Interview Your Bidders – Why Wouldn’t You?

I do less of it these days, but when I advise buying organisations, in public or private sector, on their supplier selection processes, one of the interesting topics for debate is the use of interviews as part of the process.

We’re not talking so much about a contract for laptops or a true commodity product, where maybe the tender document really does tell you everything you want know, but in the case of anything with a significant service element, we would almost always suggest interviews are a good idea.

In the public sector in particular, there can be some sensitivity, because it is important to ensure that an interview does not impinge on the fairness of the process. I have in the past seen some examples where a poor bid was submitted, but then a smooth sales person comes in and convinces the naïve buyer that their solution really is the one to go for. That’s not what we want to see.

But equally, it would seem odd not to get the face to face experience, in all but the most basic of service-related contracts. There are three reasons for that:

  1. It’s a cliché but with more than a grain of truth; people buy from people, and while it should not take preference over all the more objective elements of a supplier selection, it is good to meet the supplier’s people. Even if they aren’t the same people as those who will deliver the day-to-day service, you can get a flavour of the firm, what they will be like to work with and so on.
  2. Genuine clarification – it is a rare RFP or tender response that does not have anything where the evaluator(s) have genuine questions of understanding or interpretation. It may be lack of clarity on the writing (does “regularly” mean once a year or once a day?) or a comment that suggests important follow-up questions, but there is in my experience always something worth asking during an interview.
  3. Testing credibility - this comes back to a fundamental issue with tenders and proposals. We have written about this before, and Peter Marshall of Commerce Decisions influenced our thinking here. The point is that you can have a proposal that looks great, but it is worthless if you cannot have confidence in the proivder's ability to deliver it. So really we are trying to assess both the strength of the solution proposed, and the probability of that supplier being able to deliver it. So the interview is a good opportunity to ask – you say you will do this, but can we be confident in that? Have you done it before? What happens if ... etc. Now that should not override the written proposal (in public sector terms, it must not) but looking the bidder in the eye and asking “are you sure you can do this” is something I would always want to do if I have any doubts about their capability to deliver what they say.

So even in the public sector, using interviews is generally recommended for most significant contracts. Make sure they are positioned as having a clarification purpose; I recommend that they aren’t scored separately, but are used to firm up the provisional scoring from the written tender. Any changes in that scoring must be justified too for the audit trail of course.

In my experience, it is rare that the interview does much more than help decide on the borderline cases where a certain criterion or question might be scored at either a “3” or a “4”, but it certainly helps with that confidence issue. Don’t disregard the rest of the selection process; take up references, do the due diligence checks, financial and more, and of course evaluate the written proposal thoroughly. But interviews, handled properly, do add value.

Voices (5)

  1. Mr Grumpy:

    It really depends on what you believe the interviews will tell you about the bidders. Having done both scored and non-scored in both sectors now, there can be elements in which bidders go to huge lengths of over-promising in the interviews (especially scored ones) when they think that will be the difference in making it over the finishing line. Also, if we are using interviews to test a bidder’s credibility and competency in delivering the contract and that they don’t just have exceptional bid writers, stands the logic that we don’t trust our own process to deliver what is required. I find clarification interviews very worthwhile just to ensure that the bidder is fully aware of what is expected of them and almost validate the deliverables within their bid.

  2. Phoenix:

    Nothing wrong with interviewing bidders in the public sector. But in the light of recent disputed awards being set aside by the court, the process does have to be handled carefully. It has to be set out in the ITT and rigorously adhered to. If the interview has any bearing on the decision then it just as surely has to be scored objectively – that means being clear up-front about the criteria being used and the weighting they have in your decision. I’d also strongly recommend that the same client representatives are present for all interviews and that bidders get the same amount of time – fair and equal treatment demands that. And remember that not just scores but detailed comments from each evaluator need to be recorded. After I’ve explained all that, clients are often put off having interviews, which is unfortunate.

  3. Edward James:

    Public sector procurement always seem nervous about this. Not sure whether it is due to nervousness about structuring it fairly under the Regulations or that a stakeholder may say something they shouldn’t.

    There is nothing to worry about if the process is clearly explained in the ITT and you train your stakeholders in evaluation. Usually both parties get a lot from it.

  4. Charlie Middleton:

    In the private sector where the focus is just on getting the best value for money interviews are absolutely a good idea providing you actually see the people who going to be working with you/delivering the service etc and not the slick sales person. In the public sector where the focus is more on a fair and transparent process, there is more of a challenge here. It is reasonable to have a clarification/presentation stage to clear up genuine areas of doubt or to decide whether an answer is a 3 or a 4, but I have seen cases where 40% of the score are against a vague presentation stage which means that the buyer can pretty much choose who they want or don’t want. Also the presentation stage comes after the bids are opened, so can border on a post-submission negotiation which is prohibited under most public procurement. For example, Bidder A comes up with a USP of, say, a 5 year warranty which was not part of the spec, Bidder B says nothing about a warranty. In the presentation, the buyer asks Bidder B whether they would be prepared to offer a warranty (or even “a 5 year warranty”) as they want the best bang for the buck, and Bidder B agrees to this. They end up winning by removing Bidder A’s USP. In the wheeler dealer world of the private sector (and in any sensible way of procuring) you would congratulate the buyer for getting a great deal, but in the rules-based public sector world it is unlawful to do post-tender negotiations like this. An area fraught with issues.

  5. Carson:

    Interesting, I always try to interview bidders. Recently however, whilst using a government framework, I discovered this is far from the norm, and is frankly discouraged. We still interviewed, essentially for the reasons you cite.

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