To Bid or Not to Bid: That is the question

Most sound contractors get at least some of their work through competitive bidding. But responding to bid requests is tedious and time-consuming work that often turns out to be wasteful. So the question is when should we make the effort? I respectfully submit: Rarely, if ever. System specifications in bid requests are too often written by consultants under time pressure or other duress, resulting in errors and ambiguities that take time to clear up. Sometimes the spec is written as much as a year before it goes out for bid, at which time some of the specified equipment is no longer available, requiring substitution, which can create problems. Other times, the consultant has not pre-qualified the bidders so the bid request is sent out to the immediate world, asking the respondents to qualify themselves by detailing their own qualifications.

Presumably, the owner, with the consultant’s help, sifts out the bidders he considers qualified then chooses among them. If there are ten bidders, and half of them are qualified, you have at best a one-in-five chance of winning. The problem is that the owner isn’t qualified to sift. And the consultant can get snowed, too. On paper anyone can be made to look good. So your chance of winning in this case is more likely one-in-ten. Are such odds acceptable? The consultant should choose the bidders to start with. If there is no consultant and the owner wants to play this game unassisted then he should do his homework and find several qualified prospective bidders by asking around. One recently received bid spec asked for the names of owner, architect, general contractor and the project cost of every job done during the past three years. Another wanted that kind of detail on five “similar” jobs done in the recent past. A third wanted an itemized equipment list with the price of every component.

They also requested a detailed breakdown of projected labor costs and time-line schedule for the project. All this before the job is awarded, mind you. Maybe responding to such requests is considered by some to be fun or a challenge even. Or necessary by others. A contractor with a good name and enough business to get along should see it as not the way to get good work. Good as in profitable, hassle-free, long-term client relationship. Bid only if you have nothing else to do and need to feel busy. Sometimes the request for bid contains only general recommendations, saying something like: “ One rack cabinet by manufacturer A, B or C, with suitable amplifiers of brand D, E, or F, and loudspeaker clusters made by G, H or I.” Not even the quantity of components is specified, never mind the desired sound pressure level or amplifier power requirements. This means that the bidder must actually design their system for free. Who, pray tell, will get to choose the winning system and on what basis? Do you really think it will be the best system? So it won’t be your system. So why bother bidding? Despite most bid requests’ advice such as: “The objective is not to be the lowest bid, but provide the system that delivers the highest degree of function and quality vs. price.” fact is they’re going to go with the lowest price.

If that was not the case, the owner would have asked the consultant to pick some qualified contractors and then choose among them based on criteria such as which one has the biggest ears, or the most hair or which one might be most easily persuaded to throw in some extras.

Using silly criteria such as these, the owner would still end up with a better job in the end than playing with the numbers, as they mostly do. In the late seventies we bid on a well designed mobile disco system for a college in Albany. At that time we were as knowledgeable and experienced in that particular specialty as anyone anywhere, and also hungry. We traveled all over, designing discos and showing others how to do it. So I figured they came to the right place. I bid carefully, checking and rechecking the figures. Really thought we would win this. Instead the job went to a photo shop in Albany for a price that was lower than my equipment cost alone. I called the buyer and asked all kinds of questions. He didn’t tell me anything meaningful. That’s when I first realized that there was more to the bidding process than appeared on the surface and decided to think twice before bidding in future. Nothing about bidding has changed since then, nor have I changed my mind. In the eighties we bid on a paging system for a City sanitation garage. We bid because I wanted to be a good citizen by not denying the City of my expertise. An error was made in the arithmetic by failing to multiply the amplifier cost by seven because seven amplifiers were needed. The error was brought to the attention of the buyer the day after the bid was mailed, in writing and in detail. Our bid was thrown out and the winning bidder, who made a similar mistake, won the job at a loss he never recouped.

The City, like everyone else going for bids, merely aims for the lowest price. Who cares how the price is arrived at. In fact, it’s not uncommon for the winning bid to be the result of an error on the part of the bidder. All it takes is to leave something out inadvertently, which is easy to do. Do you think a sound contractor is going to do his best on a job he realizes he will lose money on? That’s one reason so many bid sound systems work poorly or are incomplete. In the nineties three qualified bidders, without collusion, bid within 10% of each other on a $40,000 church project, but the owner said all the prices were too high and negotiated a reduced scope contract with one of the other bidders. That’s after I spent two half days at site meetings plus three days working on the bid response to a detailed 50-page specification. I remember that the bidding document specified the desired angle of the beveled edge of the engraved brass XLR mic jack plates. Four days’ work for what?

Despite a consultant’s best effort, I don’t believe it’s possible to specify a project in such a way that the low bidder turns out the best job. Although all the consultants I know are honest, smart, conscientious and write well, a specification hasn’t been written that fully addresses the science, art and business aspects of a sound system project. The job must therefore be awarded on a basis other than the specification, and it usually is, thank God. Since the client pays the consultant to fully design the system, the consultant has a pretty good idea of the total cost, which he needs not to hide from his client. The consultant also knows, or knows how to find out, which contractors are competent. He should pick several, any of which can do the job well, and let the client choose between them in any way he deems fit. Then negotiate the project with the contractor he has picked. The consultant, acting on behalf of his client, should continue looking over the contractor’s shoulder throughout the project because they speak the same language and two heads are better than one. Price should never be the basis for choosing the contractor. And price details of a system are irrelevant. If an automobile can be considered a system, does the car dealer tell you how much the steering wheel costs on the car you are contemplating buying? Do you know what portion of the car’s price the engine costs?

Unless you were considering buying only the steering wheel or the engine, why would you care about their costs. If the car dealer came highly recommended by a satisfied client, shouldn’t you trust him to deliver the car with the steering wheel and engine the car designer specified? The bidding process needlessly pits one contractor against another. The irony is that there is plenty of work around for all of us. Instead of wasting time competing we should be helping one another to get jobs and do good work. You do a good job on the project you’re working on now, enjoying your work. The satisfied client tells others about you. One of these others will call you one of these days to work on his project. You work. It’s nice. You live. You save some money. Your work improves, the jobs get nicer, you live better, you save more. You grow slowly but steadily. That’s how it works. If the growing is too slow for you, try another line of work, like marketing. Working sound contractors with proven track records are too much in demand to spend time in bidding, whose costs they must recoup from future clients.

So clients end up paying for the winning contractors’ bid efforts, while the losers merely sacrifice their time and effort to the bidding process. Having at various times played the roles of client, consultant, winning bidder and losing bidder, I can say that the typical bidding process is mostly a waste of time. The exceptions, and there are some, merely prove the rule.


Alex Rosner is President and founder of Rosner Custom Sound, Inc., a sound contracting firm in New York since 1967. He has contributed articles to this publication in the past.

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