RFP & RFI – The Joys of Tender pt 2 – Writing them

“One of the best tenders we’ve ever experienced; the projected volumes were accurate and the timetable was kept to”

This was genuine feedback we received once –  because we knew our numbers and kept to deadlines (set by ourselves), we were deemed to be good. It appears that the bar may be set quite low.

Giving advice and tips as to the best way to respond to a tender is actually quite a simple thing to do. Giving advice as to how to compose them is not so simple for three main reasons.

  1. Each company issuing will have their own rules, procedures, processes and governance
  2. Most companies will have good quality procurement and supply chain personnel who are running the process
  3. When was the last time a company issuing a tender ever asked the recipients for feedback so as to improve their own process?

In the main its something of a one-way street and feedback is neither sought nor particularly wanted.

So here it is anyway.

(Also let the record show that we have been culpable of some of these!)

COMMUNICATION

Get this right and the responses you receive will be that much better.

  • Clearly describe exactly what it is you are looking for. In detail. It might sound obvious but so many tenders we’ve seen give a good outline at a high level but not at a granular level; are you looking to outsource ALL your volume or just some? Are you looking for a panel of suppliers or just one? Has the decision to outsource been made already or will the tender responses help you make that decision?
  • The written word can be misinterpreted all too easily. The best process we’ve seen was when all tendering parties were gathered together in one room and the requirements of the responses were spelt out. A Q and A followed, then the tender was issued.
  • Be explicit about the amount of information, by section or even question, you are looking for.  If you state that you are looking at brief responses, those submitting the tender have NO idea what your definition of brief is so will err on the side of caution – brief becomes big.
  • Check with your IT department about any limits on e-mail size and compatibility. Responses are going to be big, corporate e-mail accounts nearly always have a limit and recipients need to know both this and whether you can unzip a file or not.
  • Stick to your timetable. You set it after all. If you can’t, don’t go quiet, communicate what is happening.
  • Inform of any decision early and always give feedback. People and companies get reputations and we’ve worked with a number of suppliers who increasingly won’t be part of certain tender processes because they perceive it to be a waste of time. They pour man hours into a process and get, literally, nothing back.

PRESENTATION

This is an external document issued to a selected few in the market – it represents your company and yourself. You might think of yourself as a buyer not a seller, but how the recipients view both you and your company can be greatly influenced by the tender document you issue.

  • If you are using a previous tender template and are editing it for a different commodity, do it carefully.  There have been countless examples seen where a reference to (for example) underground drainage services has been included in a tender for electrical goods. It makes little sense, lets people know what your last tender was for and shows a rather generic approach to the commodity. No one like to receive generic tender responses, so don’t issue a generic tender!
  • The background information about your company is actually very useful and important. Increasingly we’ve seen this get better and better, focussing on the wider group then narrowing it down to the area buying the good or service. This is the one chance you get to sell your company before the tender recipients get to sell theirs.
  • Does the look and feel of the tender issued match other publicly released documents from your company? It really should – fonts, sizes, colours etc all give a really good impression to the recipients. We once had a tender blocked from being released because we’d ignored some marketing guidelines; as much as it annoyed us at the time because we were on a tight deadline, we should have got it right first time.
  • Seriously, why would you use excel for lengthy worded tenders? For numbers, obviously; for short responses and yes/no answers, maybe; for big old worded answers; NO. Please no. It is such a bad format to use for responses, it looks bad, it feels bad. Those of us on the receiving end of these tenders waste too much time wrestling with the constraints of the format rather than focussing on the content. If you  REALLY have to use it, explain why as part of the opening blurb – you’ll get a lot more respect.

CONTENT

  • Only ask what you can measure or assess. Otherwise, what’s the point? Tenders are too big as it is.
  • Keep it relevant. We’ve seen some really odd questions in the past that make very little sense to the commodity we are bidding for.
  • Be clear on the rules of the response. If you’ve asked for costs, each company will have their own way of responding which is going to make scoring each response REALLY hard. For example, clarify that costs are to include/exclude VAT, delivery, rebate or any other variable.
  • Don’t try and blag the technical detail if you don’t know it. The companies you have tendered to are experts in the field and will spot it a mile away.

 

 

RFP & RFI – The Joys of Tenders – Top Tips

Thanks to modern governance the tender process is now standard in most industries where suppliers are appointed and contracts are awarded.

Having spent too much time on both sides of this process, i.e. being a both a tenderer and tenderee on multiple occasions here are our top tips for completing an RFI (Request for Information) or RFP (Request for Proposal).

General

  • Read the pre-amble, the explanation notes, the covering letter, everything. 

Then read it again. Research the company who has issued the tender, research the person or people who have issued the tender. Where is the company going? What are their key objectives? What press stories are there? What is their “burning platform”? The more you understand what the company wants from a supplier on the tender, what the bigger picture looks like, the better your chances of success.

Nothing stands out or irritates more than a generic tender response that could have been written for anyone.

  • The same applies for when you submit any questions – make sure you have read it properly as you might be advertising the fact that you’ve not taken the time to understand what has been asked.
  • You need a team to be able to submit a good response. Tenders are long, can contain masses of information, and lets be honest can be really, really dull to complete (try writing them). It’s easier to lose your way than not – allocate sections to different team members then bring it all together.
  • Get someone who is not familiar with the subject matter and who has not been involved in the drafting to proof read the final version. The number of times they will simply not understand the point you are trying to convey will surprise you.
  • Follow the instructions to the letter. This includes format (yes, excel for a lengthy worded response is not great, but there might be a reason it is in that format), numbering, word limit, and even yes/no answers only. We’ve binned tender responses in the past when the numbering got so wrong we couldn’t follow the response properly and ground our teeth when despite clear instructions PDF documents were returned instead of the Excel we requested. And don’t fire blanks – this leaves those scoring wondering if you missed the question/couldn’t answer/got bored/something else.

If instructions cannot be followed at a tender stage, the implication that the client takes away is that you are going to continue to do this throughout a contract.

Content

This is always a tricky area – you are desperate to show off all that your company can do, but time and time again you need to ask yourself a very important question; does the potential client actually care/need to know?

From experience if an RFP/RFI is clearly stated and unambiguous in what it is seeking and what you really want to get across is nothing to do with this, leave it out. Easier said than done and nearly always snuck back in,  those who will score your response are far more likely to assess that you have not read the instructions/are inflexible in your approach/ do generic only, rather than sit back and go “Wow, didn’t think we wanted that but we do now!”

And if the RFP/RFI is ambiguous or the questions seem, well, wrong? (It certainly happens.) Fill in the tender as requested, THEN suggest some alternative models/propositions/all the lovely information you are desperate to tell them at the end. BUT BE BRIEF – it may not get read very carefully if at all.

  • It goes without saying but put your best foot forward. Countless times on a post tender site visit we have found that, for example, an IT system is fully compliant/ISO rated, but the tender response said it wasn’t.  The person answering the questions assumed if their company didn’t hold the certificates it didn’t count, even though the question referred to the system itself.
  • But don’t stretch the truth.  If the answer is that you don’t do something, you don’t do it. Post tender visits will expose any areas where you’ve pushed the limits and as soon as they are found, you will be out of the running.
  • There are good ways to answer no. You know something is really important to the potential client and you just don’t do it. So your answer is a no with a caveat (but only if you are being honest); we don’t do it today, but we are going to work on it right now and would love to show you our progress should we get through this process step. Any answer that states you don’t do it but will IF you get the contract only gets slightly better scores than an outright no – remember that at this stage the potential client is looking at commitment up front.
  • Remember that it is your company as well as your product or service that is being evaluated. The potential client is looking for cultural alignment NOT just a great service so one without the other can leave you short.
  • If the format allows, show what you mean. Some of the best responses we’ve ever scored didn’t just explain control systems or delivery portals they included screen shots SHOWING exactly what they did and how impressive they were.
  • Don’t go “off-piste”.  Remember that this is a comparison exercise between you and your competitors – if you don’t follow the process/format then that makes the scoring that much harder and won’t put you in the best light.

Commercials

We have run multiple tender programs across very diverse commodities and services. Whilst not every one was focused on the financial outcome as the main driver, it ALWAYS made the top 2 or 3. We’ve had submissions where Company A was twice the price as Company B and it goes without saying that Company A didn’t last too long in the process. We’ve also had scenarios where Company C were half the expected/incumbent supplier cost and we simply couldn’t believe it was either true or sustainable.

  • Price competitively. – you know your industry and what you can / can’t put forward and still hope to win.
  • Ensure that if you already include aspects in your price (such as delivery etc) SPELL THIS OUT – those scoring are aware of the need to establish the total landed cost of the product.
  • CLARIFY aspects such as VAT inclusion etc so the submitted price is totally unambiguous.

Submissions and next steps

Having put your business on hold for 2 weeks, you’ve managed to get your final response ready. You’ve checked and re-checked the format required, if it’s a portal you’ve already tested that the connection and password works not having just left this till the 11th hour. Your attachments are in the right order, correctly labelled and formatted. You’ve either killed a printer or two getting a hard copy or two together, or hopefully just ruined your outlook memory limit with your submission. You hit send.

Here is what usually happens next;

  1. Chances are the size of the e-mail will mean it will bounce back. We’ve yet to see a note about outlook limit on attachment sizes on issued tenders, which is remiss and annoying.
  2. You re-send in smaller e-mails with an explanation note.
  3. It goes quiet.
  4. You ask for confirmation that all received OK.
  5. You get it.
  6. It goes quiet again.
  7. The first deadline promised regarding feedback comes and goes.
  8. A general note comes out saying that there have been delays in the process and a new deadline is given.
  9. That deadline comes and goes……..

We’ve rarely seen any timetable kept to from a company issuing a tender. Often there are good reasons for this but often its just poor planning – internal delays were not factored in, something else happens which drags the promised resource away etc.

The reality is that there is not much you can do here, however unfair it might seem – after all, you had a MUCH more aggressive timetable and you managed it as a smaller company with less resource! However, we would advise you keep track of the following;

  1. Note all deadlines, especially any that concern expiry of the incumbents contractual period (if known).
  2. Don’t be afraid to politely chase – you are keen to work with this client after all.
  3. Note time validity. Most tenders will ask for prices to be kept valid for a period of 90 or 120 days – as you approach that time limit you are within your rights to politely point this out.

Final Thoughts

  • No news normally is not a good thing – the more communication the better but this is a rule of thumb only.
  • ALWAYS ask for feedback – it might help you on the next tender.
  • EVEN if you won the contract – learn what worked well!