Bids and proposals

Nine ways to win more work with your bids

8 minute read

In sport, there’s often a fine line between being hailed as the champ or dubbed an also-ran. For every Olympic 10,000m gold medallist there were probably dozens of potential champions. But no matter. Whoever crosses the line first, even by a fraction of a second, takes the spoils.

Coming out on top is often about good preparation and the little things your competitors failed to take into account. It’s the same when bidding for work. And you probably know from experience that the competition to edge ahead can be as fierce there as on the race track.

So here are nine ways you can get your nose in front to consistently be the champ, and not end up an also-ran chump.


1. Write fewer bids

Ironically, it’s sometimes easier to win more work by focusing your energies on fewer bids and tenders. Alarm bells should be ringing if you find yourself winging it when answering half a dozen key questions in an invitation to tender (ITT) or pre-qualification questionnaire (PQQ).

Newcomers, especially, can be tempted to bid for contracts that don’t actually suit their capabilities. So concentrate on the bids and tenders where you are most likely to succeed. (Want to know exactly how to identify the best bids to pursue? Check out this post and get a free 12-page bid/no-bid worksheet.)


2. Get under their skin …

… in a good way, of course.

When you do identify a suitable opportunity, ask yourself this crucial question: how can I find out what the potential client really wants?

Sometimes it’s obvious. A good ITT will make their priorities clear from the outset. Sadly, the reality is that most are poorly written. For example, you may need to read carefully to spot key needs that aren’t even mentioned in a list of ‘essential requirements’.

In any case, always broaden your research beyond the ITT to get the bigger picture of what matters to them right now. Check out their website, news stories about them and blog posts by the CEO.

And if you are looking to renew ongoing business with a customer, speak to your sales team or client relationship managers. They’re best placed to give you crucial insights into the challenges the client faces, or their preferred method of working.


3. Put your win themes in the spotlight

Once you understand your potential client, focus on the factors most likely to win you their business – your ‘win themes’.

For example, your prospect might be an eco-friendly organic food producer looking for a supplier of cardboard packaging. Your win theme here may be that you source all your cardboard products via certified sustainable forest management. Use every relevant opportunity to drive home that message, such as in the executive summary, case studies and even in project team CVs.

It’s vital to back up win themes with facts, though. In the case above, this might be how many trees you’ve had planted, or how you helped another client achieve their carbon emissions target six months early.


4. Remember it’s not about you

Win themes are firmly focused on the client’s needs. And your entire bid or tender should be, too. It’s easy to come out all guns blazing, singing the praises of your own organisation – but doing that’s likely to just alienate the reader.

Far better to make it clear, early on, that you understand their issues and needs. And when referring to the features of your product or service, make clear the benefits for that particular client at the same time.

So, avoid the old-school, in-your-face sales pitch approach. And adopting the right tone can be crucially important in other ways, too.


5. Keep it positive

A delegate on one of our bid-writing courses couldn’t understand why so many of their submissions for event-management contracts met with only a lukewarm response, and ultimately a rejection. He told us: ‘We know we can match our competitors on price. We have masses of experience, too, and plenty of good case studies to back us up.’

A review of their ITT responses revealed the root of the problem – a worryingly negative vibe. Statements such as ‘We believe we can deliver the contract to a satisfactory standard’ were unlikely to inspire confidence. Better to use positive phrases such as ‘We will ensure that …’ and a stronger adjective than a mere ‘satisfactory’. Likewise, they referred to ‘trying to’ or ‘aiming to’ achieve goals, rather than saying there were ‘confident’ of doing so.

And when describing a prospective client, avoid being overly deferential in a way that is likely to make them cringe (‘We would be honoured to build a relationship with your prestigious research establishment …’). It can sound like you feel lucky to even be in with a chance of working with them. They’re going to be putting their trust in you. So it’s far better to position yourself as an equal or high-level adviser.

Remember, too, that referring to competitors is generally frowned upon in bid writing as much as in other areas of sales, and with good reason. For one thing, your response should be strong enough to sell itself, without taking potshots at the opposition. (Plus, do you really want to give over valuable space in your bid to name-checking alternative suppliers?)


6. Favour simple over waffle

It can be tempting to include everything you can think of when responding to a question in an ITT, in the vain hope that your singularly comprehensive answer will impress the reader. That’s rarely the best idea.

Let’s look at two potential responses from a reader’s point of view.

Question: ‘What are your proposed delivery timescales?’
Answer 1: ‘Four months.’
Answer 2: ‘Given the emphasis you have placed on achieving your ambitions within a relatively short timeframe, we have carried out an in-depth assessment of the global effects of leveraging the synergies we can achieve through our involvement in this project. This substantive evaluation has given us the confidence to predict a delivery period of 16 weeks, in line with your expectations.’

The first answer is straightforward and its lack of waffle makes the writer sound more confident. Only give detail that’s helpful to the reader, using clear, concise language that avoids unnecessary jargon.

Remember, though, that it can sometimes help to mirror some of the language the prospective client appears comfortable with – they may refer to ‘service users’ rather than ‘customers’, for example. In which case, you should too.


7. Help them to help you

Where the bidding process allows it, do communicate with prospective clients. It can help you build a rapport with them. And don’t be afraid to seek clarification on important points, such as budget.

Doing so, far from being a sign of weakness, will show your dedication to genuinely fulfilling their needs. It will also give you a chance to build your working relationship even before they hire you. (Note though that in formal tender processes, both questions and responses from the client may well be made public to all suppliers tendering.)


8. Beware of ‘the stupids’

Your submission is finished ahead of the deadline. You’ve even double-checked it against a compliance matrix to make sure you’ve included a solution for everything the ITT asked for. Almost time then to breathe a sigh of relief and get on with all those everyday tasks you’ve had to put off.

But not so fast. It’s so easy to blow it in the final stages.

First, watch out for silly mistakes that undermine your credibility. Years ago, we were working closely with a key decision-maker whose role at the time was to award contracts to run entire rail franchises. As you can imagine, such decisions are far from simple and involve assessing a huge amount of technical detail. Yet he told us that his first action when assessing any bid was to quickly leaf through it and circle silly mistakes, which he called the ‘stupids’. These could include, say, instances where the writer had made a common spelling mistake in the name of a station. (For example, writing ‘Bridgewater’ instead of ‘Bridgwater’, when referring to the town in Somerset, UK.) Though these might seem trivial, collectively they call into question just how well the supplier knows the area.

He and his colleagues would take the total number of silly mistakes into account when weighing up competing bids.

In fact, his non-orthodox technique has a sound basis in social psychology. That’s because we are all hard-wired to look for cues that suggest we would be wise not to put all our trust in what we’re reading. The cues we rely on most (even if we do so unconsciously) include those that are easy for the people we’re assessing to get wrong if they don’t know what they’re doing. Failing to spell key place names correctly is a good example.

The impact of stupids may be far greater than you think, as they can lead decision-makers to quickly lose confidence in your document and, by default, you and your organisation.

So, ensure your document has been edited carefully and then proofread properly. Pay particularly close attention to the executive summary – a stupid mistake there really can make all the hard work of putting a bid together utterly futile.


9. Don’t fall at the final hurdle

Finally, presentation. It’s more important than you may think. Your document needs to look approachable and professional – and be sure to check for any specific requirements such as the number of copies they need and whether the bid or proposal should be bound.

And if you submit your bid electronically, do make sure it’s been safely received. After all, it’s impossible to win a new piece of business if you actually fail to deliver your bid at all.


Try these nine steps to finish first

It’s a competitive world out there, and in sales – unlike in sport – there’s no prize for coming second. But apply these nine steps to all your bids and tenders, and you will be odds-on for a win every time.


Image credit: Halfpoint / Shutterstock


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Doug is a journalist, sub-editor and copywriter with 20 years’ experience in getting words to work as effectively as possible. He's worked on national newspapers including the Guardian, The Evening Standard, The Daily Telegraph, The Times and The Sun.

He's also one of our expert business-writing trainers and our lead course developer. He's helped clients as diverse as London Business School, Airbus, Deutsche Bank and Aon to make more of an impact with everything they write.

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