Managing Questions to the Customer

After a solicitation comes out, many procurements include a question-and-answer (Q&A) period. Your organization must manage this process swiftly and strategically to ensure a compliant, customer-focused response.

Introduction

In many procurements, solicitation release begins a defined period in which bidders may submit questions about the solicitation documents and their contents. The solicitation itself and industry best practices will determine the level of formality involved in the Q&A process. Nevertheless, expect that your organization will have questions to submit, even if you already understood the customer, the solicitation, and requirements very well before the final solicitation was released.

After a solicitation is published, questions to the customer should focus primarily on ensuring your organization’s ability to submit a fully compliant proposal. Responses to your questions and other potential bidders’ questions can yield new insight on customer thinking, competitor strategy, and larger industry forces.

Best Practices

1. Assign one primary point of contact to submit questions and receive responses.

All communication with the customer should be managed carefully to ensure that the customer receives consistent, rather than conflicting, information from your organization. Streamlined communication also enables you to relay important information from the customer to the entire team efficiently.

Assign both a primary and secondary point of contact (POC) to communicate with the customer. Should the primary be unavailable to respond to a new customer request or distribute a customer message of relevance to the proposal team, then the secondary POC can assist.

2. Remain aware of deadlines for questions and answers, and avoid procrastination in submitting questions.

Many solicitations specify deadlines for receiving vendor questions; after the deadline, no further customer questions will be accepted. Some even schedule anticipated dates for releasing customer responses to questions. In some cases, customers will set up Q&A calls for vendors to anonymously ask questions via phone. Take note of when answers to questions will be provided, as this can affect the scope of the proposed work.

Incorporate these dates and times into the larger proposal schedule as well as in daily team meetings. Your team members must know the exact date by which they must ask questions. Otherwise, you will increase your risk for including a non-compliant item in your proposal or following a wrongheaded strategy or tactic.

The primary POC is responsible for driving the vendor’s question generation and submittal process. Because this process includes question review, editing for consistency across questions, and question logging and tracking, collect and submit questions well before the deadline.

Often, customers will seek to respond to batches of questions—that is, your questions and those of other vendors—together. Submitting one or more important questions early will result in receiving the customer response sooner, allowing your proposal team to make decisions based on that knowledge.

3. Engage your entire organization—including technical, contracts, finance, legal, and so on—to create and review questions.

Proposals represent a whole-organization commitment, which means professionals across your company have a stake in understanding the solicitation and the technical and business risks involved with proposed offers.

Moreover, even the best conceived and written solicitations require clarification. Technical requirements, proposal instructions, contractual terms, delivery procedures, payment terms, and much more may have language that your organizational specialists will want expanded upon or confirmed.

As soon as solicitation documents become available and enter your proposal process, allow professionals on both the technical and business sides of your organization to review the documents and formulate questions.

In major proposals, schedule meetings that assemble the entire proposal team, including specialists, to review all questions before submission to the customer. The diverse organizational perspectives reinforce interteam communication and cooperation.

4. For each question submitted, provide the specific section identifier and wording that requires clarification.

To help the customer understand the context of your question and respond most helpfully, always provide the specific section identifier and wording that requires clarification. For example:

Ambiguous question/context. “What does ‘a reasonable amount of time’ mean?”
Clearer question/context. “In RFP Section 2.3, ‘Challenge Tasks,’ Item c, after how much time will a vendor lose points against the vendor requirement to ‘complete the challenge course in a reasonable amount of time’?”
Whereas the ambiguous example forces the customer to search their solicitation for the language in question, the clearer example enables quick retrieval of the relevant section and subsection.

More importantly, the customer can answer the ambiguous example in several ways, not all of which will provide a direct answer to what the questioner really wants to know. The clearer question gets to the vendor’s main concerns: whether vendors lose points after a certain amount of time, and what that amount of time is.

5. In crafting questions, use customer terminology or generic language to build customer focus and protect your strategy.

Using customer terminology allows the customer to answer in the way that is most comfortable and natural for them. It also shows good customer awareness and customer focus.

Furthermore, it reduces the risk of identifying your organization if you want to remain anonymous (or as anonymous as possible), or avoid prematurely revealing a new and critical technology to competitors.

Assume at all times that any communication you have with the customer will be relayed to other vendors out of process fairness. If your communication contains the name or your organization, division, partners, or technology, that information may get distributed.

Be extremely cautious in asking any question that goes beyond complying with proposal instructions or technical and business requirements. You may be tempted to use a question to “test the waters” on a responsive solution that goes beyond compliance or an alternative solution, but by doing so, you allow your most savvy competitors to work in ghosting against your solution.

6. Keep questions short and pointed; avoid asking follow-ups at the same time.

The main purpose of asking questions is to ensure that your organization fully understands what content will constitute a 100-percent compliant proposal. Focus questions on what information you really need to know to comply with the solicitation in your proposal response.

Try to ask only one question at a time. If your question has two, three, or four parts, then it may indicate your lack of understanding of the customer’s needs or it may be seen as an attempt to alter a solicitation requirement. Both cases can be perceived negatively by the customer.

Finally, if you don’t have questions, don’t ask. More questions mean more work for your customer. Let customers know ahead of the question due date that you don’t have questions. This will allow them to focus on other matters.

7. Track all questions that your organization asks, as well as customer responses to your and other bidders’ questions.

Track responses using a spreadsheet or table that lists your questions and answers. You can also track questions and answers besides your own. These may yield insight on the approaches and strategies of other bidders. A sample question tracking sheet appears below.

Item # Question (Including Relevant RFP Sections) Our Question Owner Date Reviewed Internally Date Submitted to Customer Customer Response Follow-Up Actions
1 Can ABC Company please clarify whether vendors should provide a response to Section C.6.5? The “Instructions to Bidders,” paragraph 4, specifically request responses to C.6.1 to C.6.4, yet it seems that bidders could also respond to C.6.5. Yes J. Doe 4-Jun-14 4-Jun-14 Yes, please respond to Section C.6.5 also. Incorporate the section into the proposal outline, same author assignment as C.6.1 to C.6.4.

Application in Diverse Environments

Government versus commercial settings

In government solicitations, the question and answer process can be highly formalized and structured, whereas the process can be less defined in commercial proposals. In commercial proposals, vendor questions may or may not be shared with all vendors. It is important to know up front whether the customer will post your questions and their answers to all interested bidders, or whether they intend to respond to vendor questions privately. Generally, it’s safest to assume that that all vendors will see all questions. In commercial settings, teams frequently will contact “coaches” at the customer’s organization to request more specific information. Before you do so, be sure engaging in communications outside of the bid process is allowed.

If your team is dispersed, proposal leadership must communicate more actively with remotely located team members about potential questions to the customer.

Common Pitfalls and Misconceptions

Poor management of the question process

Do not underestimate the importance of either the solicitation’s Q&A process or the skill required to manage it effectively. Lack of attention to the process translates to undercutting your organization’s win probability, and weakens your team’s ability to leverage a strong, customer-focused, competitively intelligent win strategy.

 

Mishandling of email submittals

Most question submittals today occur electronically via email. Take caution that the more conversational nature of email does not open the door for imprecise or impolitic language. Keep language clear, positive, and professional at all times. Never use questions to challenge—overtly or subtly—what the customer wishes to procure or how the best product or service will be determined: Ask questions to learn, not to instruct or manipulate.

Summary

  • Develop questions that help the customer home in on the essential information your proposal team needs to know.
  • Properly cite the solicitation and keep your questions straightforward and pointed. This helps you set a precedent for the kind of customer focus that the proposal will also demonstrate.
  • Actively drive the question generation and review process across all stakeholding units in your business.
  • Use questions mainly to help you submit a compliant proposal; use caution if attempting to pose questions to support responsiveness.
  • Keep in mind that your competitors may see your questions and the customer’s responses. In turn, you may have access to other vendors’ questions and answers.

Terms to Know

Tools and Templates

See Also

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