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The User-Friendly Bid

Author(s):

Troy Harris
Troy Harris, Purchasing Manager, County of Santa Barbara, Purchasing Division, 1100 Anacapa St, Santa Barbara CA 93101, 805/568-2690.

82nd Annual International Conference Proceedings - 1997 

Abstract. Let's transform our dry and dreary bids into attractive works of [the purchasing] art. But, alas, what about our dearly beloved "legalese"? Without sacrificing the "legal" we can enhance the "ease"--the ease of reading, understanding, responding and evaluating--with an innovative user-oriented approach.

Intro: The User-Friendly Approach. Bids have two kinds of "users": Buyers and Bidders. The Buyer needs a bid that is easy to assemble. The Bidder needs a bid that is easy to respond to. Our focus in this paper is primarily on the Bidder. But you'll see that by attending to the needs of the external user--lo and behold--you meet the needs of the internal user as well. The things that matter to the user will serve as headings for the main points we want to make. If you follow the suggestions offered here, your bids will be:

  1. Well-organized
  2. Attractive
  3. Readable
  4. Well-referenced
  5. Respond-able and
  6. Continuously Improved

1. The Well-Organized Bid.

1.1 Pitfall Alert: One key difference between the User-Friendly Bid and many other bids is how the document is organized. The unfriendly bid suffers from one or more of the following pitfalls:

Redundancy: Clauses are repeated, often in slightly different phrasing. If you have, say, an indemnity clause in your attached standard conditions, you don't need to repeat it in your specifications section. Whenever possible, describe an item or address an issue only once in a document. You shouldn't have to say anything twice unless it's appropriate to do so for deliberate emphasis.

Discontinuity: Related issues are peppered here and there throughout the document. For instance, I've seen a clause regarding shipping charges disconnected by several paragraphs--having nothing to do with shipping--from a clause specifying "FOB Destination." Check to be sure these things are located near each other.

Convoluted Language: In one agency's bid, I came across a sentence with 169 words. There's gotta be a better way to say it! (More on this under Point 3 below.)

1.2 Title Page.
The title page itself is organized into sections that make the reader's task easy. All the bid data is together. Everything about the bid opening is in the same place--including physical directions about how to find the darned place. The contents are summarized so that the reader will know what to expect when they turn the page. The key information appears here, and only here, in the Invitation. The bid opening date is prominently displayed, and there's no chance of it being contradicted elsewhere because it's simply referenced, and not repeated, in the submittal instructions.

1.3 Section 1 - Introduction.
Here's where we want to immediately build rapport with the Bidder. In this section we first tell them we're glad they bothered to express interest in this bid, then we make sure that what we'll say in the coming pages has a context for them [more on this later under Point 3]. We close this section by summarizing what to expect in the bid process:

  • how we'll make sure they really know what we need;
  • how we'll decide on the "winner"; and
  • how we'll consummate the deal.

1.4 Section 2 - Primary Specifications.
Now we launch into the bid's raison d'etre: What's the main thing we're aiming for? Put it in this section. Be sure your specifications are comprehensive enough to ensure that when it comes time to pay the supplier (or to resolve a dispute about their performance!), you can determine that they've done what you need them to do.

In many instances you'll want to have some of the detailed specs listed in a spreadsheet Reply form rather than in the narrative section. That's fine. Just give them a paragraph here telling them to expect to find further details in Section 6.

1.5 Section 3 - Ancillary Specifications.
There are many things we may need from a supplier that are not central to the performance of the prime good or service sought. For instance, how they bill us is certainly important, but it doesn't have a lot to do with the item itself, as such. Other examples abound: cash discounts; manufacturer assurance of supply; delivery by private or common carrier; FOB point; contract extension incentives--just to name a few. This is also a good place to put clauses addressing contingent scenarios, such as emergency backup plans or error processing.

1.6 Section 4 - General Terms & Conditions.
Every agency will have a standard set of legal stuff that needs to be included with all bids. Those boilerplate documents should be referenced here and attached to the Invitation. This section can then be used to modify or amplify the boilerplate clauses in order to accommodate unique things about this bid that may vary from or conflict with the standard language.

1.7 Section 5 - Reply Presentation & Review.
This section presents a blow-by-blow description of what you want the bidder to do with this bid. What, exactly, do you need from them in order to make your decision? Tell them how their Reply should be assembled and submitted. Tell them what you'll do with the Reply when you receive it, and how you'll handle questions about anything they didn't make clear. Finally, be sure they know what you will go through to validate their claim that they're the best choice, reminding them of how you will compare them with their competitors.

Very often I have seen bids intersperse Reply requirements with specifications. No! Don't make it a puzzle for the bidder. Move into Section 5 (or 6) everything you want them to give you in a Reply. As indicated earlier, if you can ask for what you need in a simple form instruction, you may not even need to mention it in the narrative sections.

Note: I suggest you solicit direct feedback about your forms and format on every bid--and then incorporate those ideas in future bids--and you'll gradually hone your bids into ever-greater effectiveness. Humble yourself. Bidders have seen lots of bids, and just might have some excellent suggestions to offer from the best of their experience.

1.8 Section 6 - Forms.
In this section you can provide the forms they'll need, and also instruct your bidders regarding which forms to complete and how to do so accurately. Be VERY clear and thorough in your instructions. Make sure that what you get back from them is precisely what you need in order to support you in making your decision. We'll say more under Point 5 on how to make the forms truly useful.

1.9 Section 7 - Schedules & Other Attachments.
You might use the term "schedule" to refer to listings of significant items in the bid (for example, a listing of all the copier brands and models in your installed base). This section can also give you a place to list various attachments, by whatever name you choose to call them (attachments, exhibits, appendices, samples, etc). Just be sure they are assembled in some sensible order. It is preferable to label them if they're not already easily identifiable.

2. Making It Pretty.
This may be the most neglected aspect of bid preparation these days. But with the wonder of word processing at its current state-of-the-art, there's no excuse for ugly bids. Here are some little things you can do to help draw people into your bid. After all, you do want them to read it, right? (Disclaimer: I feel like a hypocrite! What you see here ain't all that pretty, but NAPM's style sheet for proceedings manuscripts did not allow me to follow the very rules I'm suggesting. I'll hand out the pretty version at the presentation.)

2.1 Headers/Footers.
Headers and footers can contribute a sense of consistency and professionalism to an otherwise humdrum document. Use them to help the reader know what s/he's up to no matter which page is open. Our format tells people up top that it's a County Purchasing bid, and reminds them down below which Invitation and which page they're reading--it even flags them that the Due Date is rapidly approaching.

2.2 Type Specs.
Many studies have shown that "serif" typefaces (aka fonts; those characters with little lines at the end of each stroke) are generally much easier for the human eye to track with when seen en masse. But "sans-serif" fonts tend to work well for headings. Use bold, underline, SMALL CAPS, and italics creatively but sparingly.Try to keep your typesize no smaller than 10-point for the narrative text. You can cheat a little if you need to in order to copy-fit onto a certain number of pages. And you can go down to about 7 points on form instructions.

2.3 Keywords, Headings & Linework.
Highlight a key word or phrase, preferably one that's unique in the document, as a heading for each paragraph in the Invitation. Appropriate variations in the font and size of these characters can help people recognize the flow of your document, as can thoughtfully-applied linework. Too many lines, however, can make things look cluttered, so be cautious in this. Shading is a related tool which when used with aplomb can be very effective in drawing attention where you want it to go.

2.4 Styles.
The best way to make good use of all these tips is to cozy up with your word-processor manual and really get acquainted with the tool called Styles. You probably use either WordPerfect or Microsoft Word. Both of those programs have very well-developed style capabilities. Styles can be a little difficult to learn, but the investment is well worth the effort. When assigning your styles, take care to make them tasteful and consistent.

2.5 Whitespace.
When all the features mentioned above are used artistically, you can fit a lot onto a page without it seeming terribly crowded. Be sure to give the reader's eyes some relief. Whitespace is a good way to accomplish that: ample margins; breaks between paragraphs; sometimes even callouts or sidebars.

2.6 Casual Elegance.
The finishing touches make the difference between sloppy and professional. Don't forget to spell-check your document. And always have another pair of eyes review your work for flaws in your logic, or for any of the "big three" pitfalls in your organization or presentation of the material.

3. Speaking Humanese.
Show me. I dare you. Where is the law that says bids have to be loaded with legalese in order to be legal? In our Invitations, we extend a friendly hand toward the people we're dealing with by calling us "we" and them "you". Those who have already made the transition to "County" and "Contractor" from the truly archaic "party of the first part, etc" have gone a step in the right direction. But taking the ultimate plunge can bring about a refreshing sense of humanness in what will always and inevitably be a somewhat unnatural interaction. It is important to stress that your use of relatively informal language in no way diminishes the bidder's accountability for fulfilling the stated expectations.

3.1 What is a "Bid"?
We use the general term "bid" (here and in normal life) to refer to the whole process related to all solicitations. The document we send out we call the "Invitation", and what we expect back we call the "Reply"--whether we're dealing with an Invitation for Quote, for Proposal, or for Information.

3.2 Who are the players?
We have settled on Vendor, Bidder and Supplier to define the possible phases of a company's relationship with us. Be consistent; don't use the terms interchangably. Define them early, then stick with your definitions. Since all of them could qualify as "you" at various points in the bid, it is also important to clearly distinguish between pronoun parties when the context could be variously interpreted. If your bid requires something of the bidder that is different from what is required of the ultimate supplier, be sure to say so. Also, if both the agency and the supplier have to do the same thing on some point, use the phrase "we and you" so that they can't claim they thought that "we" meant only the agency and not the contractor.

4. Where to Find it …
With the power of your word-processor at your fingertips, you can make it easy to navigate your document.

4.1 Section Numbering.
Apply automatic section/paragraph numbering to help both you and your users be sure you're "on the same sheet of music". Always use legal-style numbering (with the previous levels attached) so that at any given paragraph the reader knows how what s/he's reading fits the whole. Don't you remember the vexation of having to dig backwards in a lengthy document organized with classic outlining to find out that the sub-section you're reading was in Section III, not Section II? One side-benefit of concatenated numbering is that, properly used, it practically demands that you put together those things that belong together!

4.2 List/Item Numbering.
When numbering items in a list, give each item a unique number. It's fine to separate items into logical groupings, but far too often each group or lot gets numbered anew from 1 to x. If you have, say, three such groups, you could end up with three completely different items on the same bid, each one labelled "Item 2". Duh! This is a needless source of confusion. Instead, simply add a prefix and they'll become Item A-2, Item B-2 and Item C-2.

4.3 Cross-Referencing.
Computerized cross-referencing should be used liberally to point to related paragraphs or pages.

5. Getting Exactly and Only What You Need from the Bidder.
If you want to be able to compare Replies on an apples-to-apples basis, you need to be very explicit in instructing your bidders how to respond. Your up-front investment in preparing forms and instructions that squeeze all your bidders into the same channel will be well worth the effort.

5.1 Reply Content.
Some of what you need will best be elicited in identical formats from bidder to bidder. Use forms for those things (see below). You may also want information that is similar in nature but does not require identical formatting. In that event simply require clear and consistent labeling, with boundaries limiting the volume of data submitted. This allows the bidder some room for creativity without opening the door to zillion-page glossy Replies.

5.1 Consolidated Data Collection.
One bid I saw had five pages of detailed spec's and required the bidder to insert their name (and that's all!) on each page. Hey, make it easy, not mindless, to respond! Never require the bidder to chase around your Invitation document filling in the blanks or answering questions here and there on all sorts of pages. Consolidate all such responses onto a form (see below).

5.3 Proposed Deviations.
We require bidders to summarize in one place any proposed deviations from the bid requirements. This enables us to reduce the risk of being blindsided by some obscure or cryptic language cleverly hidden elsewhere in their Reply. If they don't object "on the table" right where they're told to, they waive any right to object later or elsewhere.

5.4 Submittal Guidance.
How often do you have bids submitted late or to the wrong place--even just down the hall? By giving ample direction, and underscoring our policy on this and its potential consequences for them, the bidder is given little room to wiggle.

5.5 Fill-in Forms.
I implore you: PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE give people the right amount of space to fill in your blanks. This is probably the most commonly violated aspect of form design. Don't give people only a half inch of horizontal space to fill in a federal tax ID number! As to vertical space, the best row height is exactly 0.25" per line. It fits most handwritten text, and also fits most typewriters. Use your word processor's Tables feature as a form designer to take advantage of consistent spacing, nice bordering and "underlining", left- right- and centered instruction text, and other nice touches. It takes very little time to establish a standard for form design that can be used on multiple forms. Most importantly, make your instructions clear and concise.

5.6 Electronic Forms.
In certain cases, we have found spreadsheet programs to be an enormous net timesaver in collecting data for bid evaluation. Did you catch the word "net"? Oftentimes developing the spreadsheet in a manner suitable for that use can seem like a lot of work at the front end of the process. When we did this, not only were all the bidders were able to make use of the spreadsheet as a tool in developing their responses--tweaking electronically rather than filling out handwritten forms and exhaustively checking their math--it also made our analysis go incredibly quicker. This was truly a win-win situation.

6. Total Quality.
Perhaps the title of this paper should have been "Toward The User-Friendly Bid." This is a constant learning process involving continuous improvement. We'll still encounter great new ideas our counterparts have implemented elsewhere, and other fresh ideas will spontaneously blossom for use in future bids. Sieze them; use them.

6.1 Conclusion.
If you're like us, it will take a fair amount of work to fulfill the vision advanced in this paper. Just let it be okay that your consciousness has been raised. Make incremental improvements. When you spot redundancy, squish it. When you're pulling up an old bid to re-use it for the current cycle, do some cut-and-paste to get the things that belong together, together. And go on the warpath against complicated and stuffy language.

The real secret is a three-step process: 1) think about the user; 2) think about the user; and 3) think about the user. What can you do to streamline your bid?

The result of your efforts will be user-friendly bids. Bids that work; bids that are a breeze to read and reply to; bids that increase competition (ie, they don't get tossed in the trash because of the hassle of dealing with government). And user-friendly bids will make us all, as purchasing professionals, look ever more professional.


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