Is allowing the customer the latitude to do this a good practice, and if so what verbiage can I possible recommend that they use?
As you mentioned in our phone conversation, you are concerned about vendor quotes for supplies or services bought under FAR 13, Simplified Acquisition Procedures. Your customer frequently e-mails potential vendors to request a price quote. The quotes are used to support market research efforts and are not used by the customer or the contracting office to actually acquire the item.
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You should advise your customer to use catalog, on-line, historical prices as much as possible. Sending a potential vendor a request for a quote in an e-mail could be confusing to the vendor. They could assume that they were receiving an actual order. If your customer continue to use this method, please ensure that they state that the request for a price quote is for planning purposes only, that this is not a formal RFQ issued by a contracting officer, and that they (the customer) have no authority to obligate the government for payment. I would also recommend that they ask for a price "estimate", not a quote. Another area which should cause you concern is if you suspect any unfair competitive advantage given to one contractor. If the customer is developing a PWS specification requirement or a set of quotes specifically to favor one contractor, there would be an unfair competitive advantage.
You can read FAR 9.505 to get a better understanding unfair competitive advantage - http://farsite.hill.af.mil/vffara.htm
Your agency may have its reasons, but it is also clear in FAR 10.001 (a) (2) that customer market research isn’t encouraged for acquisitions valued less than the simplified acquisition threshold. Ask your contracting officer why you are requesting this information from your customer. Show him/her the regulation. You might ask your customer to do market research in order to prevent bundling, ensure competition among small business, or to understand the commercial practices, but I’m not certain why you need to get prices from your customers.
As to your specific question regarding what market research techniques you should recommend to your customer, please use "10.002 (b) (2) Techniques for conducting market research". I have included it at the bottom of this answer.
a) Agencies must --
(1) Ensure that legitimate needs are identified and trade-offs evaluated to acquire items that meet those needs;
(2) Conduct market research appropriate to the circumstances --
(i) Before developing new requirements documents for an acquisition by that agency;
(ii) Before soliciting offers for acquisitions with an estimated value in excess of the simplified acquisition threshold;
(iii) Before soliciting offers for acquisitions with an estimated value less than the simplified acquisition threshold when adequate information is not available and the circumstances justify its cost;
(iv) Before soliciting offers for acquisitions that could lead to a bundled contract (15 U.S.C. 644(e)(2)(A));
(v) Before awarding a task or delivery order under an indefinite-delivery-indefinite-quantity (ID/IQ) contract (e.g., GWACs, MACs) for a noncommercial item in excess of the simplified acquisition threshold (10 U.S.C. 2377(c)); and
(vi) On an ongoing basis, take advantage (to the maximum extent practicable) of commercially available market research methods in order to effectively identify the capabilities of small businesses and new entrants into Federal contracting, that are available in the marketplace for meeting the requirements of the agency in furtherance of—
10.002 (b) (2) Techniques for conducting market research may include any or all of the following:
(i) Contacting knowledgeable individuals in Government and industry regarding market capabilities to meet requirements.
(ii) Reviewing the results of recent market research undertaken to meet similar or identical requirements.
(iii) Publishing formal requests for information in appropriate technical or scientific journals or business publications.
(iv) Querying the Governmentwide database of contracts and other procurement instruments intended for use by multiple agencies available at https://www.contractdirectory.gov/contractdirectory/ and other Government and commercial databases that provide information relevant to agency acquisitions.
(v) Participating in interactive, on-line communication among industry, acquisition personnel, and customers.
(vi) Obtaining source lists of similar items from other contracting activities or agencies, trade associations or other sources.
(vii) Reviewing catalogs and other generally available product literature published by manufacturers, distributors, and dealers or available on-line.
(viii) Conducting interchange meetings or holding presolicitation conferences to involve potential offerors early in the acquisition process.