This Guest paper was submitted for publication 4/27/13 and is copyright to David Harrison, © 2013.
This paper is an update of a paper originally published in 2008.
Published here November 2013.

PQQ = PreQualification
ITT = Invitation To
RFP = Request For

PART 1 | Introduction | Processes 
PQQ and Bid Teams | Understanding | PART 3


Mistake #11 - Not understanding customer's needs, standards, expectations, constraints and concerns

Every customer is different and more often than not there are several stakeholders who will all be affected by the project(s) and can have a big influence on the selection process. They all have their own values and beliefs, their own principles and preferences, their own needs and wants; some may have strict policies or very specific requirements.

Many projects have awkward constraints where difficult tradeoff decisions have been made to enable the project to proceed. I have seen some tenders where all of the above is captured and communicated clearly to bidders in the documentation provided. In others, it is a little more difficult to tune in to exactly what the customers want and need, what they are trying to achieve with the project and what they are most worried about. Irrespective of this, there is usually a wide gap between those bidders who understand what the customer wants and those who don't have a clue. The latter and are often baffled by the low scores they receive from evaluators when they submit generic, irrelevant answers to questions raised.

Finding out what each customer really wants should not be left to chance. Earlier in this report I have discussed the mistake many make in not spending enough time gathering vital intelligence about the customer and the opportunity before the procurement exercise starts. When you have this information it allows you to develop answers that address all of their concerns and solutions that add real value at an affordable price.

Mistake #12 - Misinterpreting the procurement process, instructions, questions, scoring and selection criteria

One of the more obvious mistakes that bidders make is failing to ensure that they really understand the questions. Some questions, requirements or instructions prepared by customers are ambiguous. If in any doubt, ask a colleague or a consultant for their interpretation or seek clarification from the customer. If you misinterpret just one question or requirement it could eliminate you from the competition.

When helping my clients to win contracts, I often have a different interpretation on what each question means and what will pick up maximum scores. I like to think that it is because I work on both sides of the fence and have a unique insight into what end-user customers are looking for. This undoubtedly helps but more significant is the fact that by combining my ideas with those of my clients' own team, we jointly arrive at the right interpretation.

I think that in most cases bidders know when they are struggling to grasp what the customer is looking for. However, rather than seeking help or clarification, they plough on regardless. The results can lead to answers that are too short and lack substance or are too long and full of waffle. Neither demonstrates understanding. In some extreme cases, bidders have simply provided no answer at all or have even cut and pasted an answer from another pre-qualification questionnaire or tender in the hope that some of it may pick up some points!

The funniest answer I have seen was from an architect who didn't understand a question about equal opportunities and diversity and rather than seek clarification he simply answered "Well, you've got me there!" At least he was honest and proved that he had a good sense of humor but needless to say he didn't pick up any points for that particular question. I have also seen some fairly ambiguous and nebulous questions being asked by customers that make it difficult for bidders to answer. In these situations it is important to contact the customer to establish exactly what they mean. The customer should then distribute their answer to all bidders to ensure a level playing field for all.

If you don't do this then it could become a bit of a lottery with some bidders on the same wavelength as the customer and some not. Make sure you don't fall into the latter category and remember ... if in doubt ... ask for help! If there is information missing from the submission, don't succumb to "I know they have asked for it but let's hope that they don't realize it's not provided! Wrong! If information has been requested then there is probably a very good chance that marks will be awarded for the information. Failure to produce the information will result in the dreaded "nil points"!

Omissions often raise question marks about the suitability of the bidder. For example, the most common omissions are:

  • Financial accounts (they must be weak?)
  • Organization charts and CVs (they don't have the right people available?)
  • Evidence of experience or performance (they haven't actually got anything worth submitting?)

It's not rocket science is it?

Why hasn't the bidder followed the instructions? The classic mistake made is to ignore what has been specifically asked for or provide a slight variation or your own version of what you really think the customer wants. In my experience, 40% of submissions are "guilty" of making too many assumptions. For example, bidders often:

  • Provide no answer at all to a question and forfeit any chance of a mark.
  • Ignore the word limits applied to some questions and waffle on forever making the job of the evaluator even more time consuming that doesn't endear them to a time pressed evaluator and can incur penalty points.
  • Use a font size 8 so they can cram more information into a page when there is a limit on how many pages you can use for an answer.
    • This is great if the assessor has brilliant eyesight and only has one submission to read that day (or night!)
  • Do not complete the pricing document accurately.
    • When a pricing document has been put together the customer wants to compare like for like. I know that this doesn't suit each company's method of estimating or pricing and the temptation is to "do it your way" but this could mean that the customer will have to make assumptions and may make adjustments and allowances where they think appropriate. This is rarely to the advantage of the bidder who hasn't followed the instructions.

The bidder misunderstands the customer's selection criteria and scoring mechanism. Many efforts by bidders are misplaced because they fail to really understand where they can pick up the marks when completing a quality submission. There is plenty of low hanging fruit that goes begging. You just wouldn't believe how many companies miss easy points on questions in the quality sections. On the other hand, I know of many companies who have submitted a great quality submission packed with benefits and added value only to totally misread the importance of the trade off between quality and cost. This is where it pays to know the customer's priorities and objectives.

How many times have you put forward a fantastic team and a comprehensive approach to the project and then lost the contract because your "people" costs or preliminaries and project management allowances are too high? It's an art to get this balance right isn't it?

Some companies that I have come across do not understand the procurement process being followed nor the procurement rules and regulations that drive the procurement approach. Some of the less experienced companies are just not aware of what it will take to pre-qualify for tender short lists and make assumptions that land a fatal blow to their bid.

The most common mistake from experienced companies is complacency or over confidence. They make the assumption that the threshold score for the quality submission at pre-qualification stage is set much lower than it is and that they will easily qualify for the next stage and be asked to submit a tender. This is particularly true of incumbent suppliers who may have worked on a framework contract with the customer over the last several years. The standard of PQQ submissions is rising every year and what was good enough to qualify years ago is just not good enough today.

Their blasť approach is reflected in their submission that is usually lacking in both quality and quantity and does not pick up enough marks. I have had some bidders come back and ask if they can have a second chance and resubmit their submission. They find it difficult to accept that they've blown it and fail to appreciate or understand that with public sector procurement the scoring criteria and evaluation has to be transparent, fair and objective and no one is given more favorable treatment.

If you are in doubt, always ask for help.

In Part 3, we will cover:

Strategies and Tactics


Mistake #13 - Being outsmarted by competitors


Mistake #14 - Pricing tactics that backfire


Mistake #15 - Late surprises


Mistake #16 - Running with the wrong partners



Mistake #17 - Performance data is threadbare


Mistake #18 - Pretentious answers


Mistake #19 - Poor references

Content and Presentation


Mistake #20 - Demonstrating how your solutions will add value and reduce risk?


Mistake #21 - Features and benefits


Mistake #22 - Poorly written and poorly presented documents

Post-tender Interviews


Mistake #23 - Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory


PQQ and Bid Teams  PQQ and Bid Teams

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