Top Tips – Responding to Tenders

Here’s an oldie but goodie from my previous blog – these ten ‘top tips’ will help you understand the basics of responding to tenders and get you started. As one of my most frequently viewed posts, it’s really stood the test of time. Enjoy!

Tenders. Does the very word make your brain feel ‘tender’?

They can seem daunting and sometimes incomprehensible. Never fear: These top tips – gathered from my own experience on both sides of the tender minefield – will help you make sense of the jargon, understand the lengthy list of ‘rules’ and help you feel more confident when that next opportunity presents itself.

First of all though, what is a tender?

Businesses, particularly those who are publicly funded in some way, put out opportunities in the form of a tender invitation in order to ensure a level playing field, transparency and to avoid ‘insider dealings’. To achieve this, tenders come in a variety of forms from low value opportunities where you may be able to bid for one or more ‘lots’ (elements of a service) to framework agreements where you may ‘win’ a place on their preferred supplier list (with no guarantee of actual work). They may be for a fixed period of time or they may be extendable. All have their place and each is decided depending upon the nature of the required good or service. (A further post will go into more detail about the different types of tender and what they mean)

As a supplier, you may respond on your own or you may choose to embark on a joint venture (JV) with other relevant companies to make up a comprehensive service offering. Either way, the bare necessities do need to be covered in your response (and preferably more, although additional information may not be allowed in stricter processes). Here are the basics, feel free to contact me for more in depth or specific information should you need it.

  1. Get in there early. Tenders are often advertised in a few places. All tenders, depending on the type, must be advertised for a specific length of time before the closing date. A good starting place to look for opportunities is in the more serious newspapers, industry magazines (on or offline) and council websites (under ‘Procurement’). The earlier you find out about a tender, the more time you will have to complete the response fully. Tenders falling under EU public procurement rules are advertised on TED (Tenders Electronic Daily). Sign up for email alerts on TED and on council websites (here’s how to do that). These allow you to specify areas of interest and will send tender notices straight to your inbox. If you have a budget for developing new business, consider investing some of it in a registration fee to have more detailed information sent to you; for example Supply2.gov lists contracts of interest to smaller business looking to supply the public sector. Registration and some regional listings are free with the ability to pay to upgrade for further regions.
  2. Express your interest. Many tenderers request Expressions of Interest (EOI) to start the ball rolling. They may want to gauge how may responses they are likely to get or they may require you to specify how you intend to respond (in hard copy or via email, for example). They may ask for specific company information at this point or they may issue a Pre Qualification Questionnaire (PQQ) between the EOI and the Invitation To Tender (ITT). It is wise to send your EOI as soon as possible. Alterations to the specification or deadline date may not reach you in time unless you have registered your intention to bid.
  3. Read everything carefully. Whether it is a simple email advising of some instruction or other or the full tender documentation, take the time to read it all. Even tenders for similar services advertised by the same organisation may have subtle differences. Miss something and you may find your response is disqualified for the tiniest of reasons. With fairness rules in play, don’t expect an exception to be made, even if it’s a genuine error of omission. See if they have noted any ‘weighting’. They may be expecting a lot of similar costings and may place greater value on quality or service delivery. Keep these weightings in mind when writing your response.
  4. Decide whether it’s really for you. The time you and your staff spend putting a tender together is still a cost; an overhead. Look at the expected volume of work over the length of the contract. If it’s a framework (preferred suppliers list), how many other suppliers are going to be on that list? Will you be competing with huge conglomerates with oodles of cash and staff? If you are going for a joint bid with another company, do you know if they are up to the task? Use this information and more, which you can gather from the specification, to determine whether it’s worth going for.
  5. Request clarification. If there is information missing from the specification that you need to know in order to put a workable response together, ask. Usually you can do this by email, occasionally it may have to be via snail mail. If a point or clause seems confusing or unclear, ask for it to be spelled out. Tenderers will expect requests for clarification and often have this aspect timetabled in to their process. More often than not, all requests for clarification will be answered in one go, on a specified date, with all questions and answers published to all other potential responders.
  6. Make a note of all deadlines. Then give yourself time to meet those deadlines – and a bit extra. You never know when the photocopier or printer is going to break down or the person you’re relying on for some of the content is going to be ill. Similarly, with responses submitted electronically through the tenderers e-portal (procurement website), give yourself time to upload the documents and factor in IT issues. While you can’t plan for everything, do try to give yourself some leeway so that you’re not rushing to finish at the last minute. A rushed response is a recipe for missing something crucial.
  7. Read everything again. No, really, I’m serious. How many copies of the response do they require and in what format? Are you allowed to include supporting information, such as brochures? Do you need to include CVs of all involved in the delivery of the work? COSHH and other safety certificates? Can you ‘brand’ your response or must it only be in the format they have sent you? Any of these things could get all your hard work disqualified.
  8. Answer all questions, expand if you can. The tenderer will be giving your response to an assessment panel, which may or may not include people with no knowledge of your particular industry or sector. Make sure your answers are understandable to virtually anyone. After a few tenders, you will have built up a bank of answers to certain types of question, which can then be modified as and when to suit further tenders. If you have the opportunity to do so, expand on the point using your company’s skills, internal procedures and experience to show why you would be the best supplier. The question may ask for a yes or no answer; give yourself the edge by telling them why as well. Only do this if allowed within the terms of the tender invitation.
  9. Take care with presentation. A scruffy response says a lot about the company that sent it. Regardless of specified ‘weightings’, or extremely strict limitations on answers, the overall presentation should be smart and clean. If you have the opportunity to brand your response with your corporate identity, do so (except the packaging, see point 10.). If you are allowed to, make it stand out from the rest, with relevant images (your product in use; your company in place at a previous happy customer’s premises etc.). Now that you’ve followed all the rules and restrictions and answered everything perfectly, be creative in your document presentation, show them your company’s best side.
  10. Make certain it gets there! (but not too certain). I’ll explain. The rules of fairness dictate that all responses arrive, unmarked, by a certain date and time. No responses will be opened and assessed until a pre-agreed date, usually a few days after the closing date. It is essential, then, that your response conforms to the packaging and labeling format set out in the instructions. If you have franked the envelope with your company logo, it will be disqualified and returned to you unopened. There must be no way of knowing which tender response is which until the moment they are officially opened. As for the return date and time, make sure it gets there before that deadline. If the deadline is 12:00pm on a certain date, responses arriving at 12:01pm will be disqualified, whether sent in hard copy form or electronically. If possible, either deliver it by hand or have a reputable courier take it for you. Specify the time deadline and that your company name is not to be revealed on delivery. As for checking it got there – check with your courier, not with the tenderer. If you have labeled it correctly, then the signature your courier obtained will be enough. Bear in mind that if you check with the tenderer – “We had a package delivered and signed for by a Mr Smith, can you see if it’s got to the right department” – you run the risk of revealing which package is yours, leading to instant disqualification.

At this point, I should reveal one of the horrors of tendering. Sadly, Royal Mail cannot guarantee delivery, even if you have paid for special delivery at a specified time the next day. As consequential loss won’t apply (other than to the cost of the paper and binding – no response is guaranteed to win, so you can’t claim for lost business) the best you’ll get is the postage cost back, if they fail to deliver. That’s a lot of hard work and effort to see go to waste just to save on courier costs. If the bid’s worth the business, fork out for a courier. I know this horror personally, and it ain’t fun.

Updated for 2017: Many tender processes these days are run, and responses submitted, via online portals rather than by post. For more information on how these portals work, see my post ‘Where to find tenders‘.

So there’s a few tips. The process of responding to tenders can be quite tricky to navigate and there’s a lot more to tenders than the ten tips above can possibly describe. But if you follow those tips as a basic checklist, you’re on your way to producing quality, thought out responses, that are worth the effort and meet the deadline.

Good luck!

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