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Expert advice on how to tender to universities

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Want to get into the lucrative world of university tendering but don't know where to start?

Forging a successful relationship with a university can be a highly lucrative and rewarding venture for any private company.

Universities are contributing huge amounts to local economies through large procurement contracts, as well as their academic and knowledge transfer contributions. Becoming one of their trusted suppliers or contractors is an understandable goal for big business and SMEs alike. But getting that first foot in the door isn’t always easy.

Whether securing building contracts, taking on their facility management, or offering consultancy services, tendering for a university contract often comes with strict requirements and a drawn-out process.

Despite the varied nature of university tenders, there are some rules that apply across the board. So to get the inside track on impactful tendering, U2B spoke to Tender Success consultant, Matt Milgrom, who advises businesses on how to put together a successful tender for Australian universities.

Matt Milgrom, a consultant at Tender Success, has some wise advice for anyone looking to tender a university.

Here’s what he had to say:

What to expect from a typical tender process

Often, Australian universities – rather like other large organisations – prefer to open their tenders to as wide an audience as possible in order to assess the entire market for suitability and value. Many Universities, therefore, issue ‘Open Tenders’ which open bidding opportunities to the public.

Sometimes, a university will use ‘Invited Tendering’ instead, approaching a specific group of suppliers to invite to tender for goods or services. Often these tenderers are members of a pre-approved panel of suppliers and may already be supplying goods or services to the university. Securing a place on such a panel is usually the product of a stringent bidding process in itself.

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For smaller opportunities, the university may simply issue a Request For Quote (RFQ) to a supplier panel, usually containing a non-price value component along with pricing.

For larger, complex bids, universities may issue a multi-stage tender to narrow down the number of potential suppliers. The stages generally comprise:

  1. An Expression Of Interest (EOI) or Request For Proposal (RFP). Tenderers are usually invited to confirm their compliance and proven capability/capacity to deliver goods and services, usually backed by three referees. The university will then compile a shortlist of suppliers they invite to proceed to the next stage.
  2. A Request For Tender (RFT) is then sent to the final selection of suppliers. The RFT is usually a comprehensive document containing specific questions that satisfy the university’s selection criteria and meet their detailed list of requirements. The package will often contain additional attachments such as draft deeds and contracts and auxiliary information that will help tenderers to tailor their offer to the needs of the university.

How to access tender documents

For open tenders, registration is almost always required.

Registration may be handled by the university itself through a procurement portal, or the tender admin function may be outsourced to a broker or tendering organisation.

Invited tenders will usually require suppliers to register their intention to tender ahead of documents being released.

Universities can also list tender opportunities using third-party commercial ‘tender search’ organisations, which usually require potential bidders to register and pay for a notification service.

Top tips on how to impress

Put the university first. Due to the nature of the questions, a tender may feel like an opportunity to talk solely about ourselves. However, behind every university RFT is a series of business needs.

A tender that links responses back to satisfying those requirements does more than impress: it demonstrates genuine empathy and understanding for the buyer. Focusing on the university and on the benefits your solution will deliver to them will put you nearer the top of the shortlist.

Be clear and accurate. Tenders that are well-written and neatly laid out are easy to review against selection criteria. Keep sentences short using plain English. Break ideas into paragraphs. Use subheadings, bullet points and tables. And always spell-check before
submission.

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Back your statements with proof. Unqualified claims ring hollow, but evidence carries considerable weight. Use data, case studies, testimonials, quotations and photographs to back up the statements you make.

Use pictures. Visual aids can simplify the complex and make your offer memorable. Use diagrams, photographs, screenshots and infographics to ensure your key messages have the most impact, underscoring benefits to the university in each caption.

Hire talent. Tender consultants can assess your bid and offer suggestions for improvement. Bid writers can ensure that your final edit is buyer-focused, benefit-led and persuasive. Graphic designers with tender experience can turn complex concepts into infographics and product a tender template that aids readability and exudes professionalism.

Anything special that universities look out for?

As with any other large organisation, a university is looking for suppliers that will reduce their risk, improve their profitability and align with their values. Many, therefore, will want to perform credit and referee checks and examine risk management policies, health and safety procedures, environmental management practices, sustainability and privacy statements and a tenderer’s insurance covers.

Can you expect feedback on unsuccessful tenders?

Many universities do offer debriefs to unsuccessful tenderers, although they are not obligated to do so. Requesting a debrief after an unsuccessful tender is often a positive experience. Besides discovering the weak points of your bid, your willingness to take on the feedback will demonstrate your appetite for a future relationship with the university and will help you with future approaches.

Remember that the university will only share feedback on your bid, not on those of your competitors, although they may share the successful bid price and the reasons they selected the winning supplier.

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Should you stay in contact and apply for future tenders after a failed bid?

Naturally, if the university flags an issue that prevents them from awarding you a future tender, it would be damaging to continue to bid until that issue is overcome. However, maintaining close contact with the university is a must.

Most universities will not buy products and services from a business unless they have a relationship in place already. Best practice bidding involves maintaining a good relationship with buyers outside of the RFT process.

Having a good relationship as a supplier (or potential supplier) will mean that you are front-of-mind when it comes to the next opportunity.