Winning Tenders

This white paper on the art of tender writing should be of interest for any business where responding to tenders is a key channel for winning new business. In my experience a number of the smaller businesses that submit tender bids find it an enormously frustrating experience. The competition is often fierce and bids are often submitted with high expectations only to be met with enormous disappointment. Is it rigged? What are we doing wrong? These are just some of the questions business owners will often ask. Hopefully this paper will go some way to answering those questions.

Let me begin with two caveats. The first is that this paper cannot provide any guarantees on your future success. There are a number of reasons why such a guarantee cannot be offered, as outlined below.

Reason 1: Successful tender applications require skilful writing technique. If your organisation does not possess these skills and you cannot afford to buy this resource, then you will always be disadvantaged against the competition. However, to some degree, this paper and your word-processor’s spell checker should go some way to alleviating this.

Reason 2: Your company may have a negative reputation from previous work delivered and that bad reputation is likely to be known to the organisation that has put the tender out. In this case all you can do is demonstrate that those problems have been overcome.

Reason 3: Sometimes, although it will obviously never be known, tenders are influenced by a political/environmental bias. The commissioning body may just have somebody in mind for the contract and they are putting it out to others simply because they have to comply with competition law. There is little you can do about this. Sometimes you will be victim of it although you will never know you have been. It happens and you will just have to accept it and move on. Don’t let it put you off. In fact, if your application is extremely good then it may force them to reject their prospective partner in favour of yours. Treat this as the motivation for completing every bid. Assume a bunker mentality and go out and win against the odds.

The second caveat concerns the limitations of the paper. Its purpose is to provide generic advice that should be suitable for all. Individual sectors and projects may require essential and specific tender writing content that is specific to your industry. If you do not incorporate this material into your application then the situation is unlikely to be salvaged by good alternative material.

With that out of the way let’s now talk about what this paper can do. Over 12 key points, I articulate a mindset/methodology that should really help you with writing great tender documents. This is based upon several years of experience that combined composing bad applications with really good ones. Over time, by observing what made a successful outcome from a disappointing one, a picture has emerged for me on what really can make a difference.

If it helps at least one reader to win a tender that you might otherwise have been unsuccessful, then I will be satisfied with my efforts.

So without further ado, here are my 12 key points to winning more tender applications.

Key point #1: Never ration the passion.

Unless you can be completely passionate about writing your tender bid then you probably shouldn’t be doing it. Bid writing is, in varying measures: challenging, labour intensive and tedious. If you are going through the motions, you are not going to hit the standards of excellence required to win consistently. Therefore, unless you can give it your full attention and do it with incredible energy and enthusiasm, then get somebody else in (either internally or from the outside) to do it instead.

Key point #2: Less is more.

Commit to undertaking less applications, but spend more time on each one. Go into every tender challenge with the express intention of winning. Absolutely and unreservedly, winning.

One consequence of this is that you can afford to be more selective on which tenders to put in for. Choose only those that:

a. Really play to your organisation’s skills and strengths. Sometimes you just read a tender and think – “this could have been written specifically for us”. Those are the ones to target.
b. Are not beyond the size of your organisation. There is nothing wrong with being ambitious, but you still need to be realistic. If it’s a multi-million pound contract and you are a team of 3-4 then you are probably going to fail no matter how well you write your bid.

Key point #3: You are not alone.

I don’t mean this in a sinister way – it’s unlikely there is anyone hiding in your closet (although if you are of a nervous persuasion, now might be a good time to go and check!). What I do mean is that you will likely be competing against many similar organisations. You will all have been given the same tender specification (“spec”) and will all have similar stock answers.

Be very clear that to win this job you are going to have find a way to truly stand out from the pack. “But that’s what we’ve been trying to do for ages!” you might be bellowing. If so, read the remaining points in this paper with an open and honest mind and see if there is just one missing piece of the jigsaw. Here’s the first –
Key point #4: Be bold, confident yet controlled.

You need to write a tender document that unequivocally says you are THE one for the job. You – it can only be you. However, the trick is to do that in a way that imbues professionalism not the ramblings of a crazed maniac. Am I still talking too blue sky? The next 4 points provide some detail.

Key point #5: Give them exactly what they want.

Perhaps the key section of a tender spec is the evaluation criteria. Almost all tenders should articulate how they will score each application. If it is not included you are fully entitled to ask them to provide it. This weighted list of criteria provides the basis upon which you complete your application. Therefore craft every section in such a way that you are addressing exactly what they are asking for.

Don’t assume they will read between the lines of a long and unstructured piece of prose. The more transparent you are in every statement you make, the easier it will be for them to score you.

However, that’s not enough. At least half of your competition will have the savvy and experience to have done the same. So whilst you might now be amongst top 50%, you still have someway to go to make top of the pile.

Key point #6: A picture paints 1000 words.

Even if the spec does not attribute any weighting to the quality of the presentation, you must make yours stand out. For a start, add some imagery to the front cover. Try to get into the mindset of the person who has to read these documents. They want to be enthused. They may have a lot of plough through.

Start as you mean to go on and capture their attention. Maintain this throughout. Adding (appropriate) images to a document brings it alive. Use high quality images and make them relevant to what you are writing. Don’t just add an image for the sake of it – it has to say something.

Key point #7: Don’t subscribe to conventional formatting.

Let’s be honest. The easy solution is a standard word-processed document in a conventional report format. Most, if not all of your competition will revert to this type. So why not create something different? By following point #6 above you have already made a departure from convention. One easy approach is to format using two columns. Immediately your application looks interesting to the reader. If you can add some additional neat touches using variations in colour, some text boxes and just generally be visually astute using headers and footers then you have given yourself a great platform.

Key point #8: Never fall into the trap of “going through the motions.”

Don’t just say you have the ‘ISO 9001 accreditation’ or some other quality standard. Most of your competitors will almost certainly possess the same award. Go on to say what elements of this accreditation will impact upon this project if you are successful.

Key point #9: ‘Beyond this project’ means nothing.

Never, ever articulate your organisation’s ambition to achieve something (e.g. qualification, accreditation, recruitment) in the future beyond the project you are bidding for. This is suicide. Firstly, the evaluator is understandably selfish. They want the best for their project not future ones. Secondly, you are giving vital credit to any competitor that may already have this and can apply it to the project in question.

Key point #10: Give more for less.

Do be competitive on price (particularly if it is one of the evaluation criteria) but always look for ways to innovate. The one exception to this is when innovation is not in the make-up of the project, e.g. construction or health related. Add ideas that others won’t have thought of. Give the commissioner confidence that if they award this to you, you will exceed expectations.

Key point #11: Tell them what they already know. Trust me on this one!

Always look to add a section called “Our understanding of the requirement”. I think this is a key section that many tenderers won’t include. In this section paraphrase back to them what it is they want. But don’t just repeat the words in the tender spec in rote fashion. This is your opportunity to interpret the spec and very subtly weave into it why you can do everything they need (and more!) better than anyone else.

Key point #12: Write a really strong Exec Summary.

I’ve listed this one last because the Executive Summary should always be the last section you write. How can you possibly summarise something you have not yet formulated?!

Keep in mind the old adage about first impressions. The Executive Summary is your first impression. It can’t win you a contract but it sure as hell can lose you one.
Many tender submissions replicate exact snippets of the document within the Executive Summary. Often the author has simply run out of steam. They’ve done the hard bit and frankly they’re now sick to the back teeth of it, so they throw out a hastily composed roadmap from Section 1 to Section 6,7,8… Big mistake!

Let me re-frame this using a related analogy. How often have you been invited to a team meeting and been sent an agenda? In particular, how often has that agenda come flying off the page, grabbed you by the scruff of the neck and metaphorically screamed – “you really have to be at this meeting!”

The stereotypical Executive Summary is no different. Typically, authors provide a blow-by-blow account of the reader’s impending life experience: “In the next 30 minutes you are going to remain stuck in your chair and read about the history of my company, who I have employed and how good they are, receive copious detail on how I’ll do the job you need doing and end by telling you how much it’s going to cost. Oh and by the way, it’ll be much the same turgid mass of information as the last 20 applications you have laboured through.” Do you think he/she is shouting -“bring it on!” Probably not.

We can do a lot better than that. The Executive Summary should be crafted using almost entirely fresh words. It must also be very carefully structured. However, that structure does not have to be a narrative chronology of the remaining document. Instead identify the four, five or six unique selling points that your application has to offer. These need to be specific to the project – their evaluation criteria is a good starting point for this. Sell your organisation on these points by articulating evidence that appears in the document. Finally, present these points in a very clear fashion. The best way to present headlines using text is to use bolded/underlined headings – much as this white paper has done. Don’t be afraid to use this type of formatting to an Executive Summary. There is no rule written anywhere that I know of that says Executive Summaries must be paragraph upon paragraph of text separated only by some white space.

As I think this last point is so important, I have supplied an exemplar of the type of Executive Summary you might wish to write. It’s provided below as an Appendix and is a fictional tender relating to delivering training sessions to small business owners. For clarity ‘New Horizons’ and ‘Inventiture’ are the fictional names given to the two partnering organisations. Any similarity with existing organisations is purely coincidental.

Appendix: Executive Summary
A. A partnership between two prestigious organisations
New Horizons and Inventiture have developed a proposal to deliver the ‘CityGate 2012 Programme’ that addresses all the critical elements of the specification as set out by . This collaboration brings together two organisations that are able to draw upon considerable experience in supporting start-up and high growth enterprises. In particular, the Archimedes Programme, which has been implemented with unprecedented success by both partners in our respective regions, lays testimony to our ability to transfer knowledge to create extraordinary business benefit.

B. A real “boot camp” experience
The proposal detailed in this document is a bold and innovative undertaking. At the heart of the proposal is the vision of providing a true “boot camp” experience. This would be achieved by delivering the first two of the four boot camp sessions in Hereford. The opportunity for recruits to the programme to move out of their everyday environment and embrace a two-day boot camp, that not only imparts knowledge, but challenges their business thinking, promises to be a valuable and truly memorable experience for them. One of the highlights of this getaway will be an after-dinner speech by one of the UK’s leading entrepreneurs who will provide anecdotal insight on the challenges and joys of life in business.

C. A compelling strategy for a successful awareness campaign
The performance targets for this programme are challenging – supporting 380 businesses with 240 of those going on to develop their idea into a fully operational company. Such a challenge will demand significant effort and skill in promoting the programme to business communities. This is something that both of the partners to this proposal have demonstrable excellence in. The awareness campaign outlined in this proposal is imaginative, thorough and in tune with the latest trends in marketing. As such, it is a proposal that should provide the commissioning organisation with absolute confidence that the programme will exceed its targets.

D. An inspirational learning experience
In the modern business environment, knowledge is available from so many sources that conventional training as a vehicle for learning is being challenged to demonstrate its value. The real skill of business training is not just imparting knowledge, it is sparking ideas and making connections with the audience that actually inspire as well as inform. The leading-edge trainers that have been recruited for this programme will position that ideology at its core.

E. Careful consideration of risk issues
A project such as this is not without risk, particularly when the collaborating partners are separated by 80 miles. Key risks to this project have already been identified in the development of this proposal. How do we ensure a consistent communication flow is maintained between partners? Which KPI targets require the most attention? How can we mitigate for short-term trainer absence? The partners to this proposal have significant experience of distanced collaboration, both with each other and numerous other organisations. We also place great emphasis on risk management in training delivery and set quality standards and interventions in place to manage adversity.

F. Immediate resource capability
Due to the challenging outcome targets for this programme, there is a clear imperative on the successful tendering organisation to hit the ground running. Both partners to this bid have recognised this and made adequate provision for immediate implementation. Key internal resources can be made available, key marketing activities will be undertaken swiftly and the first set of training sessions will take place in March 2013. All of this is possible because a carefully thought out implementation strategy has been developed, as evidenced by this document.

G. Excellent value for money
Present throughout the dialogue between partners during the development of this proposal has been a strong desire to offer real added value to the commissioning body. We would do everything at our disposal to ensure that this programme exceeded expectations. The satisfaction of witnessing genuine positive change being generated through a training project is paramount to both partners.
Consequently we have formulated a plan that focuses on delivering value for all of the programme’s stakeholders. We have made bold decisions that are not based on commercial gain – lowering training rates and providing more training sessions. Our motivation for doing this was through recognition of a key risk factor – conversion of programme attendees from aspiring entrepreneurs to business owners. The decision to use three trainers per training session rather than one or two was taken to add value for the programme attendees. As a final illustration, our decision to create a blended learning programme that combines traditional lecture style presentations with practical sessions, multi-media presentations, after-dinner speakers as well as a rich networking experience, should demonstrate our commitment to maximising value.

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