The next big thing

How do you win a tender with a customer you already have? This is a challenge for anyone who works in a project-based industry, where good work on a current project is no guarantee you’ll be successful in winning the next one.

Chasing new business is expensive. According to Gartner, it costs 5-30 times as much to win a new customer as it does to keep an existing one happy.

Nurturing existing customers will also grow your profitability: Bain & Company found that a 5% increase in retention can lead to a 25%-95% boost in profit.

However, customer retention and growth is a real challenge for people who need to win work on a project basis, including technical professionals like engineers and architects, creative professionals like event managers and graphic designers, market researchers, and project management consultants.

Despite doing good work and having good relationships with their existing customers, project-based professionals constantly need to pitch these customers for new projects that they believe should just be handed to them. It hurts when jobs go to competitors that by rights, really should have been theirs.

What they are reluctant to admit, but know is an issue, is that it is surprisingly difficult to find the time and space to prioritise the next project when you’re knee-deep in delivering the current one. It’s easier to hope that your good work and good relationships will carry the day – but this isn’t always a successful strategy.

Heidi Grant Halvorson is a psychologist, TED speaker and the author of many books on the topic of what really makes people tick. In one of her latest books, No One Understands You and What To Do About It, she cites a range of studies proving that people are much more impressed by our potential than our track record.

In other words, when we are deciding who to hire, promote or do business with, it turns out that we aren’t impressed by the ‘big thing’ nearly as much as the next big thing.

This is a challenge for incumbents who need to win work on a project-by-project basis, because customers are primed to want what is new and shiny, rather than what is existing and reliable.

To fill your pipeline in a project-based business, you need to be constantly positioning for the next job while you’re on the current one.

I have worked with many technical, creative, research and consulting people who are professionals first, and salespeople a distant second.

It’s no good just telling professionals to go and talk to their customers so they can win more work – they need something valuable to talk to them about. This has to be something that will help the customer to compete better or do business better, and it can’t just be about the job they are currently doing.

My new program, Win More Work With Existing Customers, is designed to help project-based professionals to understand what customers want to buy, not just what they want to sell, and to position themselves in the box seat to win more work with existing customers.

This program is also available as an in-house workshop for firms who want to make sure everyone in their business has the skills and confidence to share the responsibility for winning work.

Selling simplicity

Customers buy expertise for a reason; it fills a gap they can’t fill themselves. As an expert, one of your superpowers is pattern recognition, and the ability to simplify complex issues for your customers. Through many years of learning, doing and reviewing what you do, you’ve built a valuable frame of reference that helps you to see things that your customers simply can’t see for themselves.

Leonardo da Vinci once said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”.

More recently, Lisa Bodell, author of Why Simple Wins, lays out a compelling case for reducing complexity in the way that modern organisations work.

Complexity, she says, is a monster that is killing our ability to innovate and adapt. Because we are constantly knocked around by disruption, it’s becoming much more tempting and destructive for companies to add more and more, without sweeping away what’s no longer useful. This then becomes a huge drain on competitiveness.

Bodell cites an initiative by the Boston Consulting Group to track complexity by building an index based on surveys of more than 100 companies on both sides of the Atlantic.

What they found is both eye-opening and terrifying.

Over the last decade and a half, the amount of procedures, vertical layers, interface structures, coordination bodies and decision approvals needed in each of those companies had increased by anywhere from 50% to 350%. Extrapolating this over a longer time horizon, BCG found that complexity had actually increased by an overall average of 6.7% a year over the past 50 years.

Not surprisingly, complexity is also damaging organisational performance. Recently, SAP’s Global Simplicity Index found that complexity destroys a full tenth of company profits each year – or a combined $237 billion for the top 200 firms around the world.

Simplicity is the antidote to complexity.

When you’re pitching to a customer, make sure you value your ability to simplify things, to see the big picture, to flex and stretch, and to cut through their mental clutter.

Your ability to synthesise and make sense of a huge amount of information, and to find the holes, gaps and opportunities that will reduce complexity in their organisation, is work that your customer doesn’t have to do themselves – and that you should be rewarded for.

Profiting from productivity

Most of your customers are task-rich but extremely time-poor. Ask anyone how they are these days, and the default reply is ‘busy’. Most of us are desperate to find a way to get through our massive to-do list more quickly, and this problem doesn’t seem to be going away.

As a supplier, you can leverage your customers’ desire for productivity by showing how you can help them to do things faster, and to claim back some of their personal time and balance.

Around the turn of this century, when the internet really took off, so too did our need for greater productivity. Eat That Frog by Brian Tracey, Getting Things Done by David Allen, and The Four-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss are all classic reads on how to get more done in a shorter amount of time.

A few years ago, when introducing unlimited holidays for Virgin employees, Richard Branson explained that ‘time is the new money’ – and he should know. One of the busiest people on the planet (and outside it) he controls 400 companies, including Virgin Galactic, and is a humanitarian as well as a sought-after author and public speaker.

Productivity is a universal problem for people like Branson who are in positions of power.

For example, the Executive Time Use Project, a recent study by the London School of Economics and Harvard Business School into the day-to-day schedules of more than 500 CEOs from around the world, found that executives spent roughly 18 hours of a 55-hour workweek in meetings, and only six hours working alone. The CEOs surveyed all reported a desire for more “alone time”.

Email is another huge time drain.  A study by Palo Alto technology firm Radicati found that worldwide, the average worker sends and receives 122 emails a day. Another study suggests that Executives receive triple this amount of email – about 300 emails a day. One of my clients, the COO of a human services organisation, once told me he received upwards of 400.

Here are five ways to win by showing customer how you’ll get more done in less time.

Screen Shot 2018-03-13 at 7.15.10 PM.png

The risk of doing business

Fear is a motivator unlike any other, and your sales pitch will have more power when it identifies, communicates, and eliminates risks that the customer may not know they are facing.

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, identified that human beings are much more motivated to take action to avoid pain than they are to gain pleasure.

Put simply, when we realise we are sitting on a nail, we want to get off it – fast.

When you are pitching to a prospective customer, make sure you fully explain the risks you are helping them to avoid, as well as the more aspirational benefits of doing business with you.

It helps if you think of what you are selling as a kind of insurance policy that protects the customer against things that could go wrong. Insurance isn’t the sexiest topic, but it is a huge industry – in Australia, it is worth $58 billion a year and employs more than 22,000 people.

Insurance is something customers understand, and although they may not like it, they are prepared to pay for it.

Your customer probably faces risks from many sources, including financial risk, operational risk, governance and compliance risk, risks to reputation, and strategic risk.

For example, right now, when businesses and government are facing an environment of constant change and disruption, strategic risk is an issue that is getting a lot more attention – and money.

A recent Deloitte study of 300 major companies around the world found that 52% had increased their budget for monitoring and managing strategic risks; 42% were monitoring this area continually; and 38% had increased the number of executives assigned to managing strategic risk.

Here is a simple five-point plan for identifying and presenting risks in your proposal.

  1. Start by dividing your page into three columns.
  2. In the left hand column, list the significant risks that the customer currently faces, before adopting your solution (aim for 5-7 risks).
  3. In the middle column, list the consequences and impacts of each risk.
  4. And in the final (right hand) column, explain how your solution will minimise or eliminate the risk.
  5. Try to keep the list as concise as possible so that it stays on a single page.

You will find that the customer’s risk of doing nothing is much greater than the risk of doing business with you.

Because you’re worth it

When you sell complex services, the real enemy is not a customer’s demand for the lowest price. It’s having them understand the value of your product in the first place.

 As far as the customer is concerned, there are two financial elements in any sales transaction – the price they pay, and the value they get.

They’re all over the price, but usually much less clear about the value. 

When you talk to a potential customer for the first time, chances are they will ask about the price even before you have enough information to formulate an answer. There are three main reasons for this:

  1. We all carry the same colour money in our wallets. Of all the things that go into making up an offer or a deal, price is the one that is the most universal and easiest to understand (at least in theory). As consumers, we all understand the value of money and are able to make instant trade-offs in our head - “Wow! That’s 50 pairs of shoes”, or “Geez! That’s as much as a Tesla/Jeep/Lexus” (insert your favourite car brand here).
  2. Prices are easy to compare – at least in theory. Once a buyer has seen a number, they’re mentally totting up the value in their heads, comparing it with the value on the page and deciding whether the investment is worth it. Unfortunately, buyers often get this calculation wrong, simply because they are not making an informed comparison.
  3. The price has either been budgeted for – or not. Understandably, buyers can be nervous about investing too much time and energy in something that might be outside their ability to pay. 

Value is broader, and much more difficult for a customer to pin down. That means it’s your job to help them understand the cost impact of the purchase that goes well beyond the price.

Recently I ran my Value Labs program with a professional services firm that had struggled to sell a new compliance product to property developers.

Not only was this a grudge purchase for developers, but there were already other, cheaper solutions on the market, and they were not at all interested, despite the relatively modest fee.

That is, until we discovered that they had a $500,000+ problem that only my client could solve.

Suddenly, this didn’t feel like selling. It felt like helping the developer claim an inheritance from a long-lost, wealthy relative.

There is simply no way to be paid what you are really worth by customers until you first understand it yourself. 

What you do might just be the key to helping your customers to compete better, do business better and to reclaim money they don’t realise they are wasting.

Do you have a ‘work identity’ crisis?

Our work shapes our identity, not just to ourselves, but to everyone else as well. As British writer Quentin Crisp once said:

“It's no good running a pig farm for 30 years while saying, 'Really, I was meant to be a ballet dancer.'

By then, pigs will be your style.”

In a business, your ‘work identity’ is largely shaped by the kind of work that customers are hiring your organisation to do.

Take a look around right now at the projects, contracts and assignments your people are working on.

What do they really think about the work they are doing?

  • How much of it is engaging work that they love, and want more of? This is the kind of work that builds careers and reputations, and that people switch employers to get access to.
  • How much of it is routine work they have done many times before? Most people don’t mind doing some level of routine work, provided that it keeps them gainfully employed. Too much, however, and they will feel they are being held back in their career.
  • How much of it is marginal and painful work that is dull or uninteresting, feels pointless, or is difficult to deliver? What kind of work are your people actively complaining about, refusing to do, or at worst, resigning from your organisation to avoid?

If you find that your organisation has a work identity crisis, here is a three-point plan to fix it.

1.     Stop relying so much on opportunities that are defined by other people, like responding to competitive tenders. You’ll end up getting more of what you don’t want, and less of what you do.

2.     Start defining the kind of work you really want to attract. What does your business want to be known for? What kind of projects do your team most want to do? What type of customers do you most love to work with?  Where do these three things intersect?

3.     Position yourself to win this work by building an offer that explains the commercial value you deliver to your customers – not just what you do. Some organisations I’ve worked with on their commercial value proposition have doubled their revenue within a matter of months, simply through the confidence it gave them to go out and pitch themselves to their ideal customers.

Where do you want to go this year?

What opportunities are on your horizon this year? How will you win them? Are you pumped and ready for 2018? Or could your motivation use a little help?

Winning the work you want actually follows a very simple equation – it’s a case of ready, aim and fire.

The readiness part is important, but often overlooked. It’s not all about targeting customers, and firing off more and more proposals.

In fact, much of your success this year will rest on what you do before you make any kind of pitch.

Legendary American economist and Harvard professor Theodore Levitt said that “people don’t want quarter-inch drills; they want quarter-inch holes.”

It’s not your products and services that define you as an organisation, it’s how you solve problems for your customers.

Your ability to solve customer problems is at the core of your commercial value proposition, or message, which you then take to market.

·      Your commercial value proposition explains why customers choose to buy from you, and not from your competitors.

·      It builds conviction within your team about the true the value of what you do.

·      And, it is the foundation of successful proposals. As can be seen below, if your message is unappealing, customers won’t go for it and you will never win any business:

pimp my proposals value ladder_highlight.png

Successful companies review their commercial value proposition at least once a year.

This is an essential piece of competitive positioning that you absolutely have to get right. It will determine what you say about yourself, and how your market sees you, for the rest of the year.

It also supports your team who are responsible for winning work. Without a clear idea of your commercial value proposition, their proposals will always tend to be longer, more onerous to produce, and harder to present and explain to customers.

Without this readiness, you’ll see some pretty significant knock-on effects.

Over the course of a year, lost proposals represent thousands of hours of wasted work, low morale for your team, and sacrificing millions of dollars worth of new business that you otherwise could have won.

The start of the working year is an ideal time to build your commercial value proposition, before your workload takes off and time pressures get in the way.

Call me on 61 3 9557 4585 or email robyn@robynhaydon.com to schedule a Value Labs workshop with your team, and get your work-winning year off to a great start.


The top 7 of 2017

As we close out a huge year, and our thoughts turn to Christmas, here is a round-up of my most popular articles from 2017.

As regular subscribers and followers will know, I help people to solve three different kinds of business development problems; how to position for new business, winning tenders and proposals, and customer retention and growth.

However, this year’s top 7 shows that 2017 has definitely been the ‘year of the proposal’.

Proposals are never, ever, going away, and it seems we are all keen to find better ways of managing them – as well as winning them.

Thank you for reading The Winning Pitch this year. If you’re looking for a Christmas gift for yourself, or a colleague, check out my bookstore. There’s even a three-book bundle to keep you busy over the holidays.

Stay safe and happy, enjoy a well-earned break, and I hope that 2018 brings you the success you dream of, and deserve.

#1 - Why is employee engagement such a big deal for proposals?

Proposals rely on people. And not just ‘proposal people’. This article provides a framework for understanding your team’s personal, structural and cultural motivation to work on proposals, and how to deal with any deficiencies.

#2 – 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.

#3 - Don’t worry, be happy

When the volume of competitive tenders is less of a trickle and more of a tsunami, the stress and pressure can get overwhelming. Here are three tips to manage your energy, and get through peak workloads with your life and sense of humour intact.

#4 – Keeping your submission in line, and on time

This practical article contains a four-week schedule that will give you the time to think, and to plan your proposal, even when you are stretched with other priorities.

#5 - Five myths that will stop you winning the work you want

I’ve been a bid consultant since 2001. Since then, I’ve heard loads of trash-talk about competitive tenders – most of them from people who have never worked on one and/or never, ever won one.

#6 - Writing to inspire confidence

Have you ever lost a bid you deserved to win? Seen a contract go to a less qualified competitor? Discovered that the client had reservations about your ability to do the job? You may have fallen victim of a lack of confidence.

#7 - The toughest thing about proposals 

Pitches and proposals are some of the most difficult work that any of us will do. This article explains why, and offers three suggestions for managing the uncertainty before the outcome.


Don’t just innovate – communicate!

Many companies now rely on innovation as their primary pathway to growth. But growth through innovation can only happen when your market ‘gets’ what you are doing, and when it makes commercial sense for them to buy it.

This year, KPMG interviewed thirteen hundred Chief Executive Officers, many in Australia, and discovered that 91% were confident about their company’s growth prospects over the next three years.

More than half of these CEOs (55%) said they are investing heavily in innovation –developing new products, services and ways of doing business – while 43% said they were also pursuing an ‘innovation-led business transformation model’ as a route to growth.

This is great news for business confidence and investment. But realistically, where is all this growth actually going to come from?

In my work as a business development consultant, I’ve noticed that companies tend to view innovation as the solution to two major problems; disruption and commoditisation.

Both of these problems actually originate outside the business. Disruption is driven by competitors, and commoditisation is driven by customers.

However, innovation is only part of the solution.

Based on KPMG’s analysis, most businesses will fall into two main camps – those that are investing heavily in innovation, and those that aren’t.

1.     Businesses that are investing heavily in innovation are exciting to be part of. They’ve got new products and services, and will talk about them all day long if we let them.

The problem for these kinds of businesses is getting their customers to listen, and to understand, and to buy at a rate and margin that justifies the considerable investment they are making.

2.     Businesses that aren’t investing quite so heavily in innovation tend to have the opposite problem. They have been talking about what they do in the same way for so long that their customers don’t really value it any more, and are constantly demanding cheaper and cheaper prices.

The problem for these kinds of businesses is how to get customers to stop making unfair and unsustainable price comparisons, and to appreciate the commercial value that their products and services actually deliver.

Which camp would you say your business falls into? The first or the second?

Either way, even if you don’t have an innovation problem, you most likely have a communication problem.

That’s because business development success is a case of ready, aim and fire.

Most of us spend all our time in the ‘aim and fire’ part, targeting customers, and firing off pitches and proposals.

What we don’t invest enough time in is readiness; making the connection between what we know and do, and what makes commercial sense for customers to buy.

As a result, we end up woefully unprepared to communicate and hold our ground with demanding customers, including professional buyers.

Every organisation can benefit from regularly revisiting its commercial value proposition, making sure that their customers not only ‘get’ what they do, but actually want to buy it.

How much do you want it?

Enthusiasm is the outward expression of engagement. When we are truly engaged in what we are doing – whether it’s performing a task, having a conversation, or making a pitch – we come across at our most enthusiastic, attractive and creative.

And engaged people are the people that customers want to hire.

You’ll hear a lot about employee engagement these days, and for good reason.

A study by the Hay Group showed that over a period of seven years, companies with highly engaged workers grew their revenues two and a half times more than those with low engagement levels. 

Originators of the Net Promoter Score, Bain and Company, has also found that your level of ‘customer advocacy’ (how likely customers are to recommend you to others) closely correlates with your levels of employee engagement.

Employee engagement underpins the entire experience that customers have with your organisation, and that customer experience begins with your proposal.

So what practical behaviours can you encourage to show engagement when you are writing proposals?

This topic generated a lot of debate in a recent bid and tender leadership workshop.

On the day, I was working with a dozen bid leaders in a technical professional services business, who are responsible for leading projects and winning ongoing work for their firm.

Culturally, technical professionals often think that being ‘professional’ means they need to be restrained and respectful, and wait for customers to engage with them.

So, when I said their proposal should always ask for the business, and clearly explain what it means to them and why they want it, not everyone was sold on the idea – even though one participant admitted that failing to do this had actually cost him work in the past.

Another, having observed the conversation for a while, chimed in with an interesting connection.

“It’s like on The Bachelorette!” he said.

Although he didn’t say this particularly loudly, of course, everyone heard it.

After the obligatory guffaws and howls of derision from his colleagues had finally died down (it was the final weeks of the show, and his wife watches it, not him, OK?) he explained why he had made that connection, and everyone could see that he had a point.

If you’re unfamiliar with the show, The Bachelorette (like The Bachelor) is a TV reality dating show, where a couple of dozen contestants are lined up to win the heart of an eligible single person. In Australia, this year’s Bachelorette was TV personality Sophie Monk.

Every week, one or more contestants are eliminated, until Sophie, the Bachelorette, has just a handful of to choose from.

By this point in the show, contestants are under constant pressure from the show’s producers to reveal their feelings to her.

Turns out this probably isn’t just a ploy to make for better reality television.

Although every series is slightly different, the story arc of The Bachelor/ette follows a pretty consistent pattern. Contestants who are noncommittal or restrained about their feelings, and who don’t declare themselves by the crucial final weeks of the series, are the most likely to get eliminated.

This holds true in business too. When others are equally qualified, showing your connection to the work and how much you want it could be the key to winning too.

Do your proposals sound like you really want the work, or do they in fact do the opposite?

What are you doing to inject more energy, enthusiasm and personality into your proposals?

The league ladder of proposal engagement

It's fascinating to watch what really happens inside an organisation when there is an important bid, tender or proposal on the table.

Most now have some kind of specialist proposal team or proposal resources in-house. However, to do their job effectively, they need input from other people – such as operational leaders, commercial specialists, and technical subject matter experts – to provide insight, help build the win strategy and customer solution, and develop content.

When you really need them, where are these other people? Who is putting their hand up willingly to work on the proposal? Who isn’t, but should be? Who is being dragged along, kicking and screaming?

What pattern of behaviour is emerging for each person? 

Once you are attuned to this, you will start to see a kind of ‘league ladder’ emerge, based on the level of contribution each person is actually making to your proposal effort.

The discretionary effort they are willing to give has a direct impact on your chances of success, from highly positive to hugely detrimental:

proposal engagement value ladder_2.png


At the very bottom are those who are actually sabotaging your proposals: the refuseniks.

Refuseniks may have valuable knowledge, but they refuse to share it. They don't come to meetings, or respond to requests for information, and their disengagement is a burden on everyone around them. They are like a dead weight, slowly drowning your chances of success.

Also dragging your proposal effort down are those who are always resisting getting involved. There are two types of resistors:

  • Complainers, who can usually to be found saying how much work they have to do and that they don't have time to work on proposals.
  • Procrastinators, who don’t do or contribute much either, at least not until the very last minute. What procrastinators will give you is very sketchy and probably not at all what you asked for.

Then there are the contributors, although they are definitely not created equal:      

  • Cut and pasters are the lowest form of contributor. They look like they're going to contribute good material to your proposal, and they certainly say that they will, but what you receive instead is a great slab of stuff that’s been copied and pasted from somewhere else without any original input.
  • Creators are much better. They’re enthusiastic. They say they want to contribute, and they actually do. Creators are the people who are most likely to bring some of their own thinking to the proposal, and to contribute original material that is helpful.

Finally, there are the drivers – the people who are really going to help your proposal effort to succeed.

  • Collaborators are a clear step above creators. They know they need to work with others to get the best outcome, so they will voluntarily pull others in, go off and have their own team meetings, and drive the development of content that has the best of their own thinking as well as other people’s.
  • Champions are rare, but hugely valuable. These are the people who really drive the proposal, even when it isn’t necessarily their job to do so. Champions think strategically, contribute strategic content, and do everything they can to deliver success.

So, what does this league ladder look like in your organisation? If you named every member of your team or business, where would they sit?

And how many people do you have above the line, and how many below it?

Why is employee engagement such a big deal for proposals?

Proposals rely on people. And not just ‘proposal people’. They also rely on people from other parts of your business, to willingly contribute their knowledge, insights and discretionary effort.

These ‘other people’ include leaders, managers, commercial people, legal people, and technical subject matter experts.

And they are getting harder and harder to engage.

In my most recent public Master Class in Writing Winning Tenders and Proposals, I noticed a big shift in the problems and issues that proposal people were bringing into the room – particularly those with significant (5 years or more) experience.

All of them cited employee engagement as their biggest challenge.

I’d summarise this as ‘getting the input I need, from the people I need, but who don’t report to me’.

They spoke about having to fight to get attention and buy-in; how hard it was to get people to think strategically, and the challenge of getting good quality content they could use, as opposed to recycled rubbish that gets dropped into their in-box at the last minute.

It sounded like ‘other people’ had forgotten that winning business is everyone’s business, and that a small proposal team, particularly in a large organisation with hundreds or thousands of people, cannot possibly hope to do this alone.

This is a significant shift.

Not too long ago, proposal teams would have been talking about win rates, productivity, and managing deadlines as their primary concerns.

Now, it’s all about managing other people – usually people elsewhere in the business, who have other managers, and other priorities, and who need to be bribed, begged, or pleaded with to contribute their expertise to proposals.

So what has changed, and what can we do about it?

When you work inside an organisation, your level of motivation for particular types of work depends on three things:

  • Personal motivation – whether you have the skills, confidence and enthusiasm to do the work;
  • Structural motivation – whether the work is enshrined in your job description, and comes with clear guidelines and KPIs; and
  • Cultural motivation – whether the work is supported, valued, and celebrated by your colleagues and the organisation itself.

When any one of these motivations is missing, there is a problem.

Without personal motivation, you’ll have low satisfaction (and probably high stress) when doing the work.

Without structural motivation, you’ll have low expectation that the work should actually be done.

And without cultural motivation, you’ll have low support for the work, and colleagues will lack understanding about what it really contributes to the organisation.


With the increasing professionalisation of proposals, and the rise of specialist proposal teams, fewer people now have ‘contribution to proposals’ enshrined in their job description or KPIs. This undermines structural motivation.

Proposals are a very quick way to burn out people who are trying to fit them in around their day job, with no training or confidence in their ability to write or contribute. This undermines personal motivation.

Proposals also tend to be invisible, back-office, ‘sweatshop’ work that attracts little recognition and reward. Instead of being publicly thanked and praised for their efforts, or given time off to rest and recuperate, those who do contribute their discretionary effort to proposals are expected to dive straight back in to their day job to tackle a backlog of work. This undermines cultural motivation.

Unfortunately, most organisations undermine their proposal effort more than they support it.

Are you seeing these challenges in your organisation? And what have you done to overcome them?

Love to hear your thoughts.

How can leaders improve their firm’s proposals?

Recently I had the great pleasure of being interviewed by Dawn Russell, a TEC Chair, coach and leadership facilitator based in Perth, Western Australia on the topic of how leaders can improve their firm’s proposals.

We cover a lot of ground in this five-minute interview, including how to develop a multi-million dollar tender; the biggest mistakes companies are making with their proposals; and the practical steps that leaders can take to reduce the pain of their proposals process and achieve better outcomes.

Like many people with a high-flying corporate background, having spent many years with Singapore Airlines, Dawn had worked on a large-scale tender response herself.

Dawn began by mentioning that she had found the sheer size of the client’s request documentation ‘offputting’.

This led to a discussion about how proposals create a cultural problem, where leaders will put other people on the job of churning out proposals in response to tender requests, while they go off in search of work that is more engaging and more ‘fun’.

Dawn clearly agreed with this, in the context of her own experience.

“There’s no way, if I looked at that (tender) document, that I would have thought it would be fun,” she said. “I mean, it was horrible.”

After a bad initial experience, your people will often do almost anything to get out of contributing to proposals.

Take a close look at your company’s culture, and how it is supporting the behaviours you want to see around proposals. This is the first step you can take as a leader to improve your proposals, and your results.

Check out the video for more ideas on how you can improve your firm’s proposals.

The toughest thing about proposals

Pitches and proposals are some of the most difficult work that any of us will do.

There’s the stress and pressure we put ourselves under to get them done. The mind-boggling questions we get asked. The lack of information. The ridiculous time frames. The fact that we've all got day jobs while we are trying to work on proposals as well.

But these are all symptoms of a much larger problem.

The toughest thing about proposals is that they involve loss of control over the outcome.

It’s knowing that despite doing our best, working our hardest, and twisting ourselves into a pretzel, we have no control over the ultimate choice.

TED speaker Brene Brown says that ‘vulnerability is basically uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.”

Even when we believe that might and right are on our side, and that a decision should be a foregone conclusion, we are reliant on someone else to seal the deal.

Nowhere is this more obvious to me than in a tough situation I am facing, along with everyone else in the LGBTIQ community in Australia, as we await a nationwide postal vote on the question of marriage equality.

From this week, registered voters will be sent a voluntary survey that asks “do you support a change in the law to allow same-sex couples to marry?”

This editorial in The Age, written after the High Court struck down a challenge to the legality of the survey, explains the ‘yes’ case better than I ever could.

I am simply far too close to it.

This uncomfortable reality has made me empathise even more my clients, who are often faced with a make-or-break pitch that will have a huge impact on them personally, on the structure and future of their business, on their staff, or their ability to make a difference in the world.

This is particularly true of incumbent suppliers who may have been working with a client for years or even decades, only to find that they are forced to tender for the work again. No matter how confident you are about the outcome, the process feels like applying for your own job, with all the anger, fear and anxiety that brings with it.

Even though we can’t control the outcome of an important pitch, we can do something about the uncertainty before the outcome. Giving your intuition some space

Travis Bradberry, author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, says that our brains make things harder for us when we are facing uncertainty because they are wired to react to uncertainty with fear. 

Here are three of his tips for managing uncertainty, which I’ll be doing my best to put into practice over the next few weeks. I hope they are useful for you too.

1.  Quiet your limbic system

The limbic system has a knee-jerk reaction to uncertainty, which creates fear. Once you are aware that you are feeling fear, you can recognise and label any irrational thoughts that don’t represent reality. Bradberry refers to this as ‘telling your caveman limbic system to settle down and be quiet until a hungry tiger shows up’.

2.  Focus on something positive

Positive thoughts can dial down our fear and irrational thinking by simply focusing our brain’s attention on something that is completely stress-free. No matter how hard things get, we call all identify one positive thing that happened in our day, even if it seems small. This is all it takes to activate this positive effect.

3. Trust your gut

When researching my latest book, Value, I learned a lot about the enteric nervous system. There is a primal connection between our brain and our gut, which are joined by an extensive network of neurons and a highway of chemicals and hormones. Dr Deepak Chopra, a famous self-help author who also happens to be a neuroendocrinologist, has said that gut feelings are “every cell in our body making a decision”.

Our ancestors relied on their intuition, or gut instinct, for survival. Since most of us don’t face life-or-death decisions every day, we have to learn how to use this instinct to our benefit. Some practical things you can do to trust your gut when managing uncertainty include:

  • Recognising your own filters, and when you’re being influenced emotions or by another person’s opinion. For this reason, I’ve had to go off social media almost entirely during the Australian marriage equality ‘debate’. For me, the onslaught of opinion (even positive opinion) has been unhelpful and overwhelming.
  • Giving your intuition some space. Don’t pressure yourself to come up with a solution. Albert Einstein said he got his best ideas while sailing, and when Steve Jobs was faced with a tough problem, he’d head out for a walk. (The shower is also excellent for getting into ‘flow’).
  • Building trust in your own track record. Listen to your gut on small things and see how it goes. When it goes well, you’ll know you can trust it when the big stuff comes around.

What is the next frontier in proposal development?

Like all business functions, proposal development has changed a lot over the years – ever since suppliers were forced to acknowledge that the glory days of doing multi-million dollar deals on a handshake were not coming back, and that proposals, unfortunately, were never, ever going away.

In the beginning, when introducing a proposals function, most businesses concentrated on enforcing a repeatable process for proposals as a way to reduce the cost and risk. The focus here was largely on paperwork, including things like checklists, toll gates, and quality assurance procedures.

The enduring challenge for businesses is getting compliance with the process, something that remains difficult to do today.

As time moved on, businesses became more interested in proposal productivity, seeking to leverage tools and systems to make what can be a time-consuming, onerous process faster and simpler.

The focus was on implementing systems, automation and assembly tools to manage the complexity of proposal content. This is where most businesses are today.

The enduring challenge here – as with any investment in tools and systems – is to achieve full utilisation of them, and to actually capture the promised productivity gains.

Which brings us to a tipping point, and a glimpse at where we are headed next.

As we tick off these stages, and as proposals become more and more professionalised, there is a risk that the people in your business with the knowledge to actually win proposals are becoming less and less engaged with their development.

Join me and Jonathan Keighley from Qorus at 8.00pm (AEST) on Thursday 8 September for this special webinar on Proposal Collaboration, where we will unpack the mindset, tools, and techniques you need to break down internal silos, get your team working together, and build the engagement that will help you win more bids and proposals.

Look forward to seeing you there.

Five myths that will stop you winning the work you want

When I wrote my first book The Shredder Test in 2007, I wanted to help people who found themselves in the position of having to write proposals to win work.

In the decade since, many things have changed. The proposals we’re writing are far less likely to be small, one-page quote letters, and much more likely to be huge, time-consuming tender responses.

Today, if you want to win work of any size and scale with business or with government, you’ll be doing it through some kind of competitive submission. Australia’s Federal government alone spends more than $60 billion a year buying goods and services through competitive tenders.

A lot of things have been said about competitive tendering – most of them not very complimentary, and some of them just plain wrong.

Maybe you’ve heard a few of these hoary old chestnuts?

1.     “Only relationships will win you business.” Relationships will always be important in sales, but the way relationships are transacted has completely changed. These days, the relationship is built on the other side of winning the business through a competitive tender – not beforehand.

2.     “Tenders are a waste of time.” Heard mostly from old sales hacks who are terrified by the thought of competitive tenders and have never, ever won one. If you want business on any size and scale, you’ll need to bid via a competitive tender. Don’t let anyone hoodwink you into believing otherwise.

3.     “If you didn't write the tender you’ll never win it.” Pure fantasy. Buyers haven’t let prospective suppliers dictate their tender specifications for a long time – one reason why the scope of work is often so incomplete and difficult to understand.

4.     “Just pump out as many tenders as you can – eventually you’ll win one.” Another attempt to dismiss the importance of submissions, and their role in winning you work. Putting junior people on the job and cranking out a pile of tenders is a good way to drain your bank account. Not, however, a great way to win business.

5.     “Only the cheapest supplier will ever win a tender.” True, if you’re in a market that is highly commoditised and where the product is easy to understand. Absolutely false, if you’re in a complex services market, delivering anything that comes with a high degree of visibility and risk for the buyer.

The way we win business might have changed forever, but our thinking often hasn’t.

Too many of us are undermining our new business effort by following out-dated sales advice that belongs in the last century - when market conditions were completely different.

Winning business through competitive tenders requires a very different skill-set to selling face-to-face, and nowhere is this skillset more important than in professional services firms, who rely on fee earners to generate income.

A 2010 Towers Watson Global Workforce Study of 116,600 employees across 20 professional services firms found that the level of employee engagement is a direct reflection of the bond, or attachment, between employee and employer.

This in turn determines an employee’s willingness to give discretionary effort, which is the kind of effort your proposals almost certainly rely on.

However, when your people view proposals as one of their most brain-draining, mind-numbing chores, you simply aren’t getting the level of effort and engagement you need to win the business you really want.

My new white paper Why Proposal Engagement Is The New Frontier For Professional Services Firms addresses this issue and offers a solution.

Contact me at robyn@robynhaydon.com if you’d like a copy.

Do your people loathe proposals?

Next week I’ll be heading up to Sydney to speak to a group of professionals as part of Consult Australia’s FutureNet program for emerging leaders in the built environment and construction industry.

For the most part, these are young people who are just at the beginning of their career.

My wish for them is that when they eventually look back on their long and successful career in the industry, they will know for certain that they have won - and done - the work they really deserved to do.

Over the course of nearly two decades, I have worked with professional services teams in a wide range of industries, including engineering, environmental and heritage management, project management, market research, management consulting, marketing services, and real estate services.

What professionals in any industry have in common is the desire to actually do the work they set out to do; the kind of engaging, satisfying work that will make all their study, their sacrifices, and their sweat and tears worthwhile.

Unfortunately, the need to first win this work through a bid or competitive tender tends to become a block and a barrier that gets in the way.

As a result, professionals often loathe proposals, or at the very least, have become jaded, frustrated or exhausted by them.

This usually comes down to some combination of these five things:

  1. They lack the time or skills to develop a strategy they know can win the work.
  2. They are bogged down by useless procedures that tick some internal box but add no actual value to the proposal.
  3. Any pre-written proposal content they can get hold of, which should make their life better, does the opposite, because it is patchy, poorly written or completely out of date.
  4. Although they are expected to write proposals to win work, they have never had any training or development to show them how.
  5. They have no reliable, ongoing source of mentoring or support.

Nowhere is employee engagement more important than in professional services firms, who rely on fee earners to generate income.

And as a professional services leader, it’s your responsibility to know when these issues are impacting on your team, and your ability to win the work you want.

A 2010 Towers Watson Global Workforce Study of 116,600 employees across 20 professional services firms made the distinction between drivers of staff retention, which tend to be individual issues like pay and rewards, career development, leadership, stress balance and workload, and drivers of engagement, which are primarily cultural; the firm’s image and reputation, and whether or not it is ‘living its values’.

The study also noted that the level of employee engagement reflects the bond, or attachment, between employee and employer, which determines an employee’s willingness to give discretionary effort – the kind of effort your proposals almost certainly rely on.

Since I first started delivering the Pimp My Proposals program, one of the most gratifying – and consistent – results has been way it re-boots the engagement of teams who previously saw proposals as a brain-draining, mind-numbing chore.

One participant, who had come into a workshop particularly fed-up and disinterested in proposals, had completely changed his tune by the end of the day. Here’s what he had to say:

“I learned that we can challenge the norms we’ve been working to, and evolve and improve our proposals to win business. We need to change!”

At the end of your day, it’s not the proposal itself that really matters – it’s the opportunity that lies waiting for you on the other side.

Don’t let the proposal become the block and the barrier that sits between you, and the work that you and your team really deserve to do.

We buy when people listen

Listening builds relationships, and relationships build customers. In a sales conversation, the most important person is not the supplier – it’s the customer. Hiring you is their opportunity to talk about themselves.

This is something that providers of personal services, such as hairdressers, personal trainers, and manicurists, know only too well.

In a 2016 UK study by Ipsos Mori, hairdressers ranked high on the list of most trusted professionals, right alongside doctors, judges and teachers.

Hairdressers are often entrusted with their clients’ problems – everything from split ends and dye jobs gone wrong to broken marriages. In fact, the intimate nature of the client-hairdresser relationship is so widely recognised that there are even government-funded training programs to help hairdressers identify and support their clients who may be suffering from domestic abuse.

We do like to talk about ourselves, and given the right encouragement, can do it for hours, because it simply makes us feel good.

A neuroscience study by Harvard University in 2012 found that self-disclosure (talking about ourselves) actually fires the same brain circuits that are triggered by food and money, even when it is something as seemingly insignificant as telling others that you like Dr. Seuss books.

A 1990s study of human conversational behaviour, reported in The Scientific American, found that we spend, on average, 60% of a conversation talking about ourselves. A more recent study by Stanford University found that this figure jumps to 80% when communicating via social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

However, there’s a cost to all this one-way chatter.

Researchers found that even when money was on the line, participants in an experiment were willing to accept a 17 per cent loss of potential earnings if it meant they were given the opportunity to talk about themselves.

In proposals and presentations, I’ve seen this show up in the way that people seem compelled to start their pitch by talking about their credentials and track record. I don’t think it is due to narcissism, arrogance, or even a high level of confidence - but mostly due to an underlying fear and anxiety.

Leadership coach Oscar Trimboli, who writes on the topic of deep listening, says “Every human wants to be listened to – yet what they crave is to be heard.”

It takes practice to give someone else the space to be heard, especially when that someone is the customer, and they aren’t even in the room yet.

When you next bring your team together to work on a presentation or a proposal, consider how you can hold some space for the customer to be heard.

This might mean engaging an external facilitator to ask customer-led questions; designating someone in your team to act as a proxy for the customer; or leaving a symbolic seat for them at your table.

Listening is a valuable skill that is in short supply. The more we listen, the better we hear, and the deeper and more profitable connections we are able make with others.

Five ways to build your business development culture

In the last couple of years, I’ve given more than 20 presentations on business development as a speaker for The Executive Connection (TEC), a membership organisation for CEOs and senior leaders with 21,000 members in 16 countries around the world.

From Brisbane to bayside Melbourne, from Perth to Parramatta, I’ve had the privilege to work with several hundred very clever and switched-on people through TEC’s monthly member meetings.

The businesses these leaders represent vary enormously, from small technology start-ups to medium-sized professional services firms to huge multinational corporations.

Yet they all have one thing in common; every business relies on customers to survive.

When I ask the CEOs in my sessions to identify their most important contract or customer, this usually comes pretty easily.

What’s less easy for them to put their finger on is what’s getting in the way of winning more customers, or of keeping the ones they already have.

It comes down to what’s hiding in plain sight inside their business – the culture and habits that have built up around the way that business development is managed.

In my experience, the most successful businesses are those where everyone in the business understands the role that they play in business development.

This includes the front-line staff who deliver the work and interact with customers every day; the managers who support those people in their role; and the senior leaders who free up staff to pursue value creation projects and to pilot new programs.

Here are five ways break the business development habits that no longer serve you, and to build a more successful business development culture in your organisation.


Make sure that everyone’s job description contains at least one thing that requires them to contribute towards your company’s business development effort.

When it comes to business development, there are three things you need your people to deliver. Firstly, professionalism, meaning customers can be confident that your company knows what it’s doing. Secondly, a pipeline, meaning your team is opportunistically positioning themselves to help customers with new work when it arises. And finally, preferred supplier, meaning your business is strategically positioned for the big contracts you really want to win. The primary owner of the professionalism category is your operations team. When it comes to the sales pipeline, it’s your line managers, who are in contact with customers at a more strategic level. And when you need to be seen as the “preferred supplier”, that responsibility rests squarely with you and your executive team.


Invest in training and development that builds business development skills, confidence and knowledge across the organisation.

People at every level need to be able to do at least three things: to identify the value they create for customers, to write persuasively on their area of knowledge for bids and tenders, and to contribute their best thinking to retaining existing business.

Senior staff also need strategic pursuit and proposal leadership skills.


Reward people for contributing their knowledge and time to important bids.

Proposals have become a “five to nine” job for most people. Recognising their valuable contribution towards important bids will go a long way towards preserving their goodwill for future pursuits and bid projects that ask them to go above and beyond the requirements of their day job.


Encourage strategic, cross-functional teams to work on value creation projects.

This means giving them the time and space away from the rigours of their “day job” to do so.


Convene customer-specific teams to develop customer re-engagement strategies.

According to Bain & Company, a 5% increase in customer retention yields profit increases of 25% to 95%.  Businesses are often very good at developing innovation, best practice and continual improvement ideas that benefit themselves. Turning this process around to focus on your best customers will be a game-changer for your retention rates – and your margin growth.


Are you swimming in the sea of same?

When comparing the marketing and credentials material of organisations operating in some services industries, you could be forgiven for concluding that they were actually the same business, just trading under different names.

Consider the following (fictionalised, but very common) examples in the industries of engineering, human services, and IT services.


“We are an award-winning national engineering firm with a commitment to delivering high-quality projects. We maintain a unique employee culture that empowers our teams to deliver highly personalised, commercially viable and robust engineering solutions. With experts who sit on many of the industry’s leading regulatory bodies, we are at the forefront of industry developments in engineering. We invest in the development of our staff, and our high-performance teams deliver exceptional client service that goes the extra mile for our customers.”

Human services:

“We are a community organisation with a proud history of supporting marginalised and disadvantaged people, including children, young people, families, Indigenous Australians, people with disabilities, people from culturally diverse backgrounds, and older Australians. We deliver end-to-end services in urban, rural and remote communities that deliver on our vision of safe and strong families living in socially inclusive communities. We are working to create opportunities that break the cycle of poverty, improve people’s quality of life, and give a voice to those who are most vulnerable.” 

IT services:

“We are an enterprise IT solutions business that works with our customers to create efficiencies across their people, processes and technologies. We believe in the power of information technology to drive business growth and innovation, and our team delivers unmatched depth and breadth of expertise with global reach. We will help you to leverage your existing IT investments by assessing your current systems for peak performance, delivering data hosting and business continuity solutions, and providing hardware maintenance.”

Do any of these descriptions sound like your business? Do they look familiar in terms of the way you’re accustomed to talking about yourself? And could they equally describe most of your competitors?

Industries develop a kind of “common language” that helps professionals in the industry communicate with one another.

This is useful to a point, until it becomes a common marketing language as well.

The more that customers experience this common marketing language, the less difference they see between you and your competitors – and the more likely they are to commoditise you, and insist you compete on price alone.