Nailing the tender bid but losing it anyway

True story. I once did some work for two partners in a consultancy firm. Their specialty was engineering works and maintenance for industrial plant sites. One was an engineer, the other a surveyor. They had been friends for years and had taken the plunge to set up their own consultancy. To their new partnership they brought their existing industry connections.

One very hot Friday afternoon, after they decided we were downing tools and going to the pub (it was their business, so it would have been rude to object), they started telling me about their first foray into tendering for contracts.

Having no premises, they usually conducted their business in coffee shops. Which, as an aside, used to infuriate coffee shops because they were providing free business premises for the price of a couple of cappuccinos. However, you can’t stop progress.

So, those guys had in their sights their first major piece of business in the form of a tender bid to one of their former employer’s customers. They had a great relationship with them, had won business from them before, and were supremely confident they could win this business. All of the buying signs were there, they just had to get the bid right.

They split the responsibility and each worked on designated parts of the bid. They gave themselves enough time to line up their ducks and started putting the bid together a week before the submission. There were a few more people involved in the process in their former company, but how hard could it be, right?

Once they had worked through the tender invitation and mentally ticked off the bits they had completed, they copied and pasted it together, like any good two-finger-typing warriors would do, whilst in their regular coffee shop. They gave it a check over, made sure their appendices were attached and sent it by recorded delivery to arrive the next day, which was deadline day.

Tenders were opened one week later. Another week went by. They couldn’t get a call back from their contacts or any information on how they had done. The first contact they received was an e-mail from the procurement manager’s office thanking them for their submission but advising them that ‘on this occasion, they had been unsuccessful’. The news floored them. They couldn’t understand why.

Later that day, they were able to speak to their contact who let them know why they didn’t win the business. In short, it had been theirs to lose, and they lost it because their tender submission was a mess.

  • Their points numbering was inconsistent and not in line with the invitation document

  • There was no page numbering

  • The layout and headings were confusing

  • They referenced their appendices incorrectly, and one was missing

  • They referenced engineering data incorrectly

  • They omitted to sign a declaration form

  • The financial data was confusing, as they had used a mixture of Pounds Sterling and Euro signs

  • They referenced an out of date piece of health and safety legislation

  • They did not supply the correct number of copies

The lesson learned was: seek help! They assumed that because they knew their customer, knew their craft and their industry, and had their reputation as proven suppliers when working for their former employer, and their ability to undercut their competitors, would win them the bid.

This really can and does happen. Procurement officers can be ruthless and, particularly within the public sector, they are bound to abide by the rules of procurement. It does not matter how good your product is, how competitively priced your bid is, or how good your relationship is with the end user. Additionally, if you are bidding for new business with a new client, such a lack of attention to detail is, understandably, off putting and undermines their confidence in you.

You can go through the tasks you do in the course of running your business and give them a value between 1 - 3. One being the most valuable, three being the least valuable. Putting together a tender bid - the activity of information gathering, typing and producing paperwork, or filling in online forms - could arguably be ranked as a three. Bidding for new business, is of course, a category one. The consultants, by their own admission, underestimated the potential of the category three task to undermine the category one task.

Don’t make expensive mistakes through lack of forward planning and not recognising the fluidity of the value of all the tasks which are necessary to keep your business moving forward. All time on either of those tasks is well spent but prioritising which ones you personally attend to and which ones you outsource and trust to someone else is a business breakthrough.

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