12 AUG 21
Being clear: The value of asking the right questions within tender documentation

On the face of it, responding to a tender isn’t a complicated process. The buyer – the organisation that owns the project – provides a set of questions and the seller – the company wanting to work on the project – answers the questions. What’s so difficult about that?
Well, a number of things. At BiD Masters, we suspect we’ve seen them all.
The biggest issue on the buyer’s side revolves around the sheer complexity of tender documents. Bids and tenders generally relate to large purchases and significant spending, hence the existence of the tendering process. Over time, the documentation needed has grown in volume – seemingly exponentially. Further, the public sector tends to be quite rule-bound, which adds to the complication. 
What we’re left with is a process that is perhaps unnecessarily complex that is burdened with an excess of documentation.
Should the process change? Probably.
Will it in the short term? It’s unlikely.
According to the Cabinet Office green paper “Transforming Public Procurement” published in December 2020, there is a move afoot to streamline and simplify the complex framework of regulations that currently govern public procurement with the aim of opening up public procurement to a more diverse supply base. Watch this space.
In the meantime, what can buyers do to make the process easier – both for themselves and their potential suppliers ­– without attempting to transform the entire bidding and tendering process?
two hands holding a puzzle piece each, attempting to join them together

Keep it clear and simple

Clear, concise and straightforward tender documentation should be the norm and yet it’s not. All too often, we see contradictory specifications, questions so complex and detailed that they are all but impossible to decipher, and overlapping or repetitive questions.
On rare occasions, it seems an ITT or PQQ just hasn’t been thought out properly, but more likely it’s just a matter of one or two questions that have gone awry. There are a number of reasons for this, ranging from inexperience in tender production to production by committee, with multiple inputs overcomplicating matters. Another relatively common issue is cut-and-paste tenders, where standard formats or previous tenders have been repurposed but are not entirely fit for purpose.
Whatever the cause, complicated documentation, whether it’s the statement of requirements, the question itself or the evaluation criteria, leads to complicated responses, often with a detour via a clarification question (CQ) or two. Due to the complexity and conflicts, even responses to CQs do not always resolve the issue. Wouldn’t it be better to invest time and effort in producing appropriate, tender-specific documentation that results in clear responses filled with the information you are looking for, rather than dealing with responses that don’t contain the information you need or a daily list of CQs?

The art of simple

The trick to asking a simple question is knowing what you want to see in the response. Just as a good tender response answers the question directly, a good tender question is a direct question that elicits the right response and makes the comparison between suppliers more objective.
It’s easier to drill down to the information you really want from your potential suppliers if the question is specific. Consider the answer you’re likely to get to these two questions and you’ll see the difference:

  • How will service levels be maintained and recorded?
  • How will service levels be maintained and recorded, including management information reporting and the use of market intelligence and analytics?


Think about it from the seller’s perspective

Once your documentation is drafted, read it over from a seller’s perspective. Have you provided the right information and guidance and asked the right questions to elicit the answers that will make the evaluation process effective?
It can be hard to step beyond your internal knowledge of the requirements. BiD Masters recommends bringing in an external reviewer to assess the documentation to ensure it is clear. Alternatively, or additionally, an editor can simplify the language, clarify any complicated concepts and make sure your ‘i’s are dotted and your ‘t’s are crossed. It may sound trite, but remember, a comma in the wrong place can alter the meaning of a sentence.
As an example, a few years back, a dairy company in the US settled a court case for $5m because of a missing comma. The state’s laws declared overtime wasn’t due for workers involved in “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: 1) agricultural produce; 2) meat and fish products; and 3) perishable foods”. The missing comma would have separated “packing for shipment” and “distribution” into distinct activities, both exempt from overtime. Without the comma, three lorry drivers argued that the law referred only to the act of packing for the purpose of either shipping or distributing.
No-one wants a $5m grammar lesson.
In the tender process, we all want the same thing – clear, concise questions and responses, that result in selecting the most suitable proposal.
If you’re a buyer needing help producing tender documentation, contact BiD Masters for an obligation-free discussion.