I was recently asked how I increased the tender success rate of a previous employer. I was also asked how I did it so quickly. The person asking was sceptical of my statistical claim. Their firm had recently lost a number of pitches, and they didn’t understand where they were going wrong. I matched this scepticism with an air of cynicism, answering the question with a question – not always a great move, but it led on to a more worthwhile, and fundamental, discussion.
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I asked: ‘Why does your firm pitch? Why do you pitch for work?’ The reply: the recent pitches were valid opportunities for some much-needed work.
I asked: ‘Would you have still pitched if you knew you had already lost?’ The reply: ‘No.’ (Obviously).
I put forward a number of scenarios for them to consider against their failed pitches (note this list is far from exhaustive, there are many more!):
You had already lost the pitch because you had no prior connection or relationship with the prospective client.
You had already lost the pitch because the prospective client just wanted to see who else was able to provide the service, using the pitch process to enjoy a batch of free presentations.
You had already lost the pitch because the decision was already made; the prospective client had an incumbent firm and they were using your pitch to drive down their incumbent’s price.
You had already lost the pitch because your fees were never realistically going to be considered by the prospective client, but they got you to pitch anyway.
You had already lost the pitch because you presented a solution which, really, you knew the prospective client would not appreciate.
You had already lost the pitch because you had the wrong service team presenting.
You had already lost the pitch because you do not have the industry experience or sector knowledge to match the prospective client’s expectations.
This caught their attention.
It’s nothing new to say professional service firms don’t win most of their work by pitching. This particular firm’s clients came through an appreciation of good relations, through trust and quality service performance, underpinned by a fair and reasonable price. In fact, they did not have any clients that had come through a competitive tender process. Yes, they had made good acquaintance with a number of contacts through various pitch processes, but these hadn’t resulted in any work.
They asked: ‘How can we afford not to pitch?’ I asked: ‘Can you afford to pitch?’
Pitching is expensive. Even the smallest of proposals will bind a professional and their support for a week. That’s two weeks of manpower that could be spent on something more meaningful and income-generating. Many firms don’t assess the on-cost and time spent developing ‘lost’ business; this is difficult to do. So take it for granted, pitching is expensive.
The reality is somewhat different!
In an ideal world, firms would be able to take a philosophical approach and decide as a matter of policy not to pitch. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world. The public sector alone, which purchases £175 billion worth of services and products, contracts out work according to procurement process rules set out in EU legislation. So the reality is, for public sector work – you have to pitch. And in today’s economic climate many private organisations are purchasing legal and accountancy services through procurement processes and cycles. Organisations are questioning their relationships and putting them to test to establish quality and value. This all sounds fair, logical and reasonable. But for professional service firms wanting to make pitches a worthwhile way of winning business, the ‘spray and pray’ approach just isn’t viable.
For each pitch opportunity, consider the scenarios listed above. If you still feel the need to pitch, and are prepared to lose (and take the financial hit), here is some advice.
Be cynical. Be ‘pitch’ cynical. Establish all the reasons why you may have already lost the pitch, and set your strategy by determining how you can turn that loss into a win. There will be situations that cannot be overcome. Walk away. Do it before it costs you time, energy and resources.
Assess cynically the strength of your connection. Consider whether your concept and your delivery will be good enough. Make a judgement on whether your price fits.
In most of the scenarios in the list above, losing pitches is down to not having a prior connection with the prospective client. Having good relations with the prospect is almost always the decider, and at the least a major influencer.
Good relations determine the level of understanding you have of your prospective client, their needs and expectations. Where you do have a relationship, do you have a relationship with the decision makers? Do you know who they are and what is important to them?
Ask yourself, does the client have a relationship with any of your competitors? If you have a deep relationship and connection with the prospect, and you understand the nature of their relationships with your competitors, pitch away. If you know the prospect has been courting your competitors, consider whether you have already lost.
If you have no prior relationship with the prospect, don’t have sufficient understanding their market and the competitor activity surrounding the opportunity, you have already lost. Move on.
And remember, it’s perfectly fine to bow out at any stage of the process. Explain courteously why you will not be furthering your interest in the opportunity and ask whether you can keep in touch. It’s then down to you to take action to strengthen your position and better your chances for next time.
If you decide to take the next step and pitch, build your solution and concept for the audience by scoping their needs effectively. Pitches are won at the scoping stage. Be honest. Address their goals but ask uncomfortable questions:
• Who are we up against?
• Why are you looking to change provider?
• Where have your current incumbents failed/disappointed?
• What are your expectations in relation to the pitch document and presentation?
Ask away. If you don’t get sufficient answers – or are not happy with the responses – walk away. Be cynical. Identify the situations where you have already lost.
It’s about understanding the business and the prospective client. Put too much emphasis on your proposal document and you have already lost. Be smart. Take what you have learnt from the scoping meeting, tailor and refine. Ask yourself whether the proposal document matches the brief. Recipients like bullet points, diagrams and charts. Remember your audience, they might be reading your proposal over lunch or in bed. Don’t place too great a reliance on too much narrative. Make sure that CV’s include relevant experience. Write an executive summary. Set the scene. People like reading about themselves. Tell them the key business issues. Show them your understanding. Don’t go over ten pages.
If you are presenting to like-qualified, such as in-house counsel or accountants, show that you respect their expertise and treat them as a business partner.
Rehearse. Know your own material. Predict the questions. Rehearse the answers. Presenting in a team means behaving like a team. Don’t over-speak, points-score or highlight errors of your colleagues. Surprise prospect with your solution – but root it from their issues and address their pain. Be a story teller. Use a bit of showmanship. Make the audience smile. Don’t die by Powerpoint. Engage. Be different. Show them that they can’t make a wrong decision because you are the best of the bunch. Show them they have chosen the best firm there is.
If you don’t rehearse your presentation and aren’t able to deliver your concept well, you have already lost. Move on.
Price is dependent on the prospective client. Predict and assess their situation. If you are far too expensive, you have already lost the pitch. If you are too cheap, the prospect may struggle to justify your selection to their management in the event of failure or service issues. Have a realistic estimation. But remember to be confident about price. Clearly set out the fee schedule. Provide a solid statement of value in support of the price. If you get challenged, don’t assume you are considered expensive – be bold, justify your value. Stand firm.
Pitching is a necessity. It’s draining in more ways than one, but it’s a necessity all the same. If you do opt to take part in a competitive tender process, set your strategy by being cynical from the outset, and consider whether you have already lost. You’ll be surprised at how positive the effects are of this cynicism.
And in answer to the original question of how I managed to increase the success rate, that’s easy. I reduced the number of pitches, and only pursued the dead certs. Call me cynical, but I like to back winners.
His passion for marketing and client acquisition has developed into a 20-year career, working for some of the leading professional service firms in the UK.
Graham can be contacted by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or by mobile: 07484 644846.
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