Winning bids: well begun is half done
David Yeoward examines problems in the procurement process
We’ve all been there. A bid process kick off meeting convened at least a week after the invitation to tender (ITT) has landed. No one has prepared – and it turns into a form of Russian roulette to identify who’ll lead the team. Everybody knows it shouldn’t be like this. Mutual assurances that it won’t happen again relieve the guilty parties’ consciences. But then it does. Why? Excuses range from levels of busy-ness to: ‘that’s the way we do things round here’ – but the real reasons are two-fold, and inter-linked. First, despite the prevalence of competitive tenders as a source of work, too few professional service firms recognise executing them as part of the day job and a core skill for fee earning staff. And second, as a result, there is little or no process followed.
To the people who don’t see bids as fundamental to their day job – good luck. The world has been changing for some time. It’s not too late for you to change too, but it could be. Soon.
In response to the second reason – no process – many firms have a bid process, some even train people in it. But too few keep each other honest and stick to the process, even though they know they should. So what should you do, and why?
- Acknowledge receipt. Get in touch with the prospect as quickly as possible and thank them for the invitation. Ask for clarification of the reasons why the ITT has been issued, decision-makers and their criteria, any gaps or contradictions in the ITT and other information which will help you put together the right team and a winning bid. If you aren’t sure whether you will actually bid or not, explain that you are in the process of making sure that your firm can give the prospect everything they are asking for and more. All of this shows the prospect that you take their invitation seriously, are keen to work with them (even if you end up not bidding) and that you are generally very responsive. Already, you are giving them a positive flavour for what it will be like to work with your firm.
- Bid or no bid? Evaluating every ITT in a structured way, using a variety of qualitative and quantitative measures, will help you to an objective indication of your chances of winning. If you decide to bid, one of the by-products of this step in the process is likely to be a first pass at your value proposition or win themes. The easiest way to improve your win rate is by ‘no bidding’ in situations where your chances of winning are remote. While there may be good reasons to bid, even if you don’t expect to win, getting these down on paper is a useful reminder when you are doing the post-mortem as to why you lost.
- Kick-off meeting. Again, a well-structured kick off meeting moves your bid forward because it is designed with a number of outputs in mind including roles and responsibilities, a comprehensive project plan, further work on key messages, and next steps – both in relation to the prospect and internally. Bidding is time consuming if done properly, and more so if not. A structured, well-attended kick off meeting establishes mutual expectations within the team – and a set of activities and deadlines which can obviate the over-runs and lost weekends of an effort without structure.
Too often, these three steps happen in the wrong order, get conflated or, in the worst cases, don’t happen at all. The most common version is a combined kick off meeting and bid/no bid discussion, followed by a call to the prospect to acknowledge the ITT and perhaps ask for some clarifications. In this instance, if you are competing against a firm which follows best practice rigorously and acknowledged the ITT on receipt, you’re probably a week behind them in making contact with the prospect. This creates a terrible first impression, and any explanations of why it has taken you so long to get in touch are likely to come across as lame excuses for lackadaisical behaviour.Worse still are the firms who confirm they’ll participate, don’t have a bid or no bid evaluation – and get started with the various strains of bid activity in silos – fee earners meet with the prospect, while the supporting team (more junior staff or the firm’s bid team) start writing the proposal document. This approach guarantees bid hell. At some point, the fee earners, who now know what the prospect actually wants, will collide with a document written in isolation – and often with large amounts of text recycled from the last winning bid. Boom. It’s these situations in which the importance of the document and amount of time spent on it get totally out of proportion, any semblance of ’team’ goes out of the window – and the chances of winning are further reduced, because you’re all hating the bid – and each other – at a time when you should already be preparing to deliver a killer pitch presentation.
Put yourself in the buyer’s shoes: whether your favourite lunch venue is The Ritz or Burger King, a key component of your enjoyment is down to process; everybody working to the same format to deliver a consistent experience no matter who is involved, and without descending into tears or recriminations. Your bids can be tear- and recrimination-free too – but only if you follow a process.
David Yeoward is co-founding partner of Never Second Services LLP, specialising in providing hands-on support to professional services firms involved in competitive tenders, as well as collaborating with clients to develop proposal processes that are founded on best practice while reflecting their markets, client-base and firm culture: neversecond.co.uk