We recently went through a patch of competing for tenders through one of the government portals, and despite having lots of valid experience (and being quite good at what we do) didn’t get any of the work.

Of course, no-one expects to get every tender they complete, but out of 30-odd attempts, it felt reasonable to expect at least a conversation, if not the actual work.

After a couple of interesting chats with clients and contacts who had put up tenders for other work, we realised that the vast majority we were applying for are already sewn up. They were tendering and getting three agencies to fill in their details as required to access the funding – having already decided who was going to get the work. Which is fair enough, in a way, sometimes  you need to do it to get the funding.

So, did this come as a surprise?

A few years ago, in my previous business, we had relatively successful push on tendering, but it was apparent from the way the tenders were written that in many cases only the incumbent agency could actually score the points and get the work.

On one occasion we were asked to tender for work which – fair enough – we didn’t get. It seemed that we’d missed out on one question – which they then offered to help us (and others) answer – so it was clearly more about who could answer the question as they wanted it answered rather than who was the best fit for the job. If you are offering to help people fill in your tender, and help them to answer the question in a way that you want, then it seems an odd way to decide who to give work to.

Recently, one of my clients said that he wouldn’t tender for anything, ever, and described it as a race to the bottom, and finally after years of doing it I think I agree. Tendering seems to be a flawed system, when it is soley for the purposes of getting the funding, or when it is about getting the answers in the way you want them.

For what it’s worth, in my opinion, when you go out to tender:

  • If you’ve already decided who you’re going to give the work to, please, somehow, let the other agencies know (not easy sometimes). I have no objection to spending 30 minutes on a tender to help you make up numbers, if an agency I knew asked me to so they could get work, of course we would do it. But I do object to wasting 3 hours on a tender that has already been decided.
  • Don’t ask a question to which you want a specific answer written in a specific way. Are you trying to see whether they can answer the question or whether they can do the job?
  • Don’t have a ridiculous scoring system. In some systems businesses are given a score down to a decimal point, and you can missed out by 0.4 of a point. Getting the work by scoring tenths of a percent more suggests that the precision of the score is questionable at best. Can you really mark a paper tender so accurately?
  • Include some element of face to face conversation – use the scores to filter people out but at least talk to the top few. How can you choose to work with a business who you have never spoken to.
  • This may not suit everyone but in my opinion only provide feedback if asked. To say, ‘another business was better than you on the day’ is generally enough. As your feedback is inevitably very subjective, it’s not really relevant to any subsequent tenders unless they are to you for similar work.

Tendering should be a search for the business that can best deliver what you need. If you’ve already decided, surely it’s better not to waste other people’s time.