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Comment: New Year, New Platform? Writing the RFI

Time to re-platform your eCommerce?

In the previous article, I looked at the perils of making a New Year resolution to re-platform your eCommerce site, as well as constructing the business case to do so. Assuming you have vaulted that hurdle, the next step is going to be to look for your new alternative. Once you’ve completed some initial research into candidate solutions appropriate to your size and scale, this process typically moves into some sort of request for information (RFI). In this article, I’ll consider what makes a good re-platforming RFI and what – based on some client experiences – doesn’t.

Keep it short

The best piece of advice I can give is – keep your RFI short and keep the responses short too. Your RFI should tell a potential responder what they need to know about your business, focussing on what they won’t be able to find out by just looking at your current published presence. In response, you do NOT want to receive pages of boilerplate material: you want a response tailored to your needs, where the potential supplier has considered what most matters to you. Insist on receiving responses that are no more than 25 A4-pages in length (and not in 7px font!).

Stating your functional requirements

Do NOT include a 100 page appendix of requirements for the supplier to complete. Requirements gathering is what happens after you have chosen a supplier and when you have started the project. The only things that a 100 page spreadsheet list of detailed requirements tell your potential supplier is that your project is going to be run by a consensus-based committee, that you can’t prioritise and have to include everybody’s suggestions in the list. That means any sensible Systems Integrator should immediately double their estimates and/or day-rates. (And especially, do not include speculative ill-defined future requirements as one-liners in a final section: as in '22.2.9 - International'…)

Unless your shortlisted solutions are bizarrely mismatched to your needs, they will be eCommerce platforms. All eCommerce platforms include core elements such as carts, catalogues and so on. There is no need to require this. If you do so, all you end up with is every solution scoring somewhere between 97 and 99 out of a hundred against the list of functionalities, and therefore no ability to distinguish.

Focus instead on what makes your business special and what matters to you when differentiating from your competitors. If this isn’t so clear, picture the simplest possible eCommerce business: probably an online pure-play site selling small electronic appliances like kettles and toasters, delivering via a single method from a single warehouse in a single country. Now explain how your business is different from that baseline. Or simply look at your closest competitor and explain what makes you better. Then state the 10 to 20 top priority, major, requirements. Get the internal project team together, and insist on them force-ranking these (i.e. ranking from #1 to #20 with no ties allowed). This is what really matters to you, this is where you need most to understand if you will get out-of-box functionality versus customisation, and so this is what you want to ask the potential supplier.

Tell them what they can’t find out for themselves

eCommerce solutions are different from other IT systems because they are public. Any supplier sufficiently interested in bidding for your business should take the time to study your existing website(s). In fact, this should be a requirement in your RFI. In theory this should also allow them to open up your page HTML and spot subsystems such as recommendation engines and so forth: in practice, it’s safer to state these explicitly.

What the supplier can’t see (hopefully!) from this kind of external inspection is the rest of your systems landscape. You need to explain any expected integration touchpoints.

What they also can’t see, which is much more important, is your organisational landscape. You need to explain who the stakeholders are and who they’ll need to work with. In particular, they need to understand how complex your organisation is, how unified behind the project scope they already are, and how much stakeholder management they’ll be expected to do. Only if you make this clear can they realistically estimate the size of the undertaking and give you a credible price.

Even IT-centric projects are mostly about people

It’s extremely unlikely that your project is going to fail because you chose the 'wrong' platform. Almost any IT system can be made to do anything eventually. If you’ve made your key challenges, priorities and general specialness clear, as suggested above, then the supplier will already be expecting the key pain points, which is an area you should anyway focus on during the RFI-evaluation process.

It’s extremely likely, however, that your project will fail if you choose the wrong project team. If you can’t communicate with the project manager, don’t trust the architect or suspect that the lead developer is a ninny with no previous experience with this particular platform, the project will not be enjoyable. Any RFI, and resultant contract, must include “named individuals” clauses: the supplier(s) must name the key people who will be on your team, present them to you during the RFI process, and stick with them if at all possible. If they have to change them (e.g. because they leave the company), they must offer you a selection-process for their replacements.

On a related note, my personal preference is to include the software platform and the implementation project in the same RFI, and insist on a joint response; being implicitly endorsed by the software supplier is one more way of checking that the project team knows what it’s doing.

Say what you want, say what you mean

Clients with less experience of such processes sometimes ask if they are “allowed” to say various things in an RFI process. Unless it breaks the law, you are allowed to say anything you want. In fact you should do so about anything that matters to you. The more transparent the process is on both sides, the better the chances of a successful re-platforming project. There is no advantage in treating the process like some sort of dance of the seven veils, or awarding the contract to the supplier who is best at guessing what you really meant based on a few hints.

You cannot specify that the project team must all follow the Jedi religion, because this is illegal on grounds of religious discrimination. You can, however, state that it would be advantageous if most members of the project team had an intimate knowledge of the early Star Wars films. You can even include a Star Wars trivia quiz in the selection process, if you think it’s really likely to be helpful. The clearer you are in stating what is important to you, why, and how you will evaluate it, the better the chances of eventual success.

And on that note, happy re-platforming, and may the force be with you!

Chris Jones is a freelance specialist in multichannel and eCommerce, with extensive senior-level experience as both consultant and hands-on interim. He has worked extensively in both B2B and B2C sectors, and has client engagement experience in 15 countries. He is the author of ‘The Multichannel Retail Handbook’. You can find him at www.redsock.biz

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