Over the years I’ve been involved in plenty of competitive pitches and tendering processes. I’ve learned the hard way that not all tender processes are created equal and, try as I might, some of the clients and projects to which I thought my company was best suited we’ve ended up not winning. And sometimes vice versa. Here’s ten ways in which we think clients can improve tender processes to achieve better outcomes…
1. Get buy-in from the top of the organisation before you start
Before you set your mind to what you need from your new supplier, consider who in your organisation might want to have a say in which company gets chosen. Mapping out your stakeholders, clearly noting their roles and areas of responsibility within the process will provide useful information that will help suppliers understand your organisation. By talking to these people right from the start and sorting out any clashing priorities or differences of opinion, you’ll prevent the process getting railroaded later on.
2. Make it a fair fight
Clients often talk about their relationships with agencies like they’re a time-worn marriage. Perhaps the relationship with your current partner has gone past the ‘first flush of romance’ and you’re looking to ‘spice things up’. The solution? Hold a pitch!
The reasons clients hold pitches and write tenders are many and varied – so when it comes to engaging new companies, make sure it’s a fair fight. Provide everyone with the same information about what you’re trying to achieve and why, plus everything relevant about your; organisation, competitors and business model. If you have a period where suppliers can ask you clarifying questions, make sure all participants get to see the answers. Do your damnedest not to let one company get an unfair competitive advantage due to how you manage the process.
3. Secure budget for the whole engagement before you tender – so you can get going immediately after appointment
When you work for an agency or consultancy, there’s nothing that gets the adrenaline and creative juices flowing more than a competitive pitch. It’s where the rubber hits the road to test your metal head-to-head with agency competitors and get a result, and quickly. Pitches get agency people excited. New ideas and new possibilities are dreamt up, future plans are discussed, sales forecasts are updated.
If you’re the client running the process, don’t disappoint your new suppliers. Make sure you’ve formally secured buy-in to commence the work soon after the pitch. You want to keep your new supplier’s elation at winning the business alive, during and beyond the immediate ‘honeymoon period’.
4. Be clear about how to win
Clients tend to be looking for external perspectives on their business when they write tenders. By providing a clear route to winning the business, clients get concerned that suppliers may restrict their creativity.
Don’t let this way of thinking fool you: as someone tasked with responding to tenders, there’s nothing as frustrating as a woolly, poorly-defined tender document. By thinking clearly up front about what you need and what the supplier needs to demonstrate in order to win, you’ll get much more creative and focussed responses.
For example, if value for money is most important to you, tell suppliers your budget and what you expect them to deliver for it. The valuable ideas that come out of the proposals may stem from the trade offs made to come in on budget, or from how the work is delivered.
5. Be reasonable about timeframes and deadlines, and stick to them
Even for smaller pieces of work a phenomenal amount of effort, coordination, anxiety and craft goes into producing the information required to win a tender. Agencies and consultancies need to commit people and money to effort that is usually not billable – at least not up front.
Respect your prospective partners by acknowledging a few weeks may be required to get the right people involved and provide the attention required to deliver you a solid proposal. Sometimes longer if it’s a long term engagement.
It’s right to expect speedy turnaround when you engage with external suppliers but setting unreasonable deadlines or moving the goalposts on timeframes will harm you and your organisation’s reputation with prospective partners.
6. Minimise unnecessary bureaucracy
Many larger companies use standardised procurement systems and processes across the organisation. Due diligence and corporate governance standards mandate that certain checks and balances are met to deliver consistency of quality and service from new suppliers. That’s understandable.
But don’t let your organisation get in the way of prospective partners providing a quality response to your brief or tender. Support your potential partners through your organisation’s procurement processes and provide reasonable assistance to help them be the best they can be. Help them prepare themselves for any process-driven ‘gotchas’ that may be coming down the track.
7. Set aside the time to provide open access to your organisation
As cxpartners has grown, we’ve been fortunate enough to work on some really impactful projects. We’ve been able to do this in large part because of the way we collaborate with our clients.
A stellar pitch response always stems from getting right under the skin of the client’s problem and ‘peeling away the onion’ before coming up with innovative approaches and ideas. The best clients know that’s how these things work. They make sure we’ve got access to all the information, people and parts of the organisation that are relevant to the undertaking.
Being party to the way the relationship between client and supplier works is also a great way to work out if there’s the right ‘chemistry’. Consider workshop sessions to explore your requirements instead of (or as well as) formal Q&A meetings. Making your organisation feel human to your partners will get your prospective partners even more excited about working with you.
8. Don’t reward gimmickry; penalise sloppiness
One of the by-products of competing in an environment that incentivises creative thinking is clever people trying to ‘game’ the process. Treat this approach with scepticism – perhaps the supplier will try to game you as a client if they can’t impress you with the quality of their response.
Equally, those who submit sloppy, typo-strewn proposals and presentations should not be tolerated. Perhaps the same mistakes will crop up in their work with you later on. Can you afford to let that happen?
9. Be decisive
Big decisions are never easy. It’s well known that humans lean on their subconscious mind when making big decisions, and even the most rational of tender processes will always have an element of emotion attached to it.
When you commit to work with a supplier for an extended period of time you need to consider whether the people you’re going to work are a good fit for your business. So make that part of the selection criteria, alongside all the more rational criteria like value for money and the appropriateness of the ideas and solutions proposed. If you’re clear about the criteria, being decisive should be a lot easier. And once you’ve decided, commit and follow through. There’s nothing worse than an organisation that isn’t decisive when it comes to the crunch.
10. Once you’ve made a decision, be there to provide considered and constructive feedback to all participants
There will always be ‘losers’ in a tendering situation. Leaders treat failure as an opportunity to learn and be better next time. Take the time to ensure you’re facilitating this learning, instead of spending all your time with ‘the winners’. The other companies might be well positioned to help you out later down the line.
In a competitive environment, pitches and tendering are a fact of life. Mostly, they’re an exciting way for agencies to get to grips with new challenges and for clients to bring in fresh thinking from outside the organisation. The pitch is a controlled way to test the market to see what’s available. And yet, pitch processes are an expensive drain on time, people and money, for both suppliers and for clients.
In my experience, the best clients recognise these costs and ensure there’s a win-win for all the companies involved, even for those who don’t get appointed. Follow the ten pointers above, and you’ll find yourself on the road to a high performance relationship with your new supplier, without leaving a bad taste in the mouths of those who didn’t get your business.
[First posted on the cxpartners blog on 13 Aug 2015]