Selling to the city of Mississauga can be lucrative, but the complicated process can lead to mistakes and discouragement if companies don’t understand everything, according to manager, Materiel Management Marlene Knight.
In charge of corporate policy, advice, and administration, Knight said the first problem many small and mid-sized businesses have with requests-for-proposals (RFPs) is figuring out who to talk to. “Go to the city website and buildings and see what they do,” she said. “Know where to sell your project to the city.”
Knight said she sees many common mistakes in her department concerning high-value procurements, including bad math in bids due to a poor price schedule, lateness and sloppy writing. “It might be corrected not in their favour,” she said. “And sometimes the same numbers have to be written or inserted in two places.”
Knight said it’s also clear many bidders haven’t read the bid document closely enough to take constraints or minimum requirements into consideration. “All the words in there matter,” she said. “We put it in, we mean it. It’s not just a frivolous piece of data, that’s what we want.”
Knight recommended potential bidders to phone the bid contact (the city buyer) about anything they don’t understand before they put forth their bid. “I can’t tell you the number of times after a bid has closed companies call up and complain that we did something they didn’t like or didn’t agree with,” she said. “Too bad. If you submitted the bid, you bought into the process.”
Knight said it’s also important to figure out the structure of the bid, for example if it has separate components. If they don’t, successfully winning a bid can have serious financial consequences, like in the case where a company ended up being forced into a contract and lost money. “When you make a bid, you’re committing,” she said. “ You’re in. You don’t get to back out.”
On the big tenders, Knight said companies are expected to be “big boys or big girls” and be prepared. She said qualifications are scored, some additional parameters could be pass/fail and sometimes minimums must be met in order to even qualify to make a bid. “If we use the word mandatory, we mean it,” she said. “And it can be thrown out if you’re caught lobbying during the bid process.”
For companies looking at small or mid-size city contracts, Knight encourages them to make inquiries to the proper city departments early in the year when funding is available. She also recommended working with smaller governments first to gain experience and navigate the process more easily.
Knight also wants companies to continue making bids even after they’ve lost. “Don’t take it personally,” she said. “We want them to be around, be in good shape and keep bidding because we value competition.”
Knight stressed that the system is not set up as an “us versus them” situation. The city is a potential customer and all specifications call for at least three suppliers. She also expressed the city of Mississauga has no preference for local or Canadian companies.
Once a company had successfully gone through the bidding process, however, Knight had some strong, but simple advice. “If you get a contract,” she said, “Do what it says.”