By Caroline Boot

Plan A Ltd

Google the topic of writing winning tenders, and you will find heaps of interesting articles, many of which are written for overseas audiences who have little understanding of the strength of the NZTA model as a benchmark for tenders in New Zealand.

Nonetheless, you may also find some helpful information from those sources.

For a different approach, we thought we’d tell you about some of the mistakes that companies make that write them off early in the tender process. If you recognise any of these practices in the way you approach tender writing, it’s probably time to put some energy into doing it better – or not bothering to bid at all!

To come up with this list, we’ve talked to dozens of evaluators – particularly those who regularly evaluate bids for NZTA-funded roading projects. We’ve also worked with many of the companies who work in the roading sector, focusing on improving the areas that will make the greatest difference to their evaluation scores.

Here are the top 10 mistakes made by low-scoring tenderers:

Mistake #1: Leave the name of a previous bid or another client in your tender. Surely, they won’t worry about a detail like that?

As one NZTA evaluator told us last month: “If I see that kind of thing, it tells me that they don’t put attention into the detail; and they’ll make the same kind of mistakes when they are working on the job. I put that bid to the bottom of the pile right away”.

Remember that Search and Replace is a temperamental function in Word – it doesn’t always work in tables, text boxes, headers, footers, and graphics. There is no substitute for an eagle-eyed review that solely focuses on this factor.

Mistake # 2: Assume the structure and bid requirements are the same as the last one. “Just change the bid name on those attributes you did last year.”

We recently did a final peer review for a client’s tender, only to find that they had not spotted that this was a two-envelope bid (where price information needed to be totally separate); and that the NZTA model now combines Technical Skills and Management Skills under a single Relevant Skills section.

What’s more, there were a whole bunch of different ‘factors’ asked for under Relevant Experience. The bid we wrote previously needed a substantial re-structure to fit today’s requirements.

Even at a sub-heading level, if you have omitted information that is required by the RFT or put it in a different section to where has been asked for, you run the risk of rejection on the basis of non-compliance.

Mistake # 3: Put lots of irrelevant information into your bid. More is better, anyway – right?

It’s amazing how many tenders include, for example, material within the methodology section which has nothing to do with the works that will be done on this project. We can only assume it’s a carry-over from another bid that’s been missed. Another thing that infuriates some tender evaluators.

Put in loads and loads of Appendices (anything your company has ever written) – especially for bids where they ask you to be succinct in your response. You never know, they might look at it in a spare moment. Size is everything (not).

Another way you can add to your chances of losing is by paying no attention to the relative weightings that are placed on evaluation of each section. Write 10 pages on Resources when it has only 5% allocated, and polish off your 25% Methodology section in half a page. Bound to lose!

Mistake # 4: Don’t mention your client or write anything specific to their project, but put in an avalanche of information about how wonderful you are. To ensure the Tender Evaluation Team loses interest really fast, start each paragraph with your company name.

Here’s a secret which will make you and your company seem aloof, formal, unfriendly and uncooperative so that your prospect will run a mile at the prospect of working with you. Make sure you write everything in the third person and the passive tense. If you’re not a grammar guru, here’s an illustration:

Instead of writing “We will provide monthly reports which cover our actual and budgeted costs to date, as well as our costs to completion” – how about putting it this way:

“Preparation of the specified comprehensive commentary covering detailed monthly financial outcomes will be undertaken and submitted by the applicable personnel/ department at Roadz R Us to the administration department of the relevant City Council, with the incorporation of particularized budgetary performance information, in conjunction with financial projections extrapolated to the conclusion of the contract under discussion.”

That will surely confuse them, that is, if they don’t fall asleep first.

Mistake # 5: Bore them to tears with lots of generic waffle. There are sections of tender documents (like Quality Systems) that tend to ask for the same stuff, time after time – so you can just cut and paste it in. In fact, it probably wouldn’t matter what bid you were writing on, or even whether you were writing for your company or your arch rival, it would all come out the same, wouldn’t it?

 If your aim is for a mediocre score similar to everyone else’s, and you’re keen to send the evaluators to sleep, then carry on and approach it this way – you’re sure not to win your tender with this approach!

Mistake # 6: Write lots of sweeping statements, but don’t bother to substantiate them. This really gives your evaluators confidence in you (not!). My pet hate is “He has a vast wealth of experience”.

To reinforce your chances of losing the bid, put in some CVs for your key personnel that give lots of information about the size of the pipes on the projects in your Project Manager’s CV, but don’t give any useful information about his skills, competencies, or personal attributes that make him perfect for the role he will undertake. Come to think of it, just recycle the CVs you have on file – they never read them anyway, do they?!

Mistake # 7: Use a formal and complex writing style - that will really impress the evaluators. And don’t put in any punctuation or paragraphing, it takes up too much space. If you have a page limit, then make sure you fill up every page with information, tightly written and don’t waste space on pictures.

 If they have to read each sentence  several times to get the gist of what you’re talking about, you will tire your readers very quickly, and they are unlikely to rate you for clarity, straightforwardness, or your action focus.

Mistake # 8: Don’t worry about the way it looks. Hand-written schedules, no covers or tabs, bit of a mix up on formatting, no graphics, so what? Most evaluators will tell you that appearance doesn’t matter – it’s the content that counts. Fair enough. But in a candid moment, one senior evaluator let it slip that the best looking tender almost always is the winning one. Coincidence? We think not.

It might be that those who put effort into presentation also put effort into the content. It could also be that evaluators are subtly influenced by the appearance of tenders, and can’t help but view the well-presented one in a favourable light as they evaluate. We may never know the answer to this, but the message is clear.

If you launch in without any context that demonstrates to your client that you understand the job thoroughly; you have assessed the critical success factors and the risks to them; and that your company – above all the others – has the capability and resources to do this job in an outstanding manner, you have missed a priceless opportunity to inform and guide the evaluation team.

You can use those first couple of pages that the evaluators read to set you up for their approval and positive response….or alternatively - since this article is all about losing – making sure you don’t stand out from the rest of the bidders in any way. Your choice.

Mistake # 10: Don’t waste time checking trivial things like spelling, grammar and punctuation. After all, evaluators are mostly engineers and they don’t care about that stuff.

That may be true of some engineers, but others who we know well are afflicted by apostrophe rage and similar disorders. A couple of years ago, a client proudly showed me a beautiful bid folder they had done for ‘TRANIST NZ’. They couldn’t work out why they had lost it. Maybe their price was too high. Maybe the evaluators were unfairly influenced. Or maybe not.

All of these mistakes are best made in an environment where there is no time and nobody to handle the job in hand, and/ or you delegate the Bean Counters or the Pointy-Heads to the job of writing up the attributes.

You can be sure they will complete the number crunching (and/ or design the final solution) first.

This will leave precisely three hours, 46 minutes and 21 seconds left to hurriedly cut ‘n’ paste the attributes, print, bind, scream up the shoulder of the motorway and double park to chuck it at the Tenders Secretary, before beating a hasty retreat to the bar to moan to the rest of the team about how hard it is to win tenders these days.

If you follow these guidelines faithfully, we’re pretty sure you will reliably scuttle your chances of winning most tenders, unless of course, you’re prepared to buy the work and risk going out of business in the process – and your client/ Council doesn’t care about that risk. 

However, many companies have recognised the changes in NZTA’s priorities which are leading to more emphasis on quality work and higher tender attribute scores, and they have a different story to tell.

If you’re one of those organisations that have won a heap of work lately, you’ll send this to all your competitors to reinforce their habits, and quietly manage things your way.

Put the champagne on ice, guys, we’re on our way over to join the celebration!