According to the APMP Body of Knowledge (BOK), a clarification is: “Communication to eliminate minor irregularities or apparent clerical mistakes in a request for proposal (RFP) or in a proposal.”
In our experience, there are two extremes of clarifications on bids; at one end of the scale, those bids that are pretty self-explanatory but there may be a little more information you’d like, or the ones you read and think, “what are you talking about?!”
But when should you raise clarification questions? And what are the best types of questions to raise?
When (and how) should raise your clarifications?
If the client has provided a clarification deadline after which they will respond, always try to submit your questions at least one or two days before this if you can. Just like submitting your response on a portal at the last minute, there’s a risk that systems may not work, or every other bidder has the same idea – meaning your messages could get lost in the chaos.
Some clients don’t provide a deadline, and clarifications can be raised (and answered) throughout the procurement period. Here, you should try and raise your questions as soon as possible. Firstly, why not get the information you need as soon as you can? Secondly, it provides a further opportunity to go back to the client if things are still unclear and before it’s too late down into submission.
In either scenario, unless it is impossible for logistical reasons (or the client’s response prompts more clarifications!), you should always try to raise your clarifications in one batch. Think about how frustrating it could be for your potential client (or existing client, if a retender of course) to receive multiple questions in separate emails / messages from you. Having said that, we’ve not long worked on a bid where the client send out over 300 clarifications in individual message threads…
What types of clarifications should you be raising?
Looking back at the BOK definition, it’s perfectly valid to clarify the date of submission, or the deadline for clarification questions, if different dates are provided across documentation. If you are submitting via an online portal, it’s rare (in our experience at least!) that the date there is incorrect – so this could be used as a deciding vote.
If the documents refer to forms or other documents to be completed, but which haven’t been provided, these should definitely be raised as a clarification. For other clerical errors, you may be able to logically work out yourself without embarrassing or annoying the client by raising them formally – such issues include incorrect page numbers or headings, spelling mistakes etc.
You should also raise clarifications if information is missing or unclear, that you consider vital to submitting your response, such as (but not limited to!):
• Information required for pricing purposes, e.g., in a tender to supply contact centre services, you would need to know average call lengths and volumes to determine how many staff you need to price up for. Or in a professional/consultancy services tender, you might need to know how many hours / days’ work they require over a set period.
• Information required for logistical purposes e.g., where the client needs services to be delivered from, or whether any existing work or staff would need to be transferred.
• Information on current operations, such as current contract spend, areas with the highest volumes of work or areas of greatest concern to the client.
• Evaluation or scoring criteria hasn’t been included, or no weightings have been provided by the client – in most cases, this information can help you shape your response accordingly.
• Contractual points, e.g., are there clauses that your company cannot agree to that you would seek to negotiate at this time, or does the client reference performance indicators which aren’t defined?
You shouldn’t, however, make your (or your competitors’) lives more difficult through your clarification questions. Don’t ask questions you don’t want the answer to! The ones that always make us roll our eyes are those bidders who ask for word or page limits to be increased. Unless they’ve made a mistake, the client has assigned those limits on purpose – they may have a small team, who can’t read 10 submissions of five volumes each. Or, they are simply judging how you follow instructions, and present information concisely. While you might have the client who is open to extending, or removing, word limits – what does that really achieve, especially if you’ve already drafted a response, other than additional work and potential impact on your colleagues?
Think carefully about what is vital information, de-risk your questions, and always be polite – and don’t be that bidder that all the others roll their eyes at!