Ironically, when a tender lands in your inbox, it feels anything but…
For most people – on both sides of the procurement fence – it is a bureaucratic, time-consuming and sometimes, money-wasting exercise. During tender time, I have seen arguments break out, emotional meltdowns and many weekends, evenings and holidays wiped out by punitive, cumbersome processes and worse, news of losing.
Those of you who service a public sector client base are no strangers to three- or four-stage processes with document upon document seeking answers. Who hasn’t received an email with 17 attachments at one time in their careers?
As a young business development professional, my inbox was often buckling under the weight of government tender documents (AKA RFPs, RFQs, RFIs and RFTs) and I spent many evenings and weekends pulling responses together from disparate parts of the organisation, or rewriting chunks of text, because Whathisface in Client Services had no grasp of grammar. All of this against the backdrop of never really knowing if we had any real chance of winning or not.
Now, having written or contributed to 100s of tenders, I’ve learned that building relationships outside procurement processes maximises your chances of success; you start challenging your organisation to make better stop-go decisions; you develop checklists, guidelines and processes, which all improve your chances of winning and ensure that your colleagues still like you when you’re through the pain. Not forgetting hours and hours of training courses on writing skills, project management and sales.
Having moved into leadership roles, it’s a relief to be the one making the stop-go decisions and being able to reassure my teams, when they are close to breaking point, that I am only putting them through it because there is a real chance of success. However, even with the grey hairs that this career has given me, the good old-fashioned tender process will always retain some of its enigmatic qualities.
I was vocal then – and continue to be now – of the way many organisations put these documents together and structure their processes, documents and questions. For this reason, I am sometimes asked to advise the people to whom I pitch; to help them find the best supplier for their budget and avoid some of the following hiccups from last year.
On being elected, London Mayor Sadiq Khan, investigated the procurement of the £175m Garden Bridge project - a project which has been subsequently pulled. There were allegations of impartiality and not following due process. Previous Mayor, Boris Johnson, allegedly met with the appointed designer five times prior to the official procurement process, leading to concerns that the pitch process was a farce.
Secondly, the controversial action by Portico, appointed by PwC to provide front-of-house staff, in sending home a temporary female employee who refused to wear heels to work. PwC has since attempted to distance itself from the incident, but acknowledges it needs to do better in its due diligence on suppliers to ensure their values and protocols are aligned.
How could these situations potentially have been avoided? And why are we still making suppliers’ lives hell by forcing them to undertake highly academic exercises, when really we should be focusing on building relationships and getting under the skin of how a relationship will work in practice?
From my experience on both sides of the fence, here are my top tips on how to make the tender process more tender for us all:
1. Don’t leave it until the last minute. Asking suppliers to turn tenders around in two weeks – and sometimes less – is usually unfair and unrealistic. You will probably not get the quality of responses you need to make a fully-informed decision and will potentially lose support from the best suppliers, who may view this as disorganised and demanding. These days, the best suppliers will turn you down if they think you will be a problematic or difficult client.
Lead times are a critical part of stop-go decisions I implement when I am running sales or BD functions, because if I don’t have time to submit a quality response, I will end up doing more damage to my and my client’s brand than good. Many businesses have made redundancies since 2008 and operate with an extremely lean workforce in 2017. A last-minute tender means someone misses their child’s school play, or has to cancel a holiday or weekend away, or works unrealistic hours for 10 days. A compassionate approach to business will benefit everyone in the end.
If you do end up having an urgent need, then think carefully about what can be streamlined to make the process easier for your suppliers, and explain why the timeline is so critical. Discuss what you believe to be the essential information you think you need and what the suppliers can provide to help you make a decision. Be open to their views.
2. Understand the difference between procurement for a product and a service. It seems obvious, but often services need an entirely different approach and background research on your part. Again, seek advice from suppliers on the best way for them to demonstrate what they can do for you and the value they can bring to your organisation.
3. When procuring a service, research it, especially if you don’t work in the department you are sourcing for, as is often the case for Procurement professionals. You may be asked to work with a part of the business that needs something you haven’t procured before or there may have been changes in the industry you are being asked to procure from, so don’t assume you know the status quo. Spend as much time with the person needing the service to truly understand what they do and what the needs are in their business. Your potential suppliers will also help you with this, if need be. This could even be a preliminary stage to your tender process. You don’t have to start with a PQQ, just because that’s how it’s been done for years.
4. When potential suppliers cold call you or make contact, take the call! Save their information and arrange introductory meetings to understand how well they elicit your needs; whether what they are selling is the most relevant product or service; whether culturally and from a values’ perspective they meet your organisation’s needs and start to get an understanding of where they fit on the cost scale. Don’t rule them out because, on the face of it, they seem too cheap or too expensive. Ask them to explain the value you are getting for the price you are paying.
DON’T wait until a procurement process to meet them, as you may not know them well enough to make an informed decision at that point. You wouldn’t propose marriage to someone after a couple of dates, so don’t rush into contractual commitments if you haven’t spent time getting to know the suppliers prior to making them compete for you. Shop around – get to know the key players in the market and get to know them well. Don’t spend too much time with one supplier – particularly in public sector procurement – or you will be accused of bias. Sales people are trained to charm you…make sure there is substance behind their words.
5. Ask to speak to or meet their existing clients. Understand what working in partnership with them feels like. I have arranged these discussions and meetings as I’m building relationships with organisations whose work I’d like to bid for one day and it allowed my target clients to see that I was prepared to invest in the relationship, and that what I was saying matched the reality of what I was proposing. When it came to pitch time, they could more readily trust the information before them. As a minimum, you should be asking for your suppliers to talk you through their relevant case studies. What was their client’s return on investment?
6. Make a note of the ones that make an effort to stay in touch regularly and keep you updated with what is happening in their business and industry; the ones that seem to keep abreast of what is happening in yours. You want to work with partners who truly understand your sector, business and goals, and are hungry to work with you.
7. Don’t copy and paste tenders that you have used for previous procurement exercises and don’t borrow one from your mate at the neighbouring council and think your job is done. Each organisation’s needs are different, even if you are procuring the same thing. If you use other tenders as a guide, then you need to meticulously go through line by line and ensure what you’re asking for is relevant to you.
8. Do you really need an Expression of Interest, a PQQ, a Tender, a Pitch and an Online Auction? Think about where you can streamline the process for yourself and your suppliers. Remember that it is costing your potential suppliers a lot of time and money to often give away free Intellectual Property for little or nothing in return. The private sector might be doing slightly better in terms of cash flow than public, but times are hard for everyone, and particularly small to medium sized businesses. Is it the right thing to do to make companies jump through lots of hoops, spend lots of time and give away lots of ideas with no guarantee of work?
Do you really need to know how many people are employed in HR, Finance and Marketing AND what their salaries are? How is this relevant to what you are procuring? Do you need as many as six, detailed case studies? Be ruthless with screening your questions. If it doesn’t fulfill legal requirements or have a material impact on your decision to pick the best supplier, it doesn’t need to be in there. And check procurement legislation carefully, to ensure you know what you absolutely must do and what is just a nice to have.
9. Be accessible. Although, once you’re in a procurement process, you sometimes need to share the responses to supplier questions with everyone that is bidding to you, this should not prevent you from having them. The more you speak to your suppliers about what you need, the better supplier you will select. Be explicit about what it is that you want.
10. Be clear and transparent on how you are scoring the submissions. And be prepared to give ALL your suppliers timely feedback. They might not have made the cut this time, but you want to encourage them to improve their services and approach for the next time. This only impacts you in a positive way in the long run.
11. Be objective. Be fair. If you had to write one of these documents, you would want to know it was being read (in its entirety) objectively and not there to make up numbers, because you have a preferred supplier already.
12. Don’t let bad incumbent supplier behaviour go unnoticed. If they haven’t delivered, it’s time to move on. ‘Better the devil you know’ is not a reason to stick with them.
13. Don’t make it all about price, but if price is your key consideration, be sure to tell the supplier. They can approach their responses differently and their services could then be built around a leaner model. In my view, online bid auctions are damaging to business. You are unlikely to find the best supplier – the one that will help you avoid ending up in the press or help you achieve your organisational goals – if you are too focused on price. In an environment of austerity, everyone is under severe pressure to reduce numbers, but there may be innovative ways of doing this. If you get to know your pool of suppliers, alternative proposals will feel less like a risk at decision time. Focus on value rather than £s, $s or Euros.
14. Think partner, not subordinate. I have turned business down when I have not felt respected. I engage with a growing number of consultants and clients that do the same. With wellbeing high on many people’s agenda, we are creating future business models that are healthy and sustainable.
15. Make it fun! The best part of doing business is meeting great people and sharing ideas. So try and inject some personality and warmth into what can be draining and exhausting exercises for everyone…and may the best supplier win!
Rakhee Verma left PwC in 2011 to work as a management consultant and interim director. She brings broad commercial experience with some of the world’s biggest brands, to businesses that may not always have access to this level of expertise. Rakhee has worked across a number of industries with teams with varying skill sets, ranging from professional services to creative businesses.
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