The Final Countdown

It’s the middle of May, right at the height of competitive tendering season.

If you’re up to your armpits in multiple competitive submissions right now, you are probably running between three priorities; proposals that are still in start-up phase; proposals that are mid-stream; and proposals that are due tonight, or at least by 2pm Friday.

This week’s blog is all about what’s going on in the third camp.

Whenever the clock is ticking down to a tender deadline, with only seconds left to go, I hear Europe’s anthemic 1980 head-banger “The Final Countdown” in my head. (Those dudes sure did have fine heads of hair).

Even if you have only a tiny little bit of time left to go, there are three main things you can do polish your proposal and to help it to punch above its weight with evaluators:

  1. Write an Executive Summary (here's how to write a great one),
  2. Add benefit-based headings to visuals and text sections, and
  3. Edit to reduce your word count, and their cognitive load.     

Today we’re going to look at the second, and most overlooked, of these polishing techniques – adding benefit-based headings to your visuals and to break up sections of text.

Headings are a great opportunity to talk about the benefits of your offer, which can become lost in lengthy text. 

Most people completely miss this opportunity, instead titling each section something boring like ‘Our Team’ or ‘Our Approach’.

Don’t bury your best information where evaluators may not actually see it; use the headings to explain the customer benefit you are writing about. 

This is a great way to pull in ‘skim’ readers who may not read every word of the text, and is also the single quickest and easiest thing you can do to improve the persuasiveness of a proposal – even if you have very limited time left to complete it.

To illustrate this, let’s take a look at these two examples.

In a manufacturing tender, respondents were asked to summarise their short term goals.

Which works better as a heading to this section – Heading 1 or Heading 2?

Heading 1:      XYZ Printing’s short-term goals are to achieve greater production efficiency, improved financial returns, and faster delivery for our customers.

(The response goes on to explain each of these goals sequentially).

Heading 2:      XYZ’s investment plan will allow us to deliver ABC’s orders 25% faster than we could before.

XYZ’s short-term goals are to achieve greater production efficiency, improved financial returns, and faster delivery for our customers. 

To achieve these goals, we are investing $50 million in upgrading the packing and finishing lines in all our manufacturing plants over the next two years.

(The response goes on to explain how this will happen and the benefits to the customer).

Whenever I have used this example in my Master Class program, most people eventually agree on Heading 2 – even those who initially opt for Heading 1.

That’s because Heading 2 explains how our short-term goals will benefit the customer – and not just what we are going to do to benefit ourselves.

More purpose, less process

There’s always a nervous wait after you submit an important proposal. Will the customer ‘get it’? Will they like it? Have you made any horrible mistakes?
No matter how many boxes you tick, or how much the customer likes you, they’re still going to have to justify buying from you to someone else.
So one of the most important things you can do in your proposal is to help the customer to on-sell you to the people they will also need to convince.
Therefore, the key messages of your proposal must be so clear that anyone can explain them – even someone who doesn’t understand what you do, doesn’t have time to read the proposal in detail, and is distracted with other things at the time they read it. (Sounds like most customers to me).
In many organisations, there are a lot of complex processes that sit around the review of large bids and competitive tenders. These are important to achieve compliance and maximise evaluation score, and they can't be done at the last minute.
But what happens when you get to the end? How can you make sure that your proposal is the one that stands out and makes it to the top of the pile?
The best way to make sure your messages are coming through strongly enough is to get someone to give you feedback before you need to ship your proposal.
However, getting useful feedback isn’t easy, and the process is filled with potential land mines because we often have relationships with the people we are seeking feedback from.
For example, if you ask your partner, "Does my bum look big in this?" the correct answer is, of course, "No." It's the only answer that has the least chance of providing offence and of damaging the relationship, even if it isn’t entirely true.
Georgia Murch, author of Fixing Feedback, says there are four types of feedback, and not all of them are helpful:

  1. Praise is a personal, favourable judgment; it’s general and vague, and doesn’t encourage discussion. Praise is focused on the person, and based on opinions and feelings. Examples are “You did a great job!”, “Well done on that proposal”, or “Thanks so much for doing that”.
  2. Positive constructive feedback is information specific, issue focused and based on observation. It explains why you did a good job, why the proposal was good or why you are grateful for someone doing something. You now know what you can do next time to replicate this behaviour.  
  3. Negative constructive feedback is also objective, specific and non-judgmental, but this time it’s about what needs to improve. To be constructive, it’s not accusing, and focuses on outcomes - what you need to do better, or less of, and what you need to work on.
  4. Criticism is a personal, unfavourable judgment based on feelings and opinions. It has no examples, no specifics and is rude and unhelpful. 

Murch says criticism is often laced with the phrase “I'm just being honest” as an excuse to verbally assassinate someone. “No one likes you. Just being honest”.  "This proposal is terrible. Just being honest".

How to get constructive pre-submission feedback on your proposal

The ultimate judge of a proposal is the customer. But you can do a test run of their likely reaction first, by getting pre-submission feedback from an ‘unreasonable friend’.

An unreasonable friend is someone who wants to see you succeed, and is prepared to give you constructive feedback – both positive and negative. (As Oscar Wilde said, “True friends stab you in the front”).

It’s best if your unreasonable friend has never seen the proposal before.

Give it to them, with instructions to read it as if they were the customer. Reassure them that you’re simply after their reaction; you’re not asking for editing or proofreading, or for detailed written feedback.

Once they have read it, ask them a single question:

“Can you give me three reasons why you would choose us, based on reading this proposal?"

If they can, that’s great. Your job is done.

If they can’t, ask them to name the three things they most recall from reading the proposal.

You’ll discover where your proposal is too heavy on the technical details, at the expense of the key commercial messages you really want the buyer to remember – and you’ll know exactly where you need to improve.


How should you design and layout your proposals?

To win a proposal, you need a great offer. But how you present your offer is also important, because presentation has a big impact on how well your offer is received.

We get seven seconds to make a first impression and one-third of consumer purchasing decisions are based on packaging.

55% of the information we take in during a presentation is visual, and only 7% is text. A study by the Wharton Research Centre also showed that using visual slides in a presentation has a dramatic effect on message retention after 3 days – with 50% message retention for visual slides and only 10% for bullet points.

Proposals are, by definition, fairly complex documents. The key to presenting them well is to keep them simple, which helps the buyer to navigate the proposal and find the information they need.

Great proposal presentation begins with the tools you use to create your proposal layout.

Not all proposal tools are created equal. So let’s take a look at some commonly available tools you might use to create your proposal format; what they are, why they work, and when and how to use them.

Desktop publishing software, such as Adobe InDesign

The gold standard for proposal design and layout is to have a typesetter or professional graphic designer do it for you. If you've seen a beautifully designed proposal that is presented in multiple columns with icons and infographics, pull quotes, beautiful fonts, and high-end photographs, chances are it was designed by a professional using InDesign or similar.

Why it works:

Designers know how to get people to pay attention to the words on a page, and professionally designed proposals use all the tricks of magazine layout to do exactly that.

When to use it:

 In some industries, professional proposal design and layout is the norm. If you're in high-end professional services, construction, architecture, engineering and project management, or you are pitching for multi-million dollar contracts, this is the standard you should be looking towards and that you will probably be competing against.

If you're a smaller firm or you don't have in-house design resources, consider getting a professional designer to work on covers and page layouts for you. You may not have the time or the budget to get your proposals professionally designed every time, but this will definitely improve the overall presentation.

PowerPoint proposals

PowerPoint is built for presentations, but I'm increasingly seeing PowerPoint proposals used for proposals.        

Why it works:

PowerPoint works well for proposals because it’s designed for visuals, and not for text. There's not a lot of room on a PowerPoint slide, so it’s impossible to cram in too much writing, forcing you to stick to the point. You can do more with colour, you can do more with design and layout, and it's impossible for your proposal to get too long if you use this format.

When to use it:

PowerPoint proposals are ideal when you’re going to make your pitch in person first, and need to leave a PDF of the proposal as a reminder of what you discussed. They also work well in industries where you have a lot of visual evidence to illustrate your claims.

PowerPoint works best when you are directing the buying discussion, and you are free to design and layout the proposal in any way you want. It’s less useful for tender responses, where you need to stick to the buyer’s prescribed response format and templates.

Word Documents converted to PDF

Many organisations still use Word for the majority of proposals, particularly where there isn’t a centralised bid or tender team and/or there are many staff members who need to produce their own individual quotes or proposals.

Why it works:

Word is a valid way to format proposals. The key to getting Word proposals right is to have a nice clean template designed that looks modern, up to date, and fresh, allows you to insert (but not stretch or shrink) graphics, and leaves enough white space that you don’t end up overcrowding the text.

When to use it:

Word proposals, by definition, are available to almost everyone because Word software is loaded onto most computers. Because of this, they can all start to look the same, and it can be difficult to tinker too much with the design and layout of Word templates if you want the average Word user to be able to use them.

Word proposals are perfectly fine if you're responding to competitive tenders that have a lot of content, and when you don't have a lot of time to complete the proposal. Occasionally, in a competitive tender, you might need to submit a raw Word document (instead of a PDF) if the RFT requests this for audit purposes.


Excel proposals

Sometimes you will still see competitive tenders issued with an Excel template for the non-price criteria, as well as for the price criteria. This is a sure sign that price is really the most important factor, and that the request has been written by somebody who doesn't care very much about the words.

Why it works:

Unfortunately, when it comes to written content, it really doesn’t. Excel is exceptionally unfriendly when it comes to presenting any kind of text.

When to use it:

If you're unlucky enough to be faced with an Excel template in which you must complete a written proposal, keep your words to a minimum, make sure your formatting is easy to read, and make your responses short and to the point.

Which of these options are you using now? And how can you up your game?

For example, if you're currently working mostly with Word, consider how you can introduce some PowerPoint proposals.

In my Pimp My Proposals program, I’ve worked with organisations that use both, and that have seen a dramatic difference in the win rates of their PowerPoint proposals when compared to the Word-based ones.

If you're already using a combination of Word and PowerPoint, consider getting some professional design advice - particularly if this is an expectation in your industry, and your competitors are already doing this, because your proposals will seem amateurish by comparison.

Writing at the speed of sound

How fast do you think? A lot faster than you can talk, and definitely faster than you can type.

Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics and author of Thinking Fast and Slow, suggests that our ‘psychological present’ spans a window of about three seconds, during which we are capable of forming thoughts. By this calculation, we each have about 20,000 thoughts while we’re awake each day. Others, including neuroscientist Deepak Chopra, suggest that this number could be even higher – between 60,000 and 80,000 thoughts.

Blogger Andrew Dlugan analysed a series of TED talks and found that the average speaking rate was 163 words per minute.

And the average person can type only about 40 words per minute. The further you go in this reductionist game, the more frustrating it gets as your best thinking gets away from you.

While it may not be possible to capture every thought as soon as you have it, you can get pretty close - at least as close as the speed of sound. Here are three ways to supercharge your writing speed through harnessing the power of voice-to-text and transcription technologies.

Option 1 - Inbuilt voice-to-text software

Mac computers come with inbuilt voice-to-text software, which can be found by clicking on the System Preferences icon, then on Dictation and Speech. You can set up a shortcut key to jump straight into Dictation while you’re in a document or email program - my shortcut is to hit the Command key twice. Once you’ve set this up, and dictation is activated, just speak at your normal pace and the computer will log your words directly onto the page.

You’ll need a good quality headset with a directional microphone for best results. This is the lowest-cost option – it won’t cost you anything (apart from the headset) to get started.

Option 2 - Purchased voice-to-text software, such as Dragon Naturally Speaking

Before I moved to a Mac computer, when I was still using my trusty PC, this software was my lifeline.

One of the additional benefits of Dragon Naturally Speaking is its ability to analyse your documents for frequently used words and phrases, improving dictation accuracy. For example, it knows when I say, “bid consultant” that I don’t mean “big consultant”.

The software cost is about $200. You’ll also need a good quality headset with a directional microphone for best results.

Both of these software options have helped me to get words on paper twice as fast I can by typing – and I can type about 60 words per minute. These options are best for: 

  • Dictating emails and short sections of text
  • Transcribing from handwritten notes, such as notes you’ve taken on site or from a whiteboard
  • Working in a private office, or if you don’t mind talking to yourself while there are other people around.

Option 3 – Voice recording transcription apps, such as REV.COM

To get words on paper even faster, without being chained to your desk and computer, this is the best option by a country mile.

Download REV.COM’s voice recording phone app from their website and use it to record yourself speaking on a topic. Then simply click to upload the file for transcription directly to them. In my experience, short files are usually turned around lightning fast – in some cases, within the hour – with real people doing the transcription. Accuracy is excellent.

You’ll need to set up an account with a credit card to use this service, and transcribed recordings cost USD $1 a minute. But if you’re a professional, consultant or senior executive who spends a lot of time on the road or in meetings, this could just be the difference between having to squeeze your board reports, business cases and client proposals into your precious time after-hours or actually getting them done during the day.

Using a voice recording transcription app like REV will help you get words onto paper in a quarter of the time you’re probably spending now.

It’s also how I wrote two books in two years while holding down a busy day job full of workshops, speaking and travel – and also spending nights and weekends with my family. This option is best for:

  • Capturing creative insights and ideas on the run, and producing written work that sounds fresh and personal
  • Getting a good quality first draft quickly that you can later tweak and edit
  • Breaking the back of large documents like business cases, reports proposals – and book drafts

There are just so many voice-to-text and voice recording transcription options available now that it is a crime against productivity not to use them.

These are just three of the options that I have tried and tested, and that work for me. Try them, and reclaim some of your day.

Writing 3.0: The key to persuasive writing

There are three levels of writing you could be doing at any given time: private writing, descriptive writing, and persuasive writing.

Private writing is what goes into your personal journal; it’s the ‘stream of consciousness’ you unload onto the page to explore your thoughts and feelings.

Private writing is raw and unformed, but that's OK – you probably don’t intend anyone else to see it.  You could call this “Writing 1.0’”: writing only for yourself.

Descriptive writing and persuasive writing are both examples of writing for an audience, but they are different in important ways.

  • Descriptive writing gives the facts and lets the audience form their own conclusions. Examples include report writing, essay writing and journalism that reports on the news of the day. Descriptive writing is “Writing 2.0” – writing for yourself, but also to inform an audience.
  • Persuasive writing gives the facts as well as your opinion, and seeks to influence the audience’s views, actions or conclusions. Examples include business case writing, proposal writing, and editorials, where journalists or commentators express a view on an issue of social or political importance. Persuasive writing is “Writing 3.0” – writing for yourself, writing for an audience, and in the context of a broader commercial, social or political environment.

Emotional Intelligence author Travis Bradberry says “Persuasive people are able to communicate their ideas quickly and clearly. When you have a firm grasp on what you’re talking about, (and) can explain yourself effectively to someone who has no background on the subject, you can certainly make a persuasive case with someone who does.”

To be effective in persuasive writing – Writing 3.0 – you will need to evolve your skills beyond private writing and descriptive writing.

For example, the way that most of us were taught to write at school is the wrong way to write when it comes to writing a proposal.

In an essay, we are taught to introduce our topic, explore it in the body of the essay, and then deliver our conclusion.

Writing like this is a bit like burying your gold at the bottom of the garden. No one will know it’s there but you.

This is the total opposite of what you want in a proposal. There’s no point burying your best ideas on page 23 if the buyer has already lost interest by then.

In proposal writing, your conclusion needs to come at the start of your writing. Then, everything else you say provides evidence explaining why they should reach that same conclusion.

A study into consumer behaviour by Dr. Robert Cialdini, author of the bestselling book Influence and emeritus Professor of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University, reveals why this is so important.

Cialdini’s study examined scripts used by the American Cancer Society when soliciting donations door-to-door. He found that a tiny change in wording delivered dramatically better results.

Instead of simply saying:

“Would you be willing to help by giving a donation?”

Staff were asked to say:

“Would you be willing to help by giving a donation? Every penny will help.”

Prospective donors who were asked the second variation of this question were almost twice as willing to donate – 50% donated, compared with 28%.

The second question influenced donors to act, because it gave an important layer of context: that their donation was worthwhile and would make a difference.  Interestingly, despite the use of the phrase “every penny will help”, the amount they gave was not any less than the first group either.

And that’s the key to persuasive writing. When we are writing to influence, we need to make the reader feel something, and then to act on that feeling.

The power of evidence in a proposal

Getting a customer to buy from you requires a leap of faith. Building evidence into your pitch or proposal makes that leap shorter, and easier for the customer to make.

When you’re making a pitch or writing a proposal, you are like a lawyer for the prosecution. Your job is to make your case. The customer is like the judge. Their job is to weigh your claims and evidence and come to a conclusion.

So, your claims are the main points in your argument, and evidence is the facts or information that prove your claims are true.

Unfortunately, we often make claims without realising that we are making them: not because they aren’t true, but because we tend to expect others have the same knowledge we do, or we are worried that we’ll run out of time to make all our claims.

For example, it is common for competitive tenders to have page limits, word limits and even character limits. Because of this, it’s not uncommon to end up with tender responses that look something like this:

XYZ Road Maintenance is Australia’s leading provider of road cleaning equipment to municipal authorities and private cleaning contractors.

Our highly experienced, results-driven research and development team has drawn on world’s best practice to develop our Road Maintenance Widgets, which are considered the most reliable on the market today.

In a tender evaluation, the people sitting on the evaluation panel have to give your proposal a score. What sets apart the proposals that achieve high scores is the quality of the evidence that they provide. This response would get a very low score because it makes five claims without substantiating a single one of them.

So what is proposal evidence, and how can you get some?

Proposal evidence essentially falls into two camps - quantitative or qualitative.

Quantitative evidence is something that you can put a number on, and qualitative evidence is anything that you can’t.

Within these two camps, there is also the question of how closely your evidence can be tied back to each individual claim. Stronger evidence relates directly to your claim, where weaker evidence may be related, but not directly.

Let’s say you wanted to make a claim about good performance in a similar contract. In this case, strong quantitative evidence includes performance statistics, and data on cost savings and productivity gains. Strong qualitative evidence includes customer testimonials and stories, particularly from C-level buyers.

Weaker quantitative evidence in support of a performance claim might include the length of time you’ve held similar contracts (a long tenure may be due to industry norms or your negotiating skills, rather than solely reflective of your performance), and weaker qualitative evidence might include screen grabs of your IT system or process diagrams showing your methodology.

Evidence builds the trust that is essential to any buying decision.

This makes it essential in a pitch or written proposal, even when you already think your track record, experience, expertise and general trustworthiness are well know and understood by the customer.

Five reasons to plan your proposal before you write it

A proposal is a work product that encapsulates your thinking, knowledge and insight. It isn’t just a response to a customer’s briefing – it needs to contain a piece of you as well.

In our haste to get finished by the deadline, we compile proposals rather than write them. This is particularly true of tender responses, where we are presented with a briefing and a list of questions, and it seems that all we need to do to is write the answers.

As I mentioned recently, most of us spend no time at all on planning proposal content, preferring instead to dive straight into writing. But this is a mistake.

Let’s say you are a chef preparing your team for the dinner service in a busy five-star restaurant. Once customers arrive, you know you won’t have any extra time.

It would be crazy not to know your recipes or assemble all your ingredients at the start of your shift. Not to do so would result in chaos.

Writing a proposal to a deadline is just like this. Once your production process is well underway, things can get out of control quickly. So here are five reasons to plan your proposal content before you start to write.

1.    Find questions within the question. Every question that’s asked in a tender briefing will contain more than one layer, that is, several questions within the question. Look for the layers and you will produce compliant, quality answers that tick all the boxes.

2.    Leverage the time and knowledge of leaders and specialists. The senior people in your business probably don’t spend all day, every day writing submissions, but they have an enormous amount of knowledge and insight that can help you win them. Extracting this from them early makes the most of their limited time, makes your proposal more commercial and strategic, and gives your writing richness and depth.

3.    Provide guidance to other writers. Chances are, you’ll need input from other people for your submission. Don't just send them a question from the tender, and ask them to answer it. This pretty much guarantees that what you’ll get back is a cut-and-paste from an old submission that has very little relevance to the new one. Giving them guidance on how to answer makes it easier for them to write fresh content that will help you win.

4.    Identify evidence to support your claims. In a tender response, buyers have to give your submission a score, and what sets apart those that score highly from those that don’t is that “all claims are fully supported”.

5.    Spend less time re-writing. If the content is planned properly, your proposal should require no more than two drafts; first and final. To do any more than this is a criminal waste of time when you have so little to spare. Years ago, I worked on a huge bid project for a professional services firm that wouldn’t release their people to plan content for the submission. One piece of content I worked on for that bid ended up with 35 separate drafts.

When you are on a deadline and there a lot of work to do, it is very tempting to jump straight into writing, but this is never going to give you the best result.

Content planning is the essential step between creating your proposal strategy and executing it through what you write. 

What makes customers say “yes” to a proposal?

A proposal is a commercial document with only one purpose – to compel a customer to buy from you. Your proposal is not just your offer, which is what they are buying; this comes from a combination of your product/service, credentials, delivery methodology and price. A proposal also needs a strategy that explains why they should buy; what they will value about your offer, and not just what they get.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines strategy as “a careful plan or method for achieving a particular goal.” 

All too often, we forget that the goal of a proposal is to win the work – and not to do the work.

This is understandable, because your proposal usually comes in response to a customer briefing, like a competitive tender, that make it look like all you need to do is build an offer that fits the brief. But this is a trap – don’t fall for it.

Without a strategy that is based on customer value, it’s too easy for the customer to say no if they object to any part of your offer, no matter how small.

It’s also impossible to stand out against competitors who may have a slightly different offer.

With the right proposal strategy, however, all roads lead to “yes”. This strategy must be able to be distilled into three core messages that encapsulate your value, are easy to remember, and represent:

  • What the customer most wants,
  • What you can best deliver, and
  • What positions you most favourably against competitors.

At the intersection of what the customer most wants, and what you can best deliver, is preferences – yours and theirs. What do they value the most from a supplier in your line of business? How do you want them to work with you to deliver the best outcome, in the most efficient way?

At the intersection of what you can best deliver, and what positions you best against competitors, is what you need to promote. What is most valuable about your offer, compared to what the customer is looking for? Where can you offer value that others can't?

Finally, at the intersection of what the customer most wants, and what positions you best against competitors, is what you need to combat. Is there something the customer wants, but you can’t do? Can competitors tell a better story than you in some areas? How can you minimise competitors’ strengths and maximise their weaknesses?

The core messages of a proposal strategy are sometimes called “win themes”, but I very deliberately refer to them instead as Purchaser Value Topics.

It’s a subtle difference, but an important one. When we think about what the purchaser will value, our ideas tends to be more creative and generous, and more likely to help us win. Ironically, when we use the language of “win themes”, we encourage insular and self-serving thinking that is based on loss and scarcity.

Creating Purchaser Value Topics for a proposal is like measuring the customer for a custom-fitted suit.

The finished product fits perfectly – making you seem like a Savile Row tailor, while they look like James Bond.

Like any important message, Purchaser Value Topics need to be carefully crafted. They’ll have the most impact if you think in terms of knocking out competitors first, appealing to the customer second, and talking about yourself last:

  1. COMPETITORS – What’s the biggest bang, our knockout punch, the thing they can’t get anywhere else other than from you? This could be an actual product or service, or an insight. Here you’re looking for breakthrough value that changes the conversation, and breaks the boundaries of what they’ll buy so that you emerge as the only winner.
  2. CUSTOMER – What do they value most from a supplier of your type? What are they prepared to spend money on? This could be tangible or intangible and needs to appeal to their known goals or problems.
  3. YOU/YOUR BUSINESS – What are your strongest and best credentials? How does your methodology, approach or experience lower risk or deliver certainty?

One way to win a competitive piece of business at proposal stage is to understand that buyers always want a bit more.

In their head, they’ve already bought what the brief is asking for.

I once worked with a team of architects that won the contract to redesign a significant library building. We were tendering against 35 competitors - six had significant library experience, while our team had never built a library before. What we did have, however, was a huge amount of experience in retail design, including how retail businesses act as social spaces to attract more customers.

The library in question was in the centre of a major town. While the other bidders pitched mostly on their library credentials, our team was the only one talking about how the library’s role as a social space within the community could be re-imagined. This gave us the leverage to have the conversation no one else was having – and ultimately, to win the work.

As I mentioned recently, many of us spend far too little time developing a proposal strategy.

Often this is because we just don’t know how.

In my training workshops, I teach two ways to develop proposal strategy: a Minimum Viable Pitch process, for when you’re working alone and have limited time, and a team-based strategy process, for when you’re working with a group or consortium and need to canvass multiple inputs and more detailed customer and market intelligence.

If you’d like to know more about these processes for developing proposal strategy, drop me a line (robyn@robynhaydon.com) or give me a call (61 3 957 4585).

Keeping your submission in line, and on time

From the time the tender is released, to the time you lodge your submission, you need to be continually working on your proposal.

As I’ve mentioned before, depending on how complex the procurement is, you might get anywhere from 2 weeks to 8 weeks to respond to a tender (the most common response period is 3-4 weeks).  This sounds like a generous amount of time, but it isn’t.

Buyers work out the validity period based on how long they think it will take you to put together a tender response. The longer you’re given, the more complex the requirement, and the more time-consuming your bid will be to prepare - and all this needs to happen on top of your day job.

Unfortunately, it’s common to see people “sit” on tender requests for days, or weeks, while they are deciding whether or not it’s worth going for, waiting for feedback from others, or just working on other things.

This is such a common story that if I had ten bucks for every time I heard it, I could be sitting on a beach in the Bahamas right now; in fact I got a call just yesterday from a client whose business had been sitting on a four-week tender for three weeks already, and had only just sent it to her to work on!

As I said last week, your offer is by far the most important element in your pitch – what will the customer actually be buying from you, and why is it the best option for them?

Any time you lose at the start of the bid schedule will have a compounding, negative effect on your offer, and therefore your chances of winning. Lose a week, and your strategy will suffer. Lose two weeks, and you will also miss key pieces of evidence to support your claims and maximise your evaluation score.

Let’s be generous and say that you have four weeks to submit your tender. Here’s how to spend each day in those four weeks to give yourself the best chance of success:

Week 1 – Circulate the briefing to your team as soon as it is released. Give them a day to read it. Then run your strategy session. Once you have your bid strategy and Purchaser Value Topics ready, write a draft of your Executive Summary. Get agreement in principle to the strategy and key messages.

Week 2 – with your bid strategy and Purchaser Value Topics agreed, now you can get stuck into planning your response. Analyse the tender questions; really pull them apart. Figure out what they are really asking for. What is the buyer’s motivation for asking? Is there a question behind the question? What do they want to expect to hear? Plan evidence to substantiate all your claims. Circulate your content plan with instructions to any other writers.

Week 3 – gather all your content and start shaping it into a proposal. Circulate the first draft for comment and review.

Week 4 – Make final changes, format the proposal and get internal sign-off.  Submit it at least one day before the customer’s deadline.

Tender deadlines aren’t within your control, and it’s rare to see a tender period extended. Those weeks will go by faster than you think.

This schedule will give you the time you need to think, and to plan your proposal, even when you are stretched with other priorities.

Where should I invest my time to win a tender?

In a competitive tender, submission or proposal, the difference between winning and losing often comes down to where you spend your energy and your time.

Your offer is by far the most important element in your pitch – what will the customer actually be buying from you, and why is it the best option for them?

As this model shows, successful bidders tend to spend more time and energy working on their offer. (The numbers represent a percentage of total time).

Winners invest time and energy in developing their strategy and key messages (by exploring what the customer most wants, what they can best deliver, and what positions them most favourably against competitors) and in content and evidence planning (thinking deeply about the customer’s questions, structuring their offer, and finding evidence to substantiate their claims).

In contrast, losers tend to jump straight into writing and content creation (answering the tender questions) and end up with a lot of narrative that just isn’t very convincing. As a result, they also spend too much time on pre-submission polishing; effectively, re-writing the parts of the submission that just don’t work, in the hope that they will somehow create a cohesive whole.

Let’s say you wanted to write a book. You wouldn’t start by staring at a blank page; you’d start by getting a clear idea of your story, your characters, and where they are going. If you jumped straight into writing, you’d risk wasting time writing pages and pages that you might never use.

Writing a submission that doesn’t win you any business is like writing a book that never gets published. (Also known as a “complete bummer”).

If you struggle to write successful submissions, your proposal process could be the root cause of the problem.

Use this approach instead, and invest your time where it’s going to help you win.

Should I go for a competitive tender?

Competitive tenders can be a lucrative source of revenue, but they are time-consuming, resource-hungry and challenging to win. Because of this, it’s important to realistically rate your chances of success before you commit to responding to a tender.

Tenders are time-consuming and deadline-driven.

Depending on how complex the procurement is, you might get anywhere from 2 weeks to 8 weeks to respond to a tender (the most common response period is 3-4 weeks).  This sounds like a generous amount of time, but it isn’t.

Buyers work out the validity period based on how long they think it will take you to put together a tender response. The longer you’re given, the more complex the requirement, and the more time-consuming your bid will be to prepare - and all this needs to happen on top of your day job.

Which brings me to the second problem – tenders are a drain on your resources.

To win, you’ll need contributions from your technical experts; your salespeople who know the customer; your commercial and pricing people; writers; graphics support; and possibly a bid project manager. Can you spare these people, or convince them to sacrifice time from their day job?

Finally, tenders are challenging to win.

We talk about “tenders”, but we forget that the full title is actually “competitive tenders”.

Buyers call for competitive tenders because they want a range of options to choose from. You won’t ever be the only one who is bidding. If you’re lucky you will only be up against a handful of competitors – but it may be hundreds.

On top of this, every competitive tender creates an opportunity cost of things you could be doing elsewhere that might be a better use of your time and effort.  Tenders also drain your team’s energy, enthusiasm and effort; and despite what they may tell you, there’s only so much of this to go around.

So how do you make the right choices, and target your energy, enthusiasm and effort where it will give you the best chance of achieving a win?

There are three perspectives to consider when you’re deciding whether to go for a competitive tender: your own, internal perspective; the market perspective; and from the perspective of the opportunity itself.

1.     The internal perspective – how well does the opportunity fit you and your business?

Is this a good strategic fit for you? Do you want it? And then there’s bid execution. Can you bid confidently in the timeframe without risking your other customers or business?

2.     The external perspective – how well do you fit the opportunity?

Do you know the client? How well positioned are you with them? If you don’t know them, is this a client you want?  And then there’s competitors to consider. Can you put up a strong offer against the others who are likely to be bidding?

3.     The opportunity perspective

Finally, there’s the opportunity itself. Do you have the capability to deliver what the customer is asking for? Are you experienced in similar work?  And then there’s capacity fit. Are you ready? Can you field a strong team, or the right resources, to deliver against expectations?

From chance to choice - making better decisions to bid

If you don’t have one already, it’s a good idea to set up an opportunity assessment checklist in your business that helps you to address all these questions. This will help you decide which opportunities to go for, and which ones you really should take a pass on.

You’ll find just such an Opportunity Assessment checklist in my online program From Chance To Choice, which contains just over an hour’s worth of videos, examples and tools to help you make better decisions to bid. For a limited time, you can access this course for free.

Happy bidding!

Competitive tendering 101

It is peak competitive tendering season in Australia from January until the end of May, particularly for government and private sector contracts that roll over on July 1.

So what is competitive tendering, and how can your business take advantage of the opportunities on offer?

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing some of my best tips for responding to – and winning – competitive tenders.

Let’s start with the basics first.

What is a competitive tender?

A competitive tender is a type of procurement practice – a device that corporate and government buyers use to purchase what they need.

Competitive tenders are commonplace for large, high-value purchases. They are also used for goods and services that have become commoditised, where buyers believe that a larger pool of competitors will drive down the price.

Tenders usually take the form of a written briefing, to which you, as the prospective supplier, must respond. The briefing document is usually called something like a Request for Tender (RFT), Request for Proposal (RFP), or Request for Quote (RFQ).

Alternatively, if there is no specific buying requirement at the time, the tender briefing could invite you to apply to join a preferred supplier panel and earn the right to pitch for future work.

Why do buyers issue tenders?

Fundamentally, because they want to create competition, and get the best value for money for something they have decided they want to buy.

For high-value purchases, competitive tenders also offer an audit trail that supports the buyer’s decision to go with a particular vendor or supplier. This type of governance is also known as “probity”, and is particularly important for government and large organisations that are ultimately responsible to the public or to a corporate board.

Why would I want to bid for a tender?

Competitive tenders can be a lucrative source of new business for your business. Last year, one of Australia’s largest buyers – the Federal government – spent $59.447 billion buying goods and services through Austender, and issued 69,236 supplier contracts.

If you're already a large business, you probably have no choice but to compete through bids and tenders because the size and scale of the contracts or projects you deal with.

If you want to grow your business, competitive tenders can be a good way of increasing the value of the work you do. For example, the Victorian government is required to put contracts over $150,000 out to market via competitive tender.

Where can I find opportunities to bid for?

Tenders are often publicly advertised.

You can find government tenders here. Or, sign up for a tender aggregation service like TenderLink, which finds tenders at all levels of government (federal, state, and local) and also advertises corporate and private tenders.

Are there any traps to watch out for?

Competitive tenders aren’t a simple way to win business. For starters, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the number of opportunities in your inbox, and not all are worth pursuing. So, here are three traps to be wary of:

1.     Do your homework and understand the competitive landscape. Some tenders aren’t a real opportunity, but a tick-the-box exercise where the contract has come to an end and the buyer is obliged to put it back out to market again. This doesn't mean they have any intention of changing suppliers, but they could use your tender to beat their current supplier down on price or delivery factors.

2.     Tender responses will never substitute for good old-fashioned face-to-face relationship building. A competitive tender is the last step in the procurement process, and at this point it’s difficult to convince a buyer to change their minds about what they want to buy. Preferred supplier panels are no guarantee of business, and you'll still need to get in front of buyers to let them know who you are and why they should brief you for future work.

3.     Make sure your business is up to scratch, and meets all of the mandatory or minimum requirements. For example, if buyers are asking for ISO quality accreditation, and you don't have it, then you will never win against competitors who do.

When you’re smart about it, though, there is lucrative business to be won when you play your cards right.

Next week, we'll look at how to decide which opportunities to bid for.

Five ways to beat less-qualified competitors

Have you ever lost a tender that you felt sure you would win? Seen a contract go to a competitor that you believe isn’t up to the job? Been frustrated when the customer made a poor decision that you know will cost them time, money and headaches in the long run?

Unfortunately, competitive tenders are not a foolproof way of selecting the most qualified supplier.

Despite the many layers of personnel, protocol and probity that sit around the competitive tendering process, mistakes can be made that cost good suppliers work – and end up costing buyers even more than they bargained for.

Last week, Victoria’s Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) tabled a report into Victoria’s failed education portal, Ultranet. The Ultranet project was scrapped in 2013 and is estimated to have cost taxpayers up to $240 million.

IBAC found that the tender process seeking a company to create the Ultranet technology was improperly influenced by Darrell Fraser, a former principal at Glen Waverley Secondary College who rose to become deputy secretary of the education department. IBAC’s report alleges that Fraser manipulated procurement processes to ensure the Ultranet contract was awarded to the CSG/Oracle consortium, companies with whom he had a long-standing relationship.

According to The Age, experts close to the Ultranet project had warned that CSG – then a little-known Darwin company – was a “dud” with no experience in delivering a project of this magnitude. The Ultranet crashed on the day it was launched, and was still plagued with problems two years later, by which time only 10% of Victorian students were using the technology.

Most customers aren’t corrupt, but they aren’t immune to making poor decisions either.

So how can you, as a supplier who wants to do the right thing, help customers to make the best choice – and avoid being caught in a similar situation?

Start by thinking of yourself as an equal; as an advisor to the customer.

In this role, your pitch isn’t just about you. It is also designed to help the customer combat the risks that they might face if they go with a less than ideal option.

Here are five ways to do it:

  1. Know who your competitors are: not just your “peer competitors” (the firms you know, and who have a similar background to you) but other, more left-field options that the customer might be considering.
  2. Understand what these competitors will be proposing, and why.
  3. Analyse their “trump cards” – the issues they’ll be playing to their own advantage – for weaknesses, and come up with arguments to rebut them.
  4. Without naming names, explain the risks in alternative approaches, and give practical examples when these approaches have not been successful in the past.
  5. Don’t descend into muck-raking. Remember, you’re doing this with the customer’s best interests (and your own reputation) in mind.

Above all, help your customer to understand the risks of alternative choices, and give them the ammunition to ask the right questions of other suppliers who may not be right for them.

Robyn Haydon is a business development consultant specialising in business that is won through competitive bids and tenders. Her clients have won and retained hundreds of millions of dollars worth of business with many of Australia’s largest corporate and government buyers.

Is it time to pimp your proposals? Stop wasting time and money on proposals that go nowhere. The Pimp My Proposals program will give you the feedback, content and structure you need to build compelling proposals that win business. Learn what you’re doing wrong, and how to fix it. Email info@robynhaydon.com or call 03 9557 4585 to find out more.

How value-add destroys value in sales

Are you convinced that what you do is a lot more important, a lot more complex and interesting, and a heck of a lot more valuable than your customers think it is?

Despite this, do you feel compelled to offer customers a huge amount of extra stuff you think they might want, just to get a sale over the line?

If so, you’re definitely not alone.

Commoditisation – where customers drive down a purchase to its lowest common denominator, its price – is a huge problem for service-based businesses when it comes to sales.

When you’ve become commoditised, it means that customers perceive an almost total lack of meaningful differentiation between you and everyone else you are competing with.

Ten years ago, Uday Karmarkar, writing in the Harvard Business Review, predicted the “huge wave of change” bearing down on the services industry, one result of which has been commoditisation.

And the sales impact of commoditisation on service-based businesses has been profound.

Essentially, the objective of a sale is to get customers to value what you do and pay a fair price for it.

If value is the inherent worth of everything that your core offering delivers, “value-add” is all the extra stuff; the bells and whistles that you throw in to get a customer over the line. Value is the cake, and value-add is the icing.

Over the last several years, I’ve noticed that more and more businesses are focusing their sales pitch on value-add, instead of value.

What's driving this trend is a lack of confidence that stems from years and years of being commoditised by buyers; being asked to give them a price before we talk about anything else, being forced to fill in tenders like we’re applying for a job, and competing on attributes that we know do not define the value of what we do.

Unfortunately, piling on “value-add” does you no favours, because it distracts buyers from the true value of what you do.

So it’s time to get back to the cake, and stop getting a headache from all that icing.

Knowing the true value of what you do and offer will help you to:

  • Stop losing work to less qualified competitors
  • Speed up your sales cycle so you can spend more time doing the work, and less time selling the work
  • Improve your margins
  • Avoid pressure to discount or drop your prices, and
  • Stop being frustrated about sales

Come along to my public workshop in Melbourne on Friday 10 February and learn how to build a killer pitch. Friday 27th Jan is the last chance to book, so get in fast.

Or, if you’re after some more targeted help, download the white paper for my Value Labs program and drop me a line or give me a call. 

Five ways to spot an energy vampire

We've all got one: that person you dread spending time with, who seems to suck the life out of you. Some people call them energy vampires.

Your energy vampire could be a client, a friend, co-worker, an acquaintance, or a family member. You'll know an energy vampire, because you feel drained after being with them.

Energy vampires have several things in common. They're constantly complaining, everything's a drama, and they talk incessantly about themselves.

Dr Judith Orloff, author of Positive Energy, identifies five types of energy vampires:

  1. The Sob Sister – The most common type of energy stealer. Every time you talk to this person, they’re whining. Sob sisters love a captive audience, and are more interested in complaining than solutions.
  2. The Drama Queen – Male or female, the Drama Queen has a knack for exaggerating small incidents into off-the-chart dramas.
  3. The Constant Talker – They’ve mastered the art of circular breathing, and could talk under wet cement. The Constant Talker has no interested in other people’s feelings or opinions, so good luck getting a word in.
  4. The Blamer – This is the kind of person who has a sneaky way of making you feel guilty for not getting things absolutely perfect.
  5. Go For The Jugular Fiend – They’re spiteful and vindictive, and cut you down with no consideration for your feelings. Somehow they make this seem like a virtue, because they’re “just being honest”.

Do you recognise someone you know in this list?

Especially at this time of the year, when we're counting down to Christmas, and when our own tolerance and patience is starting to wear thin, energy vampires are even more taxing than usual.

In a proposals environment, energy is hard to come by, and we can’t afford to waste it.

It's not like a presentation, where you’re on your feet and you can rely on adrenaline, nervous energy and the buzz of the room to keep you going.

December is a busy time for pitches and proposals, so be kind to yourself, and to each other.

It’s tough enough to create the energy and excitement that will help you win, without stealing it from others.

Confidence is catching

Have you ever lost a piece of business you really deserved to win? Seen a contract go to a less qualified competitor? Felt less than confident when making a verbal pitch, only to find out later that the client had reservations about your ability to do the job? You may have been a victim of a lack of confidence, not lack of ability.

What we believe is true really matters. If we believe in what we’re doing, others will believe it too.

Recently, Psychology Today related a study where research psychologists asked groups of men and women to perform a series of mental rotation tests and then quizzed them on their level of confidence taking the tests. In these tests, participants were presented with one standard figure and four alternative figures. Two of the alternative figures are rotated versions of the standard figure, whereas the other two are mirror images of the standard figure – and test subjects were asked to determine which is which. Here’s an example of the sort of thing they were faced with:

At first, the researchers found a big difference between the results of men and women on these tests (men consistently scored better). However, when the participant’s level of confidence was taken into account, the gender differences evaporated. The researchers decided to test the robustness of the “confidence” finding by asking participants to complete the tests under two different scenarios – the control group (A) was allowed to skip a test if they felt they lacked confidence in their answers, and the test group (B) was not allowed to skip any tests.

While they did find gender differences in the control group A, there were no such differences in the test group B. These findings support the idea that the differences in results were due to confidence, and not ability.

When I review proposals and tender responses for organisations that aren’t winning as much business as they deserve to, it’s obvious where they lack confidence in their pitch and their offer. The writer’s doubt and fear have soaked into every page, and they leave a stain that’s hard to ignore.

Re-read your proposals from the customer’s perspective. Do they answer questions, or create them? Do they inspire confidence or in fact, do the opposite?

The first sale is always to yourself. When you are sold, the customer will be too.

Are your proposals on life support?

In organisations that aren’t winning enough proposals, I find any number of processes and procedures that are propping up the proposal effort. This calls to mind the life support given to critical care patients to keep their vital organs going. Life support may help to sustain life, but it doesn’t deliver any kind of quality.

What would happen if you unplugged your status meetings? Tollgate checks? Draft reviews? Content library? What about graphics support? Would your proposals be able to live, breathe and take on a life of their own when they leave your door, and find their way in front of the customer?

Unfortunately, in many cases, the answer is “no”.

Your proposals live or die on the quality of effort, energy and enthusiasm you get from your people. They are the vital organs that give life to the body of work you want to do.

Does your team know how to build a pitch strategy that represents what the customer most wants, what you can best deliver, and what positions you most favourably against competitors? Can they analyse and answer the question behind the question in a customer briefing or tender request? Do they know how to structure their writing so that it is clear, convincing and compelling? Are they truly committed to making your proposals the best they can possibly be? If the answer to any of these questions is “no”, then you need to make this a priority.

Just like the human body, your organisation’s proposal effort needs all its vital organs working together. And when it comes to proposals, withdrawing life support is not an option.

You simply can’t afford to let your proposal effort pass away – there are millions of dollars riding on its success.

Once you get the life back into your proposals, everything gets better. You’ll start winning again. You’ll get to do the work you deserve to do – work that builds your profile, your bank account and your legacy. Your people will be happier and more enthusiastic about winning work.

And that’s an outcome worth investing in.

Why proposals are never, ever, going away

Raise your hand if you love writing proposals. No hands? That’s not at all surprising. Most people hate writing proposals. We find them a time consuming, mind-numbing, brain draining, frustrating chore. Yet buyers love receiving proposals, and this method of pitching for business is not going to go away anytime soon.

Why not?

Imagine for a moment that you’re got an important social event coming up. (Not really a stretch, with Christmas and the party season right around the corner.)

Maybe shopping isn’t your favourite thing. But looking at your closet, things are pretty dire. You really need to buy something new to wear.

  • You could go to a crowded shopping centre and fight it out with dozen of other people for a car park. Then, you’d have to slog your way through dozens of stores in the hope that one of them might carry what you are looking for. It’s a drain on your time and patience.
  • Or, you could stay home, and check out the online stores for options. You wouldn’t have to fight the crowds, but there's still a lot of stuff to sift through to try to find something you might want. This takes a huge amount of time.
  • Or, here’s another option – you could book a session with a personal shopper. You’d tell them what you want, they would sit you down in a dressing room with a glass of champagne and bring you outfit after outfit to try on. This isn’t a drain on your time or your patience. In fact, it's almost like going to a day spa.

This is exactly the experience that buyers get when they put out a brief or tender and invite a response.

They get a whole bunch of people bending over backwards to craft a proposal that fits their taste and needs. They don't have to go out and foot-slog around the market. They don't have to listen to 20 people pitch in person. They don't even have to talk to you if they don't want to.

Why would they do all that work, when they can get you to do it for them for free?

If you think that proposals are an imperfect way to pitch what you do, you would be right. But they are not going anywhere, because they simply make the buyer's life very easy.

It all comes back to the distribution of labour. Under the old system of buying, where buyers had to take the time to build a relationship before they did business with you, most of the effort was theirs. Under the current system, the position is reversed.

So proposals are never, ever, going away. Even if you hate doing them, you still need to find a way to make them work for you.

If this is a problem you need to solve in your business, talk to me - I can help.

Start fast to finish first

Last week we talked about thinking more, and writing less, to win more proposals. This week, I’m going to show you exactly how to plan your schedule so you will have the time you need to think, and to plan your proposal, even when you are stretched with other priorities.

A typical competitive tender schedule (the time from when the tender is released, to when it’s due) is four weeks. This goes by faster than you'd think.

Parkinson’s law says that “work expands to fill the time available to complete it.” If you think that all you need to do is write the proposal, four weeks probably sounds like a generous amount of time.  Add strategy, content and evidence planning into the mix, though – the things you’ll need to do to be convincing, compelling and emerge as the clear winner – and it suddenly doesn’t sound like such an easy run after all.

It’s pretty common to see people “sit” on tender requests for days, or weeks, while they are deciding whether or not it’s worth going for, waiting for feedback from others, or just working on other things.

Unfortunately, time lost at the start of the bid schedule has a compounding, negative effect on your chances of winning. Lose a week, and your strategy will suffer. Lose two weeks, and you will also miss key pieces of evidence to support your claims and maximise your evaluation score.

When you’re leading a proposal, aim to spend most of your time on strategy and planning. This minimises the time you will need to write, review and polish.

Here’s how to spend each day in those four weeks to give yourself the best chance of success:

Week 1 – Circulate the briefing to your team as soon as it is released. Give them a day to read it. Then run your strategy session. Once you have your bid strategy and Purchaser Value Topics ready, write a draft of your Executive Summary. Get agreement in principle to the strategy and key messages.

Week 2 – with your bid strategy and Purchaser Value Topics agreed, now you can get stuck into planning your response. Analyse the tender questions; really pull them apart. Figure out what they are really asking for. What is the buyer’s motivation for asking? Is there a question behind the question? What do they want to expect to hear? Plan evidence to substantiate all your claims. Circulate your content plan with instructions to any other writers.

Week 3 – gather all your content and start shaping it into a proposal. Circulate the first draft for comment and review.

Week 4 – Make final changes, format the proposal and get internal sign-off.  Submit it at least one day before the customer’s deadline.

Time hacks to win more proposals

Successful proposals show quality thinking, not just quality writing. So where should you be spending your time if you want to win a proposal?

That's a good question, when time is the one thing we have precious little of.

The fourth General Social Survey of Australians, conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, found that Australia is below average in work-life balance compared with other OECD countries. An alarming 45% of women and 36% of men reported feeling “always” or “often” rushed, or pressed for time, compared with just over 20% who reported feeling pretty chilled.

If you’re a busy professional, you’re probably among this growing majority.

And unless proposal writing is your full-time job, it is discretionary work you are expected to fit in around other tasks. This is not easy, when many of us spent our official working hours in unproductive meetings. A US study found that most employees spend at least 37% of their time in meetings, and that the more meetings you go to, the more exhausted you’ll feel and the higher you will perceive your workload to be.

Because we are under pressure during the day, proposal writing ends up becoming something we do after hours (a “five-to-nine job”). This isn't good news when we want to win.

Successful proposals need strategic thinking. Unfortunately, because we are pressed for time, most of us spend too little time on thinking, and instead jump straight into writing. As a result, we end up doing a lot of re-writing, when the proposal doesn't match the expectations that the boss had in their head (but often, failed to tell us about).

This model shows how to divide your time if you want your proposal to be successful. Spend more time up-front exploring what the customer most wants, what you can best deliver, and what positions you most favourably against competitors. Take the time to structure your offer, think deeply about the customer’s questions, and find evidence to substantiate your claims. 

Next week, I will show you a day-by-day schedule you can use with your team, to make the most of your time within a typical four-week competitive tendering cycle.