A bid for victory

1 September 2006 Peter Bartram

Author Peter Bartram has made business communication his life's work. In this article, he analyses the key skills that any bid team needs to have in order to make a real impact with prospective clients.

It's in the nature of a CEO's job to look at the big picture. But sometimes it's important to look at the detail as well. And one of the most important bits of the detail is whether or not the organisation has the skills that are vital to compete in the future.

No skills could be more important for that than those needed to win new business. But which skills exactly are key when it comes to filling up the order book? "Exactly which skills are key when it comes to filling up the order book?"


Your presentation or pitch is the key interface with your prospective customer – the culmination of all your work on winning the bid – and your prime opportunity to influence the customer in your favour. The final pitch can be make-or-break for winning the contract, especially when the final choice comes down to two or three closely matched contenders.

Your bid has a value to the customer not only in terms of price but also because of the benefits your proposed solution provides. Each aspect of your offer has a specific value, which may be high or low depending on the customer's unique requirements.

Understanding the level of value that your customer places on solutions to each need – where the need is most pressing and where it is marginal – is the foundation of a successful bid.


Understanding the customer's buying centre is essential to any successful bid. The buying centre does not just include the members of the purchasing team, but anyone, internal or external, who influences the decision.

The bid process is the heart of your strategy. Setting up an organised framework for the bidding process helps to marshal all the information inputs, to see the bid from both a supplier's and buyer's perspective, and to cope with the time and resource pressures that often force a bidder into cutting corners or making snap decisions.


For certain bids – most commonly in the public sector and with global development agencies – detailed tender documents drawn up by the client determine which contenders are shortlisted. Compliance with the specification outlined in the tender documentation is strictly enforced, and if your interpretation of what is required is wrong, it may lose you the contract.

Understanding your markets, customers and competitors is the essential first step to handling bids effectively. This is especially important as the shape of markets is changing more rapidly than ever before and competitors can emerge from unexpected places. The best competitive intelligence operations ally information collection with insightful analysis.

Understanding and influencing customers is the key to communicating with them on the same wavelength. Tailoring your key messages to each part of the customer's purchasing strategy – taking into account the level of prior knowledge and the credibility of your firm in the customer's eyes – may determine whether you reach that all-important short list.


It is too easy to see the two functions of procuring and fulfilling new contracts as separate.

"The bid team leader is the only person able to see above the detail."

Yet the very activities that are essential to successful bid management – gathering competitive intelligence, developing and maintaining good reference sites, drafting proposals, and exploiting internal networks – are also essential in searching the marketplace for new clients.

The more synergy that exists between these functions, the more effective the company will be at winning new business.

The style of leadership you adopt with your team is critical to the success of the bid. While each team member is focused on specific and immediate tasks, the bid team leader is the only person able to see above the detail to ensure that the collective capability of the team is steered towards meeting the complex and often conflicting needs of the customer, end-user and the customer's internal stakeholders.


Leading a bid team involves creating the right team spirit and motivating team members by defining an understandable set of challenges. Managing the team involves breaking down these challenges into achievable milestones and obtaining the right resources to help the team achieve them.

Your choice of team members is critical to the success of the bid as these are the people who will demonstrate to the customer the full 'constituency' of the product or service you are pitching to provide – especially the technical back-up and ongoing advice.


The negotiation stage is the last chance in the bidding cycle to influence the customer's decision. Although many successful bidders believe that the customer's mind is usually made up by this stage, there may be opportunities to sway them by 'fine-tuning' – being flexible on price, delivery, post-bid maintenance or another aspect of the bid the customer considers important.

Each company has a unique way of taking its major purchasing decisions – even if it hasn't designed a formal model. Penetrating more deeply into the customer company to gain new insight of the important issues at stake is one of the most critical steps in a successful bid.


Spotting the emergence of new markets and gaining information about them is important when you come to define your product's value in the terms that customers in overseas markets might expect.

This is all the more important because, in many industries, future competition may come from unexpected quarters, while future demand will be generated in new markets. Bidding for business becomes more complex when international competitors enter the ring. "Setting up an organised framework for the bidding process helps to marshal all the information inputs."

While a company may understand the strategies and tactics that homegrown competitors use, it may be unfamiliar with those employed by foreign competitors.


Praise or commendation from a third party can be a powerful influencer with potential customers. Of course, you make claims about the effectiveness of your own products and services. Where such claims are independently verified by users, they carry substantially more weight.

CEOs need to bear in mind a final point. Building bidding skills is not a one-off exercise. It's a continual task in which you – and your competitors – seek progressively to raise the bar to a point at which only you can clear it. You can be certain that if you succeed in reaching this point, it will be only a matter of time before a competitor is capable of making a similar leap.

And so the task of improving must start all over again.