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Winning Tenders - an Interview with Roelf Houwing

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Winning Tenders - an Interview with Roelf Houwing

Winning Tenders - an Interview with Roelf Houwing

Stay up to date and learn from experts in bid and tender management. This is the first interview in a series of interviews with experts. Have fun reading.


Roelf has been Senior Bid Manager and owner of Smart Tenders since 2012. He assists companies in successfully tendering for European Tenders and in making winning bids and offers. Roelf is author of the book “Aanbestedingen winnen – Handboek voor het MKB” (translated “Winning tenders – Handbook for SMEs”). Roelf had previously worked for Sogeti as a bid manager for more than 10 years. He regularly acts as a guest lecturer at the Hanze University of Applied Sciences Groningen and at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam for a lecture on bid management. He has made numerous bids and has continually contributed to improving the tender process. Roelf graduated from the University of Groningen in 1984 as a Neerlandicus (freely translated as an expert in the Dutch language and literature). In addition to his work as a bid manager, he provided spelling, grammar and writing style courses for professionals, account managers and secretariats.

Roelf and Brainial have come into contact with each other and have one thing in common: we help organisations win tenders. Once in a while we organise a knowledge session in which Brainial shares its latest software developments with Roelf, and provides Roelf Brainial with tips and feedback. Roelf is a creative thinker and enjoys staying involved in the developments we go through. By now, Roelf’s book has become mandatory and part of the onboarding programme when you join Brainial.

“Roelf’s book has become mandatory and part of the onboarding programme when you join Brainial.”

How did you get into the profession of Bid Management?

I learned the profession in practice. In 2000 I was seconded on behalf of Sogeti to SFB (the present Cordares). It was at the time of the creation of the UWV. SBB had to make an offer for one of UWV’s core applications. For this purpose they hired me as a “technical writer”. In fact, that was my first job as a bid manager. After that, I was even more often involved in various tendering processes at SBB. When an internal vacancy arose at Sogeti for bid managers, I applied and became bid manager. At Sogeti, we produced around 2,500 quotations and tenders a year with a number of people. With my background as a “Neerlandicus”, I was very good at editing boring texts by ICT specialists, so that attractive and easily readable offers went out the door. But of course I also had to deal with all the procedures to get an offer approved internally. You don’t make a large offer on your own behind your screen, but with a whole team. You really have to manage that well. You have to reach agreement on exactly what you are going to offer, how you are going to carry it out, what the price should be and you also have to get agreement from the legal department and business risk management. Finally, together with the account manager, you often have to pitch the offer to the management.

What does an ideal preparation for a tender look like?

You have an ideal preparation if you know well in advance that a request for a quotation or a tender is coming up. You know that when the account manager has done his job well. If you know this well in advance, you also have time to talk to the customer and find out more about what the customer thinks is important. You also have the opportunity to influence the application and to ensure that questions are asked in the application that will enable you to make a unique or distinctive offer. However, it still often happens that an application arise very surprisingly and unexpectedly, or that you find a tender on TenderNed from a customer with whom you do not yet have any relationship. In that case you have to deal with the information provided in the documents and with all the information you can get hold of via the website or other sources of information. Usually you are no longer allowed to consult informally with the customer at that stage, but the communication is public and in writing, so that all your competitors have access to the same information. In the tender instructions you will find information about the customer, a description of the contract, an explanation of the procedure, the requirements you must meet, the references you must have and the award criteria. Based on the situation that you are dealing with a “cold” customer, you read the tender documents very carefully with your team and make an inventory of whether you can meet all the requirements. If you are unable to meet the requirements, you have 3 options: stop, question the requirement in the question round or hire a subcontractor or partner who does meet the requirements.

“You have an ideal preparation if you know well in advance that a request for a quotation or a tender is coming up.”

The requirements are very digital: you either meet or you do not. You do not earn points with the requirements. You can only win the offer by offering the best price/quality ratio. The better and more convincing your answers to the award criteria, the higher your price may be. The trick, therefore, is to describe the qualitative aspects of your offer as clearly as possible and to make it clear what the advantage is for the customer. And, of course, the offer must be made at a reasonable price. There is usually quite a lot of work involved in tendering. If you see that as an investment, you also have to make a kind of business case and check whether that investment is justified. In doing so, you have to make an estimate in advance of how likely it is that you can win. you can win more by tendering less. But then you have to make the right choices for tenders in which you do and do not participate. Many companies still do far too little to qualify a tender carefully.

What do you think are the main reasons for rejecting or not winning an offer?

There are many ways to lose an offer and very few ways to win an offer. The most important rule is that you must offer what is asked for. There are very few bids where an open question is asked about the best solution to a customer’s problem and where you, as a provider, can come up with a truly creative solution. A fatal error is if you make a conditional offer. This is set aside unread, however reasonable your condition may be.

Offers that are not written for the customer and that do not address the customer’s problem or the benefits for the customer are often also rather hopeless. Of course, it is completely bad if you copy most of an old quotation and accidentally leave the name of the original customer in it. There may be all kinds of limitations to the format, such as a mandatory font and size and a line spacing and/or a maximum number of pages.

Offers will be judged in a certain order. First, they look at the formal side of the offer: is it complete and have all the required documents sent with it? If not, the offer is invalid. Then they look at the requirements. Then they look at the references. If something is wrong, you are excluded. Only then do they look at the answer to the award criteria and the price.

How are most tenders won?

Tenders are always won at the best price/quality ratio. The way in which this is calculated is explained in detail in the tender guide. It is important that you take a good look at how the formula works. It is not always fifty-fifty. There are tenders in which the price weighs very heavily and others in which quality is the most important thing. So sometimes it is wise not to tender. If, for example, you deliver excellent quality and give good guarantees, your price will normally be the same. In that case, it is not wise to bid for a tender in which the price/quality ratio is 80/20. Furthermore, it is usually the party that gives a very sharp answer to the questions asked that wins. If you want to win, it is therefore extremely important to read the documents thoroughly and ask the right questions if they are unclear. Many tenders are lost because the bidder does not ask questions based on the consideration that it is putting its competitors on a particular track, appearing stupid or spoiling the relationship with the bidder. These are all wrong reasons. You write your bid on the basis of your strength, but you have to have a clear idea of exactly what the tenderer is asking or what the background to his problem is.

What is the biggest challenge at the moment when responding to invitations to tender?

“The biggest challenge is to know exactly what the customer wants.”

The biggest challenge is to know exactly what the customer wants and what is meant by quality. That is why this preparation is so important. The more you know about the customer, the better you can score on the quality questions. It is therefore also important to know who is on the assessment committee. Usually you don’t find out the names, but you do find out the positions of these people. Then it’s good to know what someone in that position thinks is important and when you are successful in that role. From this you may be able to deduce which quality aspects you should include in your answer. There are always subjective elements in a tender. A second challenge is to articulate the benefits for the customer. Many bidders limit their offer to the ‘what’ and the ‘how’, but they omit the ‘why’. But that ‘why’ question is, of course, the most essential question of the entire offer. Why is this the best? Why is this helping your customer the most? Why does this solution offer the most added value? If you can answer these why-questions, you also show that you understand the problem or challenge of the customer well. Many providers find it difficult to put this into words.

What are the current trends in procurement?

As a result of Best Value Procurement, which was introduced approximately in the Netherlands in 2010, you see that there are more and more limitations to the size of the answers and that there is an increasing demand for dominant information. Dominant information is mainly based on figures or “metrics” that say something about your performance. This means that answers must be SMART: specific, measurable, acceptable, realistic and time-bound. Another trend is that various sustainability criteria are playing an increasingly important role in the requirements and wishes. Think of the environment and climate, circular and bio-based, social return and international social conditions. Transparency about the origin of your products is becoming very important.

“Brainial’s software can help you analyse the tender documents efficiently and quickly determine whether it makes sense to participate in a tender.”

How do you see the future of answering invitations to tender?

The profession will stay that way. After all, it remains important to tailor your offer to your customer. But I also expect something from Brainial. Brainial’s software can help you analyse the tender documents efficiently and quickly determine whether it makes sense to participate in a tender.  I expect that as the software is further developed, more and more pieces of text can be generated to answer tenders. Nevertheless, I believe that this human intervention is inevitable when answering calls for tenders. Somehow, the evaluators also want to be pleasantly surprised. Tendering remains human work in which subjective elements play a role and the tender must show that you have empathised with the customer. However much tenderers emphasise that they assess objectively, that metrics are decisive and that the answers must be SMART, they remain sensitive to that bit of warmth and understanding that you put in the text.

Would you like to read more tips and are you curious about Roelf’s book? His book “Aanbestedingen winnen – Handboek voor het MKB” can be ordered via this link:

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