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Why Do You Persistently, Stubbornly, Stupidly Refuse to Answer the Question?

51kzbJV828L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_(or, how to provide constructive feedback on a bid)

This article is intended for executives who have to undertake red team reviews of tender responses. It will help you understand why your highly skilled teams can sometimes turn out gibberish that would embarrass a 6 year old.

Red Team – Red Mist

When you get involved in bid reviews, you will often find the red mist descending over your eyes, along with some panic as you realise how very far from “review ready” the tender response really is. No matter how well publicised the dates are, red team reviews always seems to find the bid a little bit – undercooked, shall we say?

Why is it so hard for your bid team to answer the bloody question? I mean it should be easy. Most procurement managers will take great care with the questions that they put into a tender. They have long since stopped asking you just to “describe your transition plan and how it meets our requirements”. After all, they know that the result will usually be a rambling 20 page essay that is a total pain to score.

They understand that unless they tell you EXACTLY what they are looking for you will send a load of total rubbish in response. So they try to help you. They say “please describe how your transition plan will meet our requirements in terms of the transferring services from our existing suppliers, replacement of obsolete assets, testing before service cutover, service continuity including rollback plans, and handover to ongoing service delivery.”

Surely, any fool would realise that the required response would provide a clear response under the headings?

  • Transfer from existing suppliers;
  • Replacing obsolete assets;
  • Testing,
  • Service continuity,
  • Handover to ongoing service.

But despite this, I would say that half of all bids have major sections that either totally fail to answer the question, or where the answer is hiding amongst a forest of boilerplate.

Do most bidders employ total morons to work in pre-sales?

They can’t all be idiots, can they?

Can they?

I’m going to assume that you do not employ idiots in your pre-sales teams. If you have, then the solution is obvious, albeit outside the scope of this article…*

So, the question is: why have they failed to answer the question?

There are 3 basic reasons:

  1. They have failed to read and understand the question properly in the first place (a process failure)
  2. They lack the business writing skills (a skills failure)
  3. They don’t have what they regard as an adequate answer, and are trying to hide it by describing something else instead. (a solution failure)

If you want to get the bid back on track, you need to work out which of these factors is at play and intervene accordingly.

Failure to Read and Understand

This occurs where members of the bid team have focused their attention on the solution that they are offering at the expense of planning their response to the tender document itself. The tender will usually split individual areas into multiple questions and sub-questions – unless the team have reviewed and planned what content needs to be put into each response, you will see duplication (similar content in more than one place) and omission (right content put in the wrong place).

This is a process failure. At the outset of the bid the team need to jointly review and discuss the tender questions and agree how to respond to each one. Ideally, this should be documented in the form of both a book plan (who will write which answer) and also specific guidance on the size, structure and format of each answer.

The fix in the short term is simple: review the question with the author, make sure that he does understand it, and then send him back to do the job properly. The longer term fix is to change the process so that response planning is done earlier and more thoroughly on future bids.

Lack of Writing Skills


It always surprises me how rarely business writing skills are tested when recruiting technical staff, especially where the role is in pre-sales. They may be asked to show their understanding of data centre architecture or service design, but are they asked to show that they can write a clear explanation of how this relates to business benefits? This is as much a core skill for pre-sales staff as technical expertise.

The fix in the short term is to get someone who does have the necessary skills to write the response, collaborating with the technical lead to translate the details of the solution into a coherent narrative. This could be done by the bid manager, another member of the solution team or a specialist bid author. But don’t imagine that you can correct for this by asking the author to try again. She will not do any better second time around. Writing skills take time and training to develop and cannot be acquired within the context of a single bid.

In the longer term you need to develop the skills of the technical pre-sales teams so that they are able to produce coherent written documents quickly. More on how to do that another time.

Our Solution isn’t Good Enough!

Finally, people avoid answering the real question because they think that the truth is unsatisfactory. In bid terms that means that there is a weakness in their offer that they don’t want the customer to know about. If it’s a real weakness, then it will come out in the end: through failures to deliver on the contract, cost over-runs that erode the profit margin, damage to the relationship or all three. Business won on the back of deceit is always bad business.

However, your solution may not be as weak as you think it is. Just because you think that your network management toolset isn’t absolutely top of the line, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t good enough. Customers have to choose the best option available from the market, and your competitors may be struggling even more than you are. In many cases, they may not perceive the weakness as being particularly important.

I have often seen solutions architects bemoaning the limitations of the company’s capability, only to find later on that the customer perceived it as easily the best in the market.

The fix to this problem is to involve other experts within the company to supplement the existing bid team. It is almost always possible to identify other ways of meeting the requirement or of explaining the benefits of what you can do.


Providing constructive feedback on a draft tender requires judgement, tact and understanding. It also requires the ability to fire a rocket if necessary, but you need to do this only when you are sure that the problem can be solved by working your bid team harder. Most of the time, an alternative approach will yield better results.

What are your tips for being a good red team reviewer?


To find out more about preparing a winning bid, you can download my ebook, ‘Seven Step Success: How to Prepare a Winning Bid’ ( for free. A reference document for you to use to make sure that you are doing the most essential parts of each bid, at the right time, and better, it covers things like:

  • How and when to write the Executive Summary,
  • How to manage the tension between sales and commercial finance
  • How to get the bid team to work together effectively

Download it here (

* you should fire whoever recruited them, obviously