Small is beautiful

I was delighted the other day to be approached by the person responsible for a local government procurement exercise in which I had expressed an interest, to enquire why I hadn’t submitted a proposal. She was somewhat horrified when I explained that the tender requirements were biased rather heavily against small businesses such as mine. And she asked how the procurement process could have been improved. So here are my top five tips for small-business-friendly procurement.

1. Be reasonable in what you ask

Developing new business is a key part of being a consultant. And nobody begrudges the time spent putting together a proposal for a potential client. As long as what you are looking for is reasonable, relevant and proportionate to the size of the opportunity.

By all means, ask for information about my company and how I would approach the task in hand. I’ll happily give you examples of work I’ve done before and provide you with references. I’ll even prepare a project risk assessment, if that’s what floats your boat.

But if I’m bidding for a piece of work that’s worth, say, ten thousand pounds, I really can’t afford to spend more than a couple of days putting my proposal together. If it sounds like it’s going to take me all week to put together, I may well have to give it a miss.

2. Allow us to showcase what we can do – but don’t go too far

One of the great things about smaller providers is the ideas that we bring to the table. We’re not bound by the standard approaches used by the bigger firms, so we can respond creatively and flexibly to your requirements.

But you need to let us. So rather than setting out in detail what you would like the successful supplier to do and how you want them to do the work, explain what the problem is and ask us how we’d go about solving it.

After all, if you already know what you want done and how you want it done, you don’t need a consultant – you need a temp.

Don’t get cheeky, though, and ask so much of us that we practically have to do the work in order to put together our proposal. If you want me to explain how I’d go about doing a quality assurance review of your reports, for example, that’s fine. But I’m most certainly not going to do the first one for free as part of the bidding process.

3. Be realistic about the experience that we have

I understand that the project you’re going out to tender for is incredibly important to you. And you want to find the right person or organisation to help you drive it forward.

But if you demand that potential bidders have experience of doing the exact same thing somewhere else (preferably several times), you’re really going to limit the pool of people from which you can draw.

Rather than say exactly what experience you want potential providers to have, set out simply what skills or knowledge are requried. And then let us demonstrate that we are able to bring them to the table.

4. Get real about insurance cover

Any decent consultant or consultancy firm has the proper insurance arrangements in place. And we have no problem at all with providing you with details of the insurances that we have or sending you a copy of our cover note.

But please be realistic about the level of insurance cover you ask for. Don’t just use whatever is included on the template you got from your procurement team.

As a small business, I carry £1 million of public liability cover. This is fairly standard for a business like mine. I also carry professional indemnity cover of £1 million, which is far more than would usually be expected for a company of my size. But I work on some fairly large projects and this is the most my insurer will cover me for.

If you ask for professional indemnity and public liability cover of, say, £5 million, there’s absolutely no way I can comply. No problem for a bigger firm, of course, but a deal-breaker for me. And if the project is a six week assignment with a value of £15,000, then I’d argue that you’re also being a little unreasonable.

It’s also worth noting that as the sole director of the company, owning 50% or more of the company’s share capital and with no employees other than myself, I’m not required to have employer’s liability insurance.

5. If you’re open to working with smaller providers, say so!

Finally, if you’re open to the idea of working with smaller organisations, please consider making this clear in your request for proposals.

Putting together a bid is a fraught enough process as it is, with all-too-many procuring organisations just going through the motions, usually because they already know who they’re going to go with.

And knowing that I’m going to be bidding against larger, more established firms makes it more nerve-wracking still. (Although, if I may take a moment to boast, I have a pretty good track record as a giant killer.)

Knowing, however, that the procuring organisation is actually hoping to hear from organisations like mine gives me a massive boost. And galvanises me to put together the very best – and most competitive – proposal that I can.

So if you are running a procurement exercise and you’d like to look beyond the ‘usual suspects’, please think about how you could make it more suitable for smaller providers. Because small is beautiful. It is more responsive to your needs. And it is often better, too.

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