Procurement
April 20, 2015

Talk is cheap

I opened the door to this article in February with a column on restoring trust in public procurement. Look back at my seven steps to success: every one of them was based on – even relied on – paying attention to your communications activities.

It is amazing how much information goes back and forth between a buyer and the supplier community during a procurement action. We can call it communicating, but at each step in the process there is a risk that communication will actually be little more than noise – and the potential for failure looms large.

The need for effective communication starts at the beginning of any procurement. The moment you start defining a requirement, you are building your communications with potential bidders and your eventual contractor. Describing that need – what it is, and why you need it – is the foundation for everything that follows.

What happens when you get it wrong? You may not attract the right suppliers you want and need.

The negativity can be compounded if during the bidding period potential bidders ask questions or request changes to some element of the design of your procurement. Answer quickly and openly, and you increase the likelihood of ending up with a contractor who is on the same page as you. Answer slowly and abruptly, and you may be seen as dismissive, if not closed and arrogant. You are setting up a potentially tense situation: your eventual contractor may work with you, but the relationship risks being fractious.

The suppliers that do bid – if they do not understand your need – may in effect bid against something different, and they are then at risk of having their bid rejected. When you sit down to evaluate the bids, you may find the process difficult because you are trying to assess orange bids against apple requirements.

You can all too easily end up with a mediocre contract with a mediocre supplier. You may get something out of it, but it will almost certainly be just the minimum required by the contract – your contractor will have little interest in giving his or her best.

Sometimes, once you have your contractor in place, the need for effective communications is limited. If the contract calls for a single, tangible deliverable, the contractor usually knows exactly what to deliver, where and when. And once that is done, the contract ends. Note, that I said “usually.” Even with a relatively simple contract problems may arise: a slow delivery or delivery of a product that does not match your specifications. Then you are into troubleshooting and problem-solving – and you have to communicate effectively to work things through to a successful conclusion.

This problem-solving is much more likely to be required when you have a more complex contract, requiring ongoing interaction with your contractor. The more back and forth there is, the greater the possibility for problems – something as simple as different understandings of a single word may escalate into friction and dispute.

How do you avoid this? Encourage – by example – the frequent honest, accurate and complete transfer of information between you and your supplier. When you need to raise an issue with your contractor, do it as soon as you know there is an issue to be resolved. Get feedback from the person to make sure that the messages you want to send are being received as you intended – and listen to their response.

You also need to check that the messages you are sending to your supplier are being shared within that supplier’s organization. If you can, talk to people who may be involved; find out what they have been told. If there is a gap, fix it. It is not enough to simply spew out reams of verbiage. The messages you may think you are communicating clearly may be received quite differently by your audience.

Don’t believe me? Take the time to read through your procurement documents; you may be surprised to see what you have unknowingly included, or do not understand.

Dealing with a problem during the performance of a contract is like dealing with a water leak in your house. It is not going to go away by itself: ignoring it will only increase the damage that is going to result.

Rather you have to concentrate: be timely, be clear, be appropriate, and don’t forget to listen. It pays to pay attention to communications during a procurement – and it’s free.

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