or solutions needed by the issuer.

RFIs generally precede Requests for Proposal (RFP) or Requests for Quotation (RFQ) in the procurement process. But RFIs are optional for both buyers and suppliers. Buyers may not issue an RFI if they feel they have all the information they need to move ahead with an RFP or directly award a contract. Suppliers are usually not required to respond to an RFI in order to respond to a future RFP. Moreover, business cannot be won or lost based on an RFI response or lack thereof.

Given all that, it may seem like RFIs are not particularly consequential in the game of government contracting. But oh, not so! Here’s why:

Small Business Set-Asides

“Federal government agencies put out RFIs when they are trying to determine a couple of different things,” says Tommy. “One could be that they’re trying to decide whether to set this requirement aside for small businesses. They may put out an RFI to see if enough small businesses put together solid enough responses for them to set it aside.”

What Tommy refers to is a federal contracting practice in which the government limits competition for certain contracts to small businesses. These contracts, known as “small business set-asides,” help small businesses compete for and win federal contracts.

But set-asides are not a given. For a contract to be set aside, at least two small businesses must demonstrate that they can perform the work or provide the products being purchased. This is the number one reason why small businesses should participate in RFIs. Only when multiple small businesses establish that they are qualified and interested can the federal government set aside contracts exclusively for small business competition.

Seeking Feedback

Another reason the government puts out an RFI is to seek industry feedback on how to structure a pending scope of work or RFP. According to Tommy, the government may think, “We know that we have this requirement, but we’re not exactly sure how we would tackle accomplishing what needs to get done.” He continues, “Other times they’re looking for feedback on how to structure the RFP.”

In RFIs, suppliers may be asked to recommend a preferred pricing model (fixed price; time and materials; indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity) or what tasks should comprise the scope of work in order to achieve the issuer’s stated goals. These types of requests serve as opportunities to influence the structure, scope, and terms of a forthcoming RFP. Given the chance, who wouldn’t want to align a requirement to their business’s strengths?

“Many RFIs do both,” says Tommy. They seek feedback on how to structure a future contract, and they determine the viability of a small business set-aside.

Where can I find RFIs, and what do I need to complete one?

To explore open RFIs as well as other contract opportunities, we recommend using the official U.S. Government website, SAM.gov. A recent search on SAM returned more than 1,300 results from across the government. Small businesses should filter by keyword or phrase, federal agencies of interest, and notice type, selecting Sources Sought, to help narrow in on relevant opportunities. Then, it’s time to respond.

No two RFIs are exactly alike. As Tommy tells us, “It’s a request for information, but the information that they’re looking for can be pretty broad and can hit a lot of different categories.”

In some cases, completing an RFI is like filling out a form on a website. There will be “a link that you go to and check boxes—yes, no, or select a category.” The latter is common when indicating if you are a small or disadvantaged business or if you are part of a government contracting program like SBA 8(a) or HubZone. “Then there are a few boxes where you’re typing in [an open-ended] response.”

On the other hand, some RFIs require longer, more detailed responses. Tommy explains, these are “almost like a mini proposal. It requires a lot of effort to respond,” which can be a challenge and a point of contention for small businesses with limited human resources.

The good news is that recently “[the government has] streamlined it a little bit better.” “We’re starting to see more of the forms now,” Tommy adds, and with them more participation and less frustration from small businesses. “Maybe you have to type a little bit, but you’re not putting a whole lot into it, so it just makes it easier to get a lot of response from industry.” And with more response, more small business set-asides.

RFI Response Requirements

So, what should you have at the ready when responding to RFIs? Tommy advises: “Generally they want the name of your company, your UEI number (available once registered in SAM), your capabilities sheet, your CAGE code, your socioeconomic status—all that basic information.”

After that, it varies significantly. “It may be a form saying, ‘check these boxes.’ It may be: Here’s the requirement. You have a five-page limit. Please respond on your experience and how you would do this work.”

In our experience, it’s handy to have documented past performance (case studies with contract details like value and contact), a write-up on core business capabilities, and boilerplate language about key work processes.

Top Tips for a Successful RFI

RFIs don’t conclude with a contract being awarded, but that doesn’t mean a strong response can’t help your business win work. Enter the sole-source set-aside.

Per the Small Business Administration, “sole-source contracts are a kind of contract that can be issued without a competitive bidding process. This usually happens in situations where only a single business can fulfill the requirements of a contract.” Businesses must be registered with SAM and participate in a qualified federal contracting program to be awarded sole-source set-aside contracts, two actions we strongly recommend to those looking to compete in the government sector.

But even when a sole-source set-aside is not on the table, participating in an RFI enables suppliers to make a first and lasting impression with federal agencies of interest and the decision makers therein. And, as previously discussed, it has the potential to make the competitive landscape more advantageous for small business.

To give you confidence when creating an RFI response, we asked Tommy to share his top tips. Here’s what he had to say:

Do your research. Tommy recommends first researching the office that issued the RFI and what they do. “I think the biggest mistake that a lot of companies make is that they lead off about themselves instead of demonstrating that they understand the customer, their office, and their mission,” says Tommy. “Show that you understand what [the government is] trying to accomplish and then pivot into how you can fulfill their need and get the work done.”

He also recommends researching the people in the program office. “Look at the org chart. If it’s filled out, see who the people are and where they came from. Maybe they came from an agency that you’re currently working with. If that’s the case, and you can show a parallel, that could resonate with them.”

Tailor your response. While it may be convenient to rely on boilerplate language, your response needs to be directly relevant to the requirement. “Make sure you tailor any boilerplate to the requirement and not just copy and paste. Be sure to answer all their questions. It can be helpful to list out the things the government is looking for and check against that.” Tommy explains that doing so can be make or break when it comes to small business set-asides: “The government may be trying to decide if they are going to put this out as a set-aside requirement. If they don’t get enough credible responses then it becomes inaccessible to most small businesses.”

Keep it clean. An attractive layout and an error-free response should be a given but can easily be neglected in tight-turnaround scenarios. Tommy says: “Simple steps like including consistent formatting and doing a proofread to catch typos are really important. Missing these things can reflect poorly on you and your response.”

Be willing to make suggestions. Yes, the government really does want your input. “If you still have page count available once you’ve answered everything that they’re asking for, I recommend including suggestions on how you think it could potentially work better,” says Tommy. Suggesting different NAICS codes, pricing model, or how the RFP is structured can be really advantageous so long as you map back to what the government is looking to accomplish. “Saying, ‘Hey, we understand what you’re trying to achieve here, but you’ve hit five out of the seven things that you need to reach your goal. We would suggest that you add these other two things in to get to where you’re trying to go with this.’ is generally viewed favorably.”

Including suggestions may also result in a future RFP that better suits your business. Tommy adds, “I would almost always do it if I felt like there was something that could make the requirement work better or better position my company to win it.” Remember: you can’t be penalized right for responding to an RFI. The worst-case scenario is that the government decides not to move forward with an RFP.

Go into the process with clear priorities. Tommy reminds us: “You can’t respond to every RFI out there.” He advises having a tiered target list of government agencies. If it’s a top target, make the effort to respond—even if it’s more labor intensive. If it’s lower on your list, look for form-fill style RFIs or consider passing. “It’s important to prioritize, especially as a small business.”

Are you feeling RFI ready? Good luck! And if you’ve found this article helpful, please send it to a small business owner you know. When one of us wins, we all win.

Key Takeaways

1. RFIs or Requests for Information enable the government to 1) determine if there are enough qualified firms to meet their needs and 2) get feedback on key aspects of a future RFP and/or contract such as required qualifications, pricing structure, and scope of work tasks.

2. Contracts may be set aside for small businesses following an RFI, but this depends on receiving responses from at least two qualified small businesses. As such, it is advantageous for small businesses to participate in RFIs.

3. Government RFIs vary significantly in their requirements. Some are form-based; others require documentation of experience, intended approach, etc. Be sure to respond to all criteria. If there is room, add suggestions as appropriate.

4. Review open RFIs at SAM.gov and choose those that align with your strengths and priority agencies.

5. You cannot be penalized for responding to an RFI, but your participation can better position you to win future contracts.

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