Bids and proposals

How to create strong tender responses with subject matter experts

11 minute read

As a bid writer, you can sometimes feel like a jack-of-all-trades. You have to turn your skills to many things.

There’s identifying clients’ key challenges and matching these to your solution, writing persuasively, collaborating, knowing your sector or industry – and the list goes on. You could even be a master of some of these.

But you can’t be an expert on every aspect of your business’s activity. A buyer can always ask for more detail than you have or pose a new question, whether that’s on the finer points of your product specifications or how you recruit and retain staff.

That’s when you need to call on the expertise of the people whose responsibility it is to do or think about this stuff on a daily basis: the subject matter experts (SMEs).

Your SMEs have a hugely important part to play in the bidding process. Their knowledge and insights can help to reinforce your credibility, keep you compliant or even provide the pivotal points that tip the bid scoring in your favour.

But there’s an art to getting the best out of your SMEs, and challenges to face along the way. You may work in the same industry, but in terms of your daily work, you come from different worlds.

This article is about how to bridge that divide. Try these seven steps to successfully engaging with your SMEs and producing stand-out, authoritative responses.


1. Identify and approach the right people

It may sound obvious, but make sure you approach the right people in the first place. You don’t want to waste the SMEs’ precious time – or your own.

Even if you’ve sought expertise in a particular area before, be prepared to deal with someone different or new. Naturally, people may leave or change jobs internally. Your organisation could have only recently recruited an expert in the specific area you need help with.

An up-to-date organogram is a good starting point, if you have access to one. If you’re not sure who to approach, or the input you’re after seems to cut across different job titles, start with a manager or department head. They’ll be able to direct you to the best person. Having managers engaged in the process can also help to get the ball rolling with reluctant SMEs.

If you subcontract significant or niche elements of your product or service, the SME you need may be outside your organisation. It’s a good idea to prime subcontractors ahead of time that you may need their input on future bids – or even write it into formal agreements. After all, being part of successful tenders benefits them too.


2. Help SMEs see the value they provide

You face two particularly big challenges when it comes to engaging with SMEs to produce responses. One: they already have a busy day job and bidding is almost certainly not part of it. And two: being so distant from the tender process can mean they may not feel especially invested in the results.

Some will embrace being asked for their input, especially those who have already made the link between winning business and the health of the wider organisation. They may have contributed to bids before and enjoyed the opportunity to showcase their particular skills or discipline.

But for others in stressful, high-demand roles, being asked to contribute to a tender submission can feel like an unwanted distraction.

As a former journalist, I’ve found treating SMEs as you would a valuable contact is an effective approach. You want as many reliable ones as possible covering as many subject areas as possible. And when you find a really good one, cultivate that relationship for all it’s worth.

Make it clear from the start why their contribution is important to your bid response and how it fits into the whole. Also emphasise why the bid is a priority to the wider business and what value or new opportunities it brings.

To get ahead of the game, consider running short ‘Introduction to bidding’ workshops for different teams or departments. Let staff see what a tender looks like, the sorts of questions you’re asked, the deadlines you’re up against. Show them what successful tendering means to the business (and them) financially. Take questions, and take an interest in their work. Start building relationships.

Sometimes, you’ll be lucky enough to come across an SME who goes above and beyond – that prime contact. When you do, try and find a way for that contribution to be acknowledged more widely.

It might be possible to quote them in the bid, especially if they have received a particular academic qualification or industry-related award. More usually, alongside thanking them personally, let their line manager know what an asset they’ve been to the bid. This feedback should get back to them in appraisals and supervision.

Providing that sort of recognition is the right thing to do. The bonus is it’ll probably also mean that the SME will be happier to help when you need them again.


3. Make it as easy as possible

As we’ve noted, contributing to bids probably wasn’t an explicit requirement in your SMEs’ job descriptions. They will have important and often demanding roles of their own within the organisation.

You’re more likely to get quality input if you don’t add to their burden unnecessarily. Here are some simple ways you can make life easier for your SMEs and help them make a valuable contribution:

  • Avoid demanding deadlines – give your SME as much lead-in time as possible so they can more easily factor the time into their schedules.
  • Be crystal clear and specific about what you’re asking for. Don’t just email over the bare questions and sit back waiting for them to return with hundreds of words of insightful and beautifully crafted copy.
  • If you’re looking for input as part of a longer question, make that clear, highlighting the specific sections they should look at.
  • Provide as much guidance as you can. The SME will be more likely to engage positively if they feel supported – and what you get back is far more likely to be usable. Set out the:
    • audience – it always helps if your writer can imagine who will be reading their response
    • context – share bid-planning documents such as question storyboards (with the relevant sections of the specification) and the bid summary (detailing the specifics of the contract)
    • win themes – encourage the SME to link their specialism with the USPs you are pushing in the bid.


And if you can, share previous responses. This is not just to show them what’s been written previously (and where their expertise could improve it) but also to act as a guide to answering questions. So be sure to choose examples with the kind of tone, language and format you want them to emulate.


4. Provide clear writing guidance

I always say, with the greatest respect to both groups: bid writers aren’t subject experts and SMEs aren’t bid writers. They may be proficient writers, but bid writing is its own discipline. An SME’s technical skill set and writing style isn’t always going to be compatible with the clear and persuasive copy you need for a non-expert audience.

This sort of copy calls for simple language that a reviewer (including you, of course) can understand without a relevant PhD. Where technical detail is required, it will still need explaining in lay terms.

Most SMEs will welcome as much guidance as possible. If you have a style guide, supply it with the question. If you haven’t got one and you work with SMEs regularly, it’s a good idea to create one. (Here’s our own style guide, The Write Stuff, if you’d like a place to start.)

Good general advice you can pass on is to keep sentences short and within a word limit (we say no more than 35 words). Ask them to use the active voice more than the passive. Suggest a clear structure for their response, with headings to guide them through the process.

Though this advice may seem simple, remember: the more readable writing is, the more persuasive it will be.

Need expert input on a tender response? These seven steps will help you get the best out of busy SMEs, via @EmphasisWriting Share on X


5. Consider meeting in person or online

If your SME is simply too busy to sit down and write or clearly nervous about being asked to write at all, be ready to meet them halfway. This includes going through the questions with them to gather the material you need to write up the answer yourself.

Set up a face-to-face meeting or video call to run through the questions and make notes. And get their permission to record the meeting. This will not only save you taking copious notes but also create a comfortable interview-style setting, which can yield unexpected gems or great verbatim quotes.

Ask if they’ve got any existing material that covers what you need that can be adapted to save time. These could be, for example, PowerPoint presentations, proposals or explainer documents aimed at specific internal or external audiences.

Send them the same preparatory information you would if you were asking them to write the response themselves. That way, they’ll have a grasp of the question and what you need from them before you meet.

Be clear about how much of their time you think you’ll need. Once an SME gets into the flow on their chosen subject, they often stop watching the clock.

Do your homework too, even if it is just being clear in your own mind what you need to get from them. It’s always good to have some questions prepared. You’re asking them to take an interest in what you do – it’s only polite to reciprocate.

And don’t be afraid to ask them to clarify points and break down concepts as simply as possible, as if they were explaining it to a stranger or a child. This will help to make sure you can express what they say with total accuracy and clarity.

Finally, offer to let them review your draft – they’ll usually say they want to! This will be to check it for anything you might have misinterpreted or misunderstood. They should also check you’ve used the right data, references and acronyms.


6. Give clear, constructive feedback

If you’ve edited your SME’s own copy, don’t just make changes and never show them. Instead, take them through the edits or send the edited response back to them, explaining what you amended and why.

When the result of the bid comes in, take the time to go through the scores and feedback with them too.

This will give them a better idea of what buyers look for in their subject area, what they were particularly keen on, what they didn’t respond to and anything they felt was missing.

Following up like this should lead to stronger responses next time round.


7. Capture content for another time

If your SME-generated answer scores really well, treat it like gold dust and store it in your bid library or bid database.

Having quality answers at your fingertips will save everyone starting from scratch next time. And when you go back to your SME later using their previous response as your guide, they’ll see how you valued their input. It’s all part of cultivating those key contacts.

Absolute best practice, especially if you have someone who is enthusiastic and interested in the bid process itself, is to ask them to create template copy for future bids.

Ask them to answer previous bid questions which need improvement or questions you’ve created yourself. You can follow the same process we’ve covered above – with the added bonus of longer deadlines. If any of your SMEs can be persuaded to do this, it could save you and them considerable time in future.

If you run SME bid-writing workshops, ask your participants to write example responses as an exercise. This can produce content you can use straight away, as well as helping you identify the right SMEs for different areas of expertise.

And if you have a bid library, make a note in there of SME-generated responses, including who wrote what. That way, you’ll know who to go back to with a similar question or to review future responses.


Invest in your SMEs

It can be difficult to persuade an SME that they should down tools and devote hours to helping you with a tender. They may see business development as something far removed from their own role and the value they can offer.

But by persuading them of the importance of their contribution, making the process as painless as possible and leaving them feeling like the star in the room, you’ll have the makings of an invaluable asset.


Image credit: fotogestoeber / Shutterstock


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Tom is an experienced bid writer and consultant, as well as a former journalist, communications director and press consultant.

Before going freelance, he was a senior bid writer for social enterprise Turning Point, where he led on successful bids worth over £10 million annually.

In his journalism days, he regularly wrote for The Times, Telegraph and Guardian. These days, his copywriting skills help him share his bid-writing expertise on the Emphasis Knowledge Hub. He is also one of our bid consultants.

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