Asking Clearer Questions

Why unclear questions matter

Bidders submitting unclear questions about RFPs to clients risk getting back nonsense answers or not getting what they actually wanted.  But as a simple story illustrates, asking clear questions is hard.

The example

“How much do you want to golf when you’re here?”

On the extension, I thought, “Uh oh, there’s a problem.”  What might it be?  Let me count the ways it might be a problem:

  • It will be expensive for our host to rent clubs.
  • It will be hard for our host to book tee times.
  • It will be rude to leave behind the non-golfers.

In short, I heard this question as this: How badly do you want to golf when you’re here?

The person who responded, however, heard a different question — to wit: How often do you want to golf when you’re here? — and answered accordingly.

Who heard aright?  Not me.

How to do better – Tactic #1

Dramatically improve the odds that the client will hear the question aright by giving some context for the question that explains the point of confusion or concern:

Don’t say this: Please clarify requirement A.

Instead, say this:  We see requirement A and requirement H as mutually contradictory, because of such-and-so. Therefore, we ask that you either clarify these requirements to remove the potential confusion between them, or eliminate one of them.

How to do better – Tactic #2

Review your question for words with more than one meaning. Consider the situation when the SOW states that the Contractor must perform a given task every week.  If you want the client to reduce task frequency, then . . .

Don’t say this:  Would you consider dropping requirement X?

Instead, say this:  Executing this task weekly will be prohibitively expensive.  In our experience, executing this task monthly is sufficient for safety (or whatever purpose).  We therefore request that requirement X be changed to reduce the task frequency to once/month.