Timing your pitch to perfection

Successful pitches may start with why, but ‘when’ is increasingly important, particularly for time-sensitive and complex pitches like tender bids.

My 2018 study into supplier experiences of competitive tendering and dealing with procurement consistently – and alarmingly – found that tender time frames and requirements are getting harder and harder for bidders to service.

Complexity is increasing, while deadlines are shrinking, and tender response timeframes are now half what they used to be. This is a recipe for confusion, paralysis and buck-passing among pitch teams that are ill-equipped to deal with complex, compliance-heavy tender bids within shorter and shorter time frames. 

In his most recent book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, Daniel Pink makes a compelling argument that leaders must start paying a lot more attention to timing if we want our teams to perform better, play nicer together, and dodge avoidable mistakes.

Here are three pieces of advice from his book that are particularly valuable for bid and pitch teams.

1.     How to put on the pace when you’re running behind – Pink refers to project midpoints as a ‘psychological alarm clock’. If your team is only slightly behind at the project midpoint (and they probably will be), you can use their tardiness to motivate them. He cites a series of studies by Berger and Pope that analysed 18,000 basketball games over a 15-year period, paying particular attention to the scores at half-time. They found that teams who were trailing by one point at half-time actually went on to win on 58% of occasions. Berger and Pope were able to replicate this result in experiments, concluding that “merely telling people they were slightly behind an opponent leads them to exert more effort” – and to win in the end.

If your bid teams are serial laggards, try introducing an artificial deadline in advance of the actual deadline. This will set the psychological alarm clock earlier, where it can give you the greatest psychological advantage.

2.     How to maintain focus near a deadline – Pink cites this (common) scenario. A major proposal needs to be out the door by 5pm today, but it’s incomplete, energy is slumping, and it’s not possible to pull away completely to take a restorative break. Instead, schedule a ‘time-out’ at 3pm, two hours before the deadline. Everyone stops what they are doing and takes 30 seconds to report on their progress; 30 seconds to describe their next step; and 30 seconds to answer the question ‘what are we missing’? After assigning who will address the missing pieces, the team schedules another time-out if necessary. This short, stand-up style meeting boosts energy, keeps everyone focused on the bigger picture, and encourages a cohesive result when you can least afford to lose momentum.  

3.     How to time pitch interviews to your advantage – If you are one of a lineup of companies pitching for business, the timing of your pitch can be just as important as your performance when you get there. Pink says that if you are not the ‘default choice’ (the incumbent), your best option is to pitch first, while the decision makers are fresh. Going first also confers the primacy effect – a tendency to remember the first thing in a series better than those that come later – and is especially helpful when there are five or fewer competitors. On the other hand, when you are the incumbent, it’s better to go last, or later. Decision makers are more likely to stick with the default late in the day when they’re fatigued, rather than earlier or after a break (when they’re revived).  

If there are many competitors, pitching last can also confer a huge advantage. According to social psychologists Galinsky and Schweiter, judges hold an idealised standard of excellence at the beginning of competitions, but as the competition proceeds, a new, more realistic baseline develops, which favours later competitors.