Caught in a tender embrace

Putting together a proposal takes a lot of energy, so make sure it pays off, says Jasmine Birtles
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The Independent Online

Sometimes it can seem as though getting work takes as much time and effort as actually doing it. If only life were simpler. Sadly, when it comes to providing a product or service to larger organisations, particularly government departments, it is highly likely that you will have to tender for business, which means spending time, resources and probably money, for business you might not get.

Sometimes it can seem as though getting work takes as much time and effort as actually doing it. If only life were simpler. Sadly, when it comes to providing a product or service to larger organisations, particularly government departments, it is highly likely that you will have to tender for business, which means spending time, resources and probably money, for business you might not get.

It also often means competing with several other companies which might be bigger and better resourced than you. This can be daunting, particularly if you are faced with a 20-page document from your potential clients detailing the many in-depth questions they want answered in your proposal. Don't worry. A small business can be surprisingly successful in grabbing the prize if the tender is handled resourcefully and intelligently.

"The first thing you should do when you are invited to tender is to decide whether you really want to go for the business," says Nick Winters of the accountants and business advisors PKF. "You may feel that the amount of time and effort involved in producing a good document is just not worth it for the kind of business you would get."

Your available manpower, finances and the intensity with which you want the contract should help you decide. This is an important point because most tenders, if you do them properly, will take a lot of time, a lot of thought and often involve you having to disclose some fairly sensitive information about your business to your potential client. If you are unhappy about any of these elements then it may be worth using your resources to go for other contracts that can be obtained in an easier way.

"Whether you decide to go for the job or not," continues Winters, "it's important to ring up the company, acknowledge receipt of the offer and let them know what you intend to do about it. In fact, throughout the tendering process your focus should be on making contact and building relationships."

In this initial phone call you could find out more about the customer's needs and about their organisation, perhaps getting brochures and a website address from them. You could ask about the other companies you are competing against, although you may not get an answer. Find out why they have put the job up for tender and the important criteria by which the successful contender will be selected. Is price the most important factor or are they really looking for a contractor they can rely on or one that has a long and impressive track record? All these things will help you to tailor your tender document to give you the maximum chance of success.

When you write the document, prioritise the key points to reflect the things you know your prospective client believes to be important. Any of your unique selling points should be kept credible and you should try to avoid gimmicks. Your pricing structure should be clear and transparent. Don't necessarily try to cut margins to the bone; the lowest tender is rarely the successful one. Just make sure you are able to communicate the advantages and value-for-money of your product or service.

Nicholas Fraser, MD of the IT company Advanced PayPoint Solutions, has tendered for a number of different IT contracts. "My advice is to answer the questions they ask, even if they seem stupid, follow their instructions precisely in terms of layout, and respond in the timescale whatever you do," he says. "Deliver it by hand if necessary and get it stamped but get it there!" He also suggests you add a management overview, of up to two pages, which summarises the main selling points of your proposal and includes the costs. And put in a covering letter that restates the main points.

If, even after all this, you don't get the business, it can be very helpful to phone the client and ask for the reasons, just as you might if, as an individual, you had failed to get a job. Sometimes it can simply be a matter of price, but in other cases you could learn some valuable lessons for when you tender for contracts elsewhere.

How to win at tendering

Empathy: The importance of being able to establish a rapport and empathise with the prospective client cannot be underestimated. This would encompass understanding the target business and being sensitive to the personal objectives and agenda of the decision makers.

Helpfulness: Decision makers look for evidence that their prospective business partners will be prepared "to go the extra mile" in serving them and that they will provide solutions that are not only technically correct but will also help to solve practical problems.

Hunger: Prospective clients want to feel that their business is important to the firm they choose and that they will always be treated as if they are a high priority. Therefore, it is vital to demonstrate enthusiasm and commitment during the tender process.

Leadership: The proposal team leader must be genuinely committed to working with the prospective client and must demonstrate that he or she has the authority and respect of the team.

Teamwork: Everyone in the team should have a clearly defined role and the group should show that they are able to work together.

Expertise: Customers tend to take this for granted, but it is important to demonstrate relevant expertise by referring to relevant experience, skills and knowledge.

Resources and infrastructure: The company should be able to demonstrate that though it may be smaller than some of its rivals, it can offer the breadth of resources and back-up to successfully complete the contract.

Value for money: Customers generally expect there to be some equation between quality and added value on the one hand and price on the other. It is vital to get the pricing right to demonstrate value for money.

Source: PKF Accountants

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