Planning – A Necessary Evil

Yes, you’re right, it is a long time since my last blog post, mainly because I hadn’t planned the content and then got busy working with clients, so kept having to think about what to blog about.

I was going to blog about using the summer to review the documentation you have and use for tenders, but the summer has been (I think), and we’re now heading into the autumn.

So, planning. Why is it relevant? I want to focus on two themes!

If you believe that tenders and writing bids are a strategy you want to pursue in your business, then planning is essential. You may well have all the policies and procedures in place that your business requires – if you do, that’s great, you’re half way there. But (isn’t there always a but!), when did you last review them? How often do you plan to review them? Have you ever reviewed them? If not, you should! Legislation changes, business changes, your policies will need to change to keep abreast of those changes. When you’re submitting a tender, stating that you have a policy will tick the box. Describing your review process, the changes that were made and the benefits that result from that will bring your answer to life, and demonstrate that you really do ‘practice what you preach’, giving you extra points and therefore making it more likely that you will win that tender that you really want.

Which brings me neatly on to the tender writing process. Always plan your response, co-ordinate your team, ensure everyone understands exactly what is required of them, and the timescales for them to provide you with the information. Don’t leave it til the last minute, otherwise it may go wrong and you will miss your deadline.The best way to do this is some form of project inception meeting. Set out in a clear timetable the key milestones, who is responsible and key review dates.

I can’t remember who said, ‘Fail to plan: plan to fail’, but it is very true, which is why I’ve failed to blog for such a long time.

Must try harder next time and plan more effectively!

MEAT

No, I haven’t decided to become a butcher and I’m certainly not horsing around! But I am frequently asked what does ‘MEAT’ stand for in the context of a tender. To answer the question, it stands for ‘Most Economically Advantageous Tender”. So, that’s answered that one – a nice, short blog post for this week!

OK, let’s put it into context. There are different ways to evaluate tenders, namely ‘MEAT’, as above, or based solely on price. So, let’s take two different scenarios:

Buyer 1 is looking to purchase 10 white Ford Transit 260 SWB Low Roof 2.2TDCi 140PS Panel Vans. (No, I never knew there were so many different variants of the transit van – their price list runs to 25 pages!). They have a list on the road price, excluding VAT of £20,916 as at today’s prices.

Buyer 2 is a Housing Association looking to provide 10 replacement roof coverings, not exceeding two storeys in height, including all tiles, tile laths and felt to match those of existing properties. Also included should be renewal of guttering, fascias, soffits and associated eaves guards, along with the renewal of lead flashings to chimneys.

So, which option would those two buyers select to evaluate tender responses?

Buyer 1 will probably be aware that there are several hundred Ford Commercial Dealers, any one of which could, theoretically, supply the vehicles. Whichever supplier is chosen, the vehicles will be identical, as they are being supplied to factory specification. Clearly there may be differences in the level of service provided, but these will be minimal as the buyer is focused on the initial transaction. Buyer 1 then, could legitimately opt to purchase solely on price. Which dealer will provide the most competitive purchase price for the transaction?

Buyer 2 is also anxious to secure a good price, but recognises that there are more variables in their transaction. A lower price could be delivered by a contractor who supplies lower quality materials, who does not have robust health and safety policies in place, who does not train their staff, who does not have appropriate management reporting systems in place, who does not make provision for the disposal of waste in an environmentally friendly manner and who does not have systems in place to monitor the work to ensure it is completed within the timescales. So, for Buyer 2, purchasing on price alone is very dangerous. For them, using the Most Economically Advantageous Tender option is more sensible. The evaluation will then take into account:

  • health & safety processes to be used in the delivery of the contract
  • experience of the company in delivering similar activity
  • track record of delivery
  • training and skills of the people they propose to use to deliver the contract
  • price
  • identification and use of subcontractors (and their quality assurance),  for example scaffolding erectors
  • references relating to similar works undertaken

So in this scenario, a buyer may attach 50% of the overall score to the price, with the remaining 50% covering all other aspects detailed. To purchase on price alone could lead to problems later on, which is something all buyers are anxious to avoid.

So, next time you look at an opportunity and it will be evaluated using the MEAT methodology, hopefully it will make a little more sense!

Top Tips

There are a number of things that it pays to do when you are contemplating submitting a tender. Many of these will strike you as being common sense, but believe me, it is surprising how many people do not complete these steps, meaning that they fail to comply with the requirements of the tender. Make sure you don’t fall into that category!

1. Understand the tender response mechanism.

In most cases nowadays, the need to prepare multiple copies of your tender documentation have disappeared, many purchasing authorities now use electronic systems. However, there are a lot of differing systems out there, each one having different requirements. If you are responding to a tender, and you have to submit using an electronic portal, take time at the outset of the procurement process to familiarise yourself with how that electronic platform works. If you are unsure, request help via the technical helpline. Whatever you do, don’t leave it until the last minute to try to upload a document, or to read the responses to clarification questions. Try it out. In plenty of time.

If you are required to attach and upload documents, is there a maximum file size that can be uploaded? Best to find this out sooner, rather than later.

2. Read the tender documentation

Then, read it again. And again. Do you understand the brief? Are you sure? If you are in any doubt, ask for clarification. In one tender response I worked on recently, there were forty pages (yes, you did read that right!) of clarification questions and answers. Do not assume anything if you are unsure. Far better to ask for clarification, and receive a definitive answer, rather than guess and get it wrong.

3. Follow the instructions

Yes, another one where I’m sure you’ll say, “I always do that”. Everyone does. Except they don’t. If the tender documentation states that you must not include marketing materials, please don’t attach your sales brochure – as an evaluator, we won’t read it as we won’t have time. If the specified font is Arial, 11 point size, don’t respond in Times New Roman, 14 point. And always check what format the response should be in. If there is a requirement for Word 2003, make sure you save all your documents in that format, it could be that the organisation concerned cannot read Word 2010 format responses. I know it sounds easy, and I’m sure you probably do comply, but I have evaluated numerous procurement processes for organisations where respondents’ submissions have been rejected because they do not meet the requirements.

4. Always submit on time

If the deadline for submission is 1.00pm on Friday, please ensure that you have responded before that time. On an electronic response, factor in the possibility that the e-sourcing portal may be a little slower than usual if several bidders are trying to respond to the tender at the same time. Please do not submit at 3.00pm that afternoon, and assume it will be OK. It won’t. I have rejected submissions that have been 5 minutes beyond the deadline. Is that harsh? Am I mean? Quite probably, but think of it this way. If I ask you to achieve a deadline, and you can’t achieve that deadline when you are bidding for the work, how can I have confidence that you will meet any deadlines at all if I actually award you the work? Deadlines for tenders are also set for a reason. If it is 1.00pm on Friday, that means that the organisation seeking bids has the opportunity on the Friday to collate all the responses, issue them to the evaluators before the weekend and commence the evaluation process. So, a late submission will not be welcome.

In one procurement project I managed, a respondent could not understand why I would not accept their Pre-Qualification Questionnaire some two weeks after the deadline. The fact they used Royal Mail to post it to me when I had requested electronic submissions also seemed to be irrelevant to them. So, it does happen, just please don’t let it happen to you!

5. Feedback

Always ask for feedback, whatever the outcome of the bid document you have submitted. If you are successful, you need to understand what it was about your bid that made it successful, so that you can use that knowledge for future bidding activity. If you were unsuccessful, then you need to find out why and address those issues for any future bids you submit. It is probable that you will only receive detailed feedback if you request it. That is because if I am managing a procurement project for someone, I may receive eighty responses to the Pre-Qualification Questionnaire and I just won’t have time to provide detailed feedback to every single one of those. But if you ask me, I will. Surprisingly, the majority of companies never request feedback, and many of those companies will never win a tender, because they don’t understand what is holding them back.

Hopefully these tips may be useful for you in your business. Please feel free to share them with anyone who you think may benefit from reading them!

Business Continuity

OK, so be honest, how many of you have got up to date, tested, documented Business Continuity & Disaster Recovery Plans? No? Well, if you’re serious about tendering into the public sector this is something you do need to think about.

What would happen if your business suffered from a fire or flood? What would happen if your computer / server failed? And please, don’t adopt the standpoint, “Well, that always happens to other people, it won’t happen to me.” Disasters do happen. The public sector is aware of this (think of some of the major incidents over the years – computers / data left on trains, in rubbish bins, foot & mouth disease exclusion zones…); all these things could impact your business.

How well equipped you are to deal with those potential situations will be assessed as part of your response to any tender you wish to submit. Simply by having the plan, you haven’t done enough. Have you tested it? When? What were the outcomes? What action did you take as a result? When do you plan to retest it? Are all of your staff aware of the plan, and of their responsibilities should a disaster happen?

Consider some of these points: Do you have insurance that will be of assistance if a disaster befalls your business? Do you have alternative premises that you can relocate to? Do you have appropriate software backups of your key data?

If you think you need any assistance with business continuity & disaster recovery planning, then please do shout out for assistance. Through an extensive network of contacts, combined with a number of years experience of evaluating these documents as part of tender responses, and of writing tenders for businesses, much of the information you require, or contacts you will need, I can source for you very quickly.

Don’t leave it until it is too late before you do something about it. Whether you intend to bid for public sector contracts or not, a business continuity and disaster recovery plan is something every business needs.

ACT NOW!

Can Small Businesses Tender for Contracts?

I’m often told that public sector bodies are not geared up to deal with small and medium sized businesses, and as a result, the tenders they publish are not small business friendly. I think in some cases that is very true, but I honestly think there is a change in attitude towards small businesses, and small businesses can certainly win contracts to deliver public sector services.

About 8 months ago I met a Cabinet Office representative who told me about the Mystery Shopper scheme that Cabinet Office operates. In a nutshell, this initiative enables businesses to flag public sector procurement activity they believe to be unfair or discriminatory in some way to small businesses. The Cabinet Office will then investigate and hopefully changes will be made to the procurement process. But does it work?

The Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude last week stated that by mid-February, Cabinet Office had been notified of 151 cases to investigate, of which 111 had been closed and of those, 75% had resulted in a positive outcome (either a change to that particular procurement activity, or to future activities).

I have had first hand experience of this Mystery Shopper service on behalf of one of my clients. I emailed the Mystery Shopper team at 5.30pm, and received a personal response at 6.30am the following morning, supported by a telephone call at 9.15am the same day. The Mystery Shopper team listened to the concerns I had (businesses under three years old were being excluded from the procurement), agreed to investigate, and promised to keep me up to date with their progress. The level of service I received from that team was nothing short of exceptional, I was provided with regular updates, an indicative timescale of their actions and other detail about the Mystery Shopper activity.

In the case I raised, the authority managing the procurement activity did indeed revise the procurement guidance in light of the direct intervention of the Cabinet Office, and my client therefore became able to tender for the contract. The submission put forward is being evaluated currently, but whatever the outcome, the client was pleased that they were able to tender.

So, in my experience, the Government does appear to be taking seriously the potential that smaller businesses have to deliver public contracts. They also appear to be serious about changing procurement practices. And, perhaps most importantly of all, procurement professionals working within the public sector appear to be willing to listen, and respond to the concerns small businesses are raising around procurement. Again, I saw this first hand with a local authority who pro-actively went out to the market and asked small businesses how they could make the procurement process more ‘small business friendly’.

To quote a great songwriter, “The times, they are a changing”

Where Do I Find Tenders?

One of the statements I hear most often from customers and potential customers is, “Why didn’t I know that xyz local authority was tendering that contract? I could have done that work.”  The inference is that the tendering authority concerned should have made contact with the company, and invited them to tender. My response is always something along the lines of, if you want to work with a publicly funded organisation, the emphasis is on you to find the contracts.

So, that begs the question, where do I find tenders?

There are lots of web portals that provide details of tender opportunities. Some are free to use, others require you to subscribe for a fee. Lots make claims about how many tenders they publish, and I don’t intend to get into which one is the best because frankly, they are all slightly different and it very much depends on your business as to which one is relevant to you.

I always recommend that businesses start by registering with Contracts Finder http://www.contractsfinder.businesslink.gov.uk/

This is a free to use portal, that carries details of public sector contracts with a value greater than £10,000. Contracts Finder is used by central government departments, non departmental public bodies, NHS, local authorities and prime contractors to Government departments. As well as detailing live opportunities, it also gives information on contracts that have been awarded. A daily email update is sent to you outlining new opportunities that are available.

Contracts Finder will give information about the contract and details of what steps you need to take to register an interest, or to download relevant documentation that will allow you to gauge whether or not the opportunity is one that is suitable for your business.

So, as a place to start, Contracts Finder is not bad. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t perfect, but you could do a lot worse. If you would like details of other procurement portals that exist, then do let me know!