Asking tender clarification questions: a best practice guide (with examples)

Writing a bid is a challenge – you don’t need me to tell you that. But it also means a huge undertaking for the buyer. 

Those specifications, tender guides, pre-qualifying questionnaires and pricing schedules that you have to wade through? The buyer has to produce them all. Meanwhile, they’re usually also coordinating with specialist procurement and legal teams who are weighing in on finances, pricing and governance. 

It’s a labyrinthine business. Little wonder then that in every tender there are errors, contradictions and omissions.

Why should you care about all this? Because that’s where the clarification question (or CQ) comes in. CQs are an often overlooked but vital element of the tendering process.

These questions stress out many bid writers. You might worry about asking the ‘wrong’ question – or the right question in the wrong way. But there’s no sense in avoiding the CQ portal for fear of looking foolish. You need the right information to work with, like everyone else. 

 

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Clarification questions: good for you, good for the buyer

The truth is, a buyer should thank you for pointing out any lurking errors, so they can be promptly corrected. Any mistakes or ambiguities will compromise the quality of responses they’ll get. And, left unchecked, more serious errors risk the tender being challenged later and even having to be re-run. 

This is especially true where the error in the tender requirements seems to give an advantage to one bidder over others. 

I once worked on a bid where the pricing formula in the tender gave a disproportionate advantage to the lowest-priced solution. In this case, we sent multiple CQs and even approached the buyer directly to flag that this could make the tender retrospectively challengeable. They still wouldn’t acknowledge this, and the process continued. 

Then, just as the bid was ready to submit, the buyer appointed a new procurement manager. They recognised the problem immediately. And they had no option but to pull the tender and start again – to the sound of much gnashing of teeth. 

That’s how important CQs can be. So let’s look at how to ask them – and how to get the best out of them.

 

The steps to submitting your clarification questions

The steps involved in deciding and submitting your clarification questions are pretty straightforward – even if the tender isn’t. 

 

1. Locating the tender portal

The tender documents will direct you to either a portal for clarification questions and responses or an email address managed by the buyer’s procurement or commissioning team. Either way, this is where you’ll post or send the questions that emerge as you rigorously review the tender documents.

The buyer will publish all the questions they get from bidders in the portal, alongside their responses – or else they’ll send out updated logs of questions and answers periodically. 

It’s worth noting that this means all bidders will see all the questions and answers (to ensure a level playing field). Even more worth noting is that questions are replicated word for word – so always review them before sending. And don’t include your company name in the question!

The clarifications will be published regularly until a preset deadline. This deadline is usually a week or so before the tender submission deadline itself – look out for it in the ITT documents. 

How often these updates happen in the portal will vary, buyer to buyer. Some will post them at the same time each week and others simply as and when they have answers to a good chunk of outstanding CQs.

 

2. Deciding what clarification questions to ask

The clarifications log is usually open for the majority of the tender. This allows for an initial wave of questions early on, followed by a second wave as bidders dive deeper into the detail of the documents. Indeed, it’s not unusual for a perceptive initial question to lead to further questions or adjustments.

Again, don’t feel you have to hold back from using the clarification portal if you have a genuine question. It is wise, though, to make sure you have a question worth asking first. To do this, use a simple internal checking process for potential CQs – before you post them for all to see.

The process can look like this:

  • Make identifying points for clarification an agenda item for your kick-off and strategy meetings in the early stages of the tender. 
  • Include your subject matter experts in the process, and check with them if you aren’t sure what something means. Confirm with them that your question is valid and exactly what it is you need to ask. The better informed you are, the better the question you’ll ask. 
  • Review the clarifications log to check someone hasn’t already asked the same question. 

 

Following this process will help you work out your initial set of questions. It’s likely that further (often technical) questions will emerge later, especially when your finance, HR, legal and operations functions get involved.

And don’t forget to check if there’s anything to clarify in the SQ (standard selection questionnaire) and other supporting questionnaires. Although 90% of SQ questions don’t vary from tender to tender, they are sometimes tailored. You may find a devilish data protection question or a baffling budget spreadsheet that you need to query.

It’s a good idea to choose one person in the team to be your named contact for the tender. They’ll take on responsibility for collating and submitting questions and checking for responses.

 

3. Asking a clarification question

Remember to check in the tender documents for the clarification portal deadline: that’s your last chance to send in questions. Make sure everyone involved in the tender is aware of and reminded about that deadline. If you’re coming to a tender late, you might need to act fast.

Before drafting a CQ, ask yourself if there is anything in your question that might identify you to your competitors. For example, do you have to reveal an important element of your proposed offer for the question to make sense? 

If you think you might risk giving away trade secrets, contact the buyer’s procurement team directly to find out how you can ask a question with commercial sensitivity. There will usually be a named or departmental email you can contact. Often, if the buyer agrees your CQ is commercially sensitive and their response doesn’t give you an unfair advantage, they’ll answer it directly. (But there is no guarantee of this.) 

Having drafted your non-sensitive CQs (more on how to do this later), double-check and proofread them, then submit them via the portal or email address.

 

4. Once you’ve submitted your question

Throughout the clarification window, your named contact for the tender will receive updated logs by email or notifications to check for updates in the portal.

Don’t expect a crystal-clear response every time. If a clarification is on something technical or complex, the wording in the answer may still leave you unsure. In cases like this, don’t be afraid to go back to clarify the clarification. 

 

More best practice advice 

  • Remember, even though questions on the CQ log are anonymised for other bidders, the buyers know who is asking what. So asking poorly worded, ill-judged or confused questions will do nothing to enhance your reputation. On the other hand, asking concise, structured and even helpful questions (including politely pointing out an anomaly) won’t do you any harm with the buyer.
  • Store each updated CQ log in a folder where all those working on the bid can access it. Clearly mark each log by date so it’s obvious which is the most recent.
  • Keep the log in the tender folder after submission. This is mostly for the record. But it is possible you might find the answer (or at least a clue) to a future question if you ever go for another tender with the same buyer. 

 

Writing your clarification questions

Use concise, polite language to frame your question. If you need to refer to a section (or sections) of a document, clearly reference both the section number and relevant page. For instance, ‘In reference to section 3.2.2 (page 10) of the specification, could commissioners clarify … .’ 

Keep your writing succinct and clear. Don’t waffle, and certainly avoid sounding exasperated or like you are passing judgement on the procurement if you need to post a follow-up CQ.

If you need to ask more than one question under the same heading, use bullets to separate them out. If you have a series of questions on different subjects, ask each one separately. 

There’s nothing worse for the buyer – or the other bidders – than having to wade through a pile of unrelated questions presented as one.
 
Responding to tenders means asking questions effectively as well as answering them. Make the most of the clarification question process with this best practice guide, via @EmphasisWriting Click To Tweet
 

Examples of tender clarification questions 

CQs will vary from perennial questions to those unique to the requirements of a specific tender. Here are some common themes with some example questions:

 

1. The tender response process itself

It’s very common to need to clarify points about the format your response should take, such as whether you can submit the final documents as PDFs rather than Word documents. And the questions I’ve come across most frequently in my years of bidding are on word counts – particularly whether words contained in diagrams, graphics, captions and so on will be included.

Q:

  • Are there any formatting requirements beyond using the template provided? 
  • Can diagrams or infographics be used?
  • If so, will the words within the diagrams and infographics contribute to the word count?

 

2. Pricing and budgets

It’s not unusual to come across mathematical errors in the sections covering pricing and budgets. You might also spot different values for the same thing or contradictory instructions in different documents. This is often where sections have been drafted by different people or teams.

Q: The instructions say, ‘Please do not include CPI or another inflation cost as part of your tendered price.’ However, the final tab on ‘Pricing Plan B (Staff Salaries)’ asks for the staff hourly rate increase for year 1, 2, 3 (etc). Is this part meant to be completed, given that the instructions say to not include inflation costs?

 

3. Quality performance requirements, conditions or particular contract terms

The level of governance documentation and evidence you need to submit (or sign up to) varies from tender to tender. It can be onerous, but it all needs to be complete for a compliant bid.

Q: Please can you give more details of the guarantor required in the call-off information sheet? It states that more detail is in the call-off contract in section 9, but we cannot find this.

 

4. Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) (TUPE) 

You may need to clarify whether TUPE applies to the contract: if you’d be taking over from another provider, would you have to take on their staff? If so, this may lead to other questions related to the process surrounding that.

Q: The specification states that the provider will have to take on some of the work of the XXX service in year two of the contract. But exactly which elements of the service this means is still subject to an internal consultation. Can commissioners confirm whether TUPE will apply to some or all staff currently employed on this work with the XXX service?

 

5. Your eligibility to apply 

Sometimes you may not meet a specific requirement outlined in the documents, but you are working towards it or believe you can justify applying in another way.

Q: We are a relatively young organisation and, as such, can supply two current contract examples rather than the requested three. 

  • Are we still eligible to tender for this contract?
  • Is there any alternative evidence of delivery experience commissioners would accept?

 


6. Errors or contradictions in the tender text 

Occasional errors and contradictions are inevitable. If you spot them, you should tactfully point them out – they’ll have to be clarified before you can respond.

Q: In section XX of the specification, it states the provider is expected to have a registered office in the county. However, in section XY, it states the provider is expected to have a registered office for each service provided. 

We are tendering for more than one service in the county. So, could commissioners confirm whether more than one service can be run from one registered office in the county? Or will we need to source registered offices for each service we tender for?

 

It’s all part of the process

With the sheer quantity of information involved in the average tender, the devil is often in the detail. The clarification process acknowledges that tendering is complex – and that mistakes, contradictions and tensions between priorities are inevitable and need to be resolved. 

Even if you’re new to tendering, it’s important to participate. You should see asking CQs as an integral part of the process of producing the best possible response – and therefore very much in the buyer’s best interest too. You get the information you need, and, handled well, a thoughtful CQ can even enhance your reputation with the buyer. 

 

Image credit: TierneyMJ / Shutterstock

 

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