Watching some scary films for Halloween got us thinking about our bid horror stories over the years. These are just a few examples, sure there are many more if we thought about it (although we try very hard to forget them!)
Being sat in a hotel room at 2am the day before submission, trying to translate our bid speak into formal contract terminology.
Uploading a huge multi-partner £50million bid to an online portal, all the bid team stood around watching, with the documents so large they were taking forever to upload. Finally submitted and accepted with 43 seconds to go.
Proof reading a global opportunity with a colleague from 4pm to midnight, then back up at 5am to finish off. The week before Christmas. Independence Day was on in the background; have not been able to watch it since.
First bid for a new employer. Hard copy required – courier was late picking it up, then got lost. Sent out with a junior employee in a taxi while ringing the client to beg them to accept it…
Sat in a deserted office the night before a Bank Holiday, awaiting a courier delivery of a new contract for signing the next week.
Hitting roadblocks at every stage of the process when the bid sponsor wouldn’t take on board any suggestions from the rest of the team – only for them to change their minds at the last minute. Cue mass re-write…
The client who sent out hundreds of clarification responses one message at a time.
Working with a teaming partner whose pricing put us £50k above budget, and who refused to take anything out of their model.
Having a member of the team going into labour the morning of the client presentation, and prepping someone to jump in!
The multi-work area global bid that landed on Christmas Eve and was due on January 2nd. Why do clients do that?!
An e-auction that was originally booked for 30 minutes, and would extend by 10 minutes if someone placed a new bid in the last two minutes. Three hours we sat in that room…
The huge re-tender that was in progress for 18 months and we were incumbents – only to lose it on price, undercut by several £million. Devastated doesn’t cover it!
Being asked to pick up a bid started by a colleague whom our manager had been asked to remove by the lead contributor. Awkward… and a week left to turn it around. Don’t think daylight was seen that week.
And yet, despite all the horror stories, this is still a job we love to do! Most of the time…!
The volume of positions advertised at present, coupled with the number of people seeking or saying they are starting a new position, got me thinking about how important on boarding is in bid world, where we’re expected to have all-round oversight and knowledge. Bid writers and bid managers need a solid grounding in what they will be trying to ‘sell’ to clients, and how they get stakeholder engagement to support that in a new organisation.
This is not intended as gospel for every new starter or organisation, but in my experience, the most important facets of onboarding for bid professionals are:
Understanding the firm’s bid process/framework
Gaining knowledge about the firm’s products and services
Knowing the right people to go to
Understanding the firm’s bid process/framework
Whether they will be working within or managing the organisation’s bid framework, understanding that process is vital. Some of the core questions to understand include: What is the qualification criteria? Who is involved in the decision gates, kick off meetings, review and sign off? Where are case studies, CVs and previous content stored? How is the content library (if one exists!) structured? Who is responsible for commercial models and contract reviews? How do we track upcoming and in-progress opportunities? What reporting do we produce?
At a more granular level, if there is a team of bid writers and/or bid managers (perhaps also with bid co-ordinators/assistants at larger organisations): How is work assigned (e.g. by sector, product, seniority, capacity)? Who is responsible for which aspects of the process and the bid itself? Is there a peer review process in place?
Gaining knowledge about the firm’s products and services
It’s my belief that a bid writer/manager shouldn’t need to rely 100% on their operational and technical teams for subject matter expertise. With a grounding of understanding in the products and services your company offers, you should be able to draft anywhere from 50% to 75% (conservative guess!) of the more specific/technical sections of a bid, and then go to the experts to fill the gaps or double check against the client requirements. After all, writing for bids is not their day job.
This initial knowledge gathering can take many forms, from reading up on the company website and/or brochures, to listening in on sales/customer service calls or even going out on the road with field representatives, or even sitting in on other staff training sessions. If technology if part of your organisation’s offering, new starter bid professionals could also be provided with access to test systems – further helping their understanding of how a system works in practice, and allowing for walk-throughs when the client requirements come in.
Of course, at present onboarding may be remote – but that’s not to say the new starter shouldn’t have much the same experience as though they are there in person. Video conferences and calls can easily take the place of meetings, online courses to support the new systems rather than face-to-face training, and VOIP/video would allow people to listen in to calls or be virtually ‘on the road’ if that’s required as part of the process.
Knowing the right people to go to
When working on a bid, it is vital you know who to ask about various aspects of the bid response or to get those nuggets of gold to add – especially when you’re up against tight deadlines. While some of this will come naturally from initial knowledge sharing sessions, you may also have a distinct session on who is involved / for what expertise, or just hear about people in passing.
Collating a subject matter expert matrix can be useful when it comes back to remembering who you spoke to about what – their role, areas of expertise, email and telephone numbers (as well as any site or working hours information).
The role of the bid team is not only to win new business, but also to make the lives of the operational teams easier – so it is in their long-term benefit to support onboarding. Above all, if in doubt, ask!
Storytelling in bids has been a topic of much conversation over the past few years, with interesting sessions from Sarah Hinchliffe and Ashley Kayes recently on the APMP calendar.
In Ashley’s session in the recent Winning Business Virtual Experience, she highlighted the link to Disney – ‘storyboarding’ as a concept started in the Disney studios. This got me thinking about the similarities between many Disney animated films and the bid process. There is a chance continued lockdowns are starting to take their toll… or just that I watch too many Disney films. But there are some shared themes!
The Little Mermaid
The Disney version: The film tells the story of a mermaid Princess named Ariel, who dreams of becoming human and falls in love with a human prince named Eric, which leads her to make a magic deal with an evil sea witch to become human and be with him.
The bid version: The challenger firm dreams of being “the one” and usurping the incumbent. They look for the insider knowledge, doing a deal to repay the favour with a job if it works out well…
The Disney version: Wendy Darling and her brothers John and Michael go on an adventure to Never Land with Peter Pan (the boy who never grew up) and his pixie friend Tinkerbell. Peter leads a band of Lost Boys who spend their time hiding from and fighting with Captain Hook. After helping Peter win a battle with Hook, the children fly back home. Peter and the Lost Boys return to Never Land.
The bid version: Peter and the Lost Boys are the MD and the operational and technical experts the bid manager (Wendy) tries to round up and control to input into the bid; usually seen all the time, now the bid has come out, they’ve gone into hiding.
The Black Cauldron
The Disney version: Set in a mythical land during the Early Middle Ages, the evil Horned King hopes to secure an ancient magical cauldron that will aid him in his desire to conquer the world. He is opposed by a young swineherd named Taran, the young princess Eilonwy, the bard Fflewddur Fflam, and a wild creature named Gurgi who seek to destroy the cauldron, to prevent the Horned King from ruling the world.
The bid version: Two bidding firms – one of which is the incumbent – battle over a third party expert who will give them the edge in the bid.
The Disney version: The film follows Aladdin, an Arabian street urchin, who finds a magic lamp containing a genie. He disguises himself as a wealthy prince, and tries to impress the Sultan and his daughter.
The bid version: The bid team that exaggerates or even makes up its experience to get in the door with the client and their advisors. Beware – the lack of experience will be found out!
The Disney version: A lost, young princess with magical long blonde hair yearns to leave her secluded tower. Against her mother’s wishes, she accepts the aid of an intruder to take her out into the world that she has never seen.
The bid version: A client has been with the same service provider for some time. The service delivery team has pushed back on their MD as they feel things can be improved. The client is now coming out to bid for the first time to find something different.
Big Hero 6
The Disney version: Hiro Hamada, a young robotics prodigy, forms a superhero team to combat a masked villain.
The bid version: In probably the most obvious bid link of the Disney back-catalogue, the bid manager and sponsor pull together a crack bid team with differing skillsets to outbid the competition.
And finally, an honourable mention to Inside Out– set in the mind of a young girl, where five personified emotions (Fear, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Joy) try to lead her through life. Definitely all the emotions the Bid Manager goes through during the bid process…
We ran a poll on LinkedIn this week asking at what point bid professionals write their Executive Summaries. The options were: before the RFP is released, after the RFP is released but prior to the bid kick off, when the bid draft is 90% or fully completed, or at another point (inviting comments). There were 127 votes, and the results made for interesting reading!
The majority (65%) said they write the Exec Summary when the bid draft is almost or fully complete. A combined 24% said it was either before or just after the RFP release – either way, before any “full on” bid work has commenced. For those respondents who said it was at another point (10%), some insightful comments were shared:
After bid launch, while the strategy is evolving.
Ideally during and after first draft is finished…[it] should be written by the person directly in contact with the customer.
Before, then again on receipt of tender and again at 90% / red review…you always discover something throughout the process.
Before the first technical review.
After the Pink Team review, when I have a full sense of all the challenges of the project.
Although almost two-thirds of respondents said they write the Exec Summary towards the end of the process, best practice is actually to write the Exec Summary before the RFP is released, or as early as possible in the bid planning stage. Does that surprise those of you who leave it until the end?
According to the APMP Body of Knowledge (BOK) “a draft executive summary should be developed early during the opportunity/capture planning phase. It provides a roadmap for the rest of the opportunity/capture plan.” The BOK suggests the Exec Summary should be drafted by (and owned throughout the process by) the Opportunity Manager*, since they are often closest to the customer – as suggested by one of the responses in our poll. It should be part of the ‘pack’ brought to bid decision gate reviews and the bid kick-off, and used to gain senior internal approval for the bid approach.
The timing does make sense. Even at this early stage, you should already know the main benefits and USPs of your solution versus your competitors; and you should know the customer well enough to understand how your solution provides real benefit to them. Of course, there are always those ‘take a punt’ bids you may not have fully prepared for. There may be slight differences between customers in different sectors or those with truly specific requirements; but even then, you should understand your solution well enough to quickly document the benefits and value, and determine whether the opportunity is worth pursuing. The BOK goes further “If you’re not prepared to write the executive summary early, you probably aren’t ready to bid and should consider a no-bid.”
The Exec Summary should, as set out in the BOK and in some of our received comments, drive your bid response strategy, not simply summarise your offering. It should set out your understanding of the customer’s challenges (their “hot buttons”), and put forward your value proposition, key win themes and discriminators to convince the customer to choose you, showing how you’ll meet their challenges. It should demonstrate the benefits of choosing your solution, not the technical components of the solution itself.
The Exec Summary should provide a baseline to help your bid team write the response, outlining the key messages and benefits to underpin your solution – ensuring even when different people write different sections, the same messaging is used. That means it should be a concise, persuasive, compelling start to your bid submission – clearly showing the customer evaluator why your solution is the best choice, providing benefits specific to their requirements.
That’s not to say you should write the Exec Summary at the start and forget about it. It should be reviewed when the RFP is issued to take account of any new client requirements, and throughout to ensure the right messages are being conveyed or to take account of any solution changes. As some of our poll respondents commented, you always discover something or learn more about the challenges through the bid process.
If you currently leave the Exec Summary until late in the process, try writing it early and see if the process, and submission, is improved. Or if you even continue to bid.
* In your organisation, the Opportunity Manager might be the Account Manager, Client Relationship Manager, Sales Lead or a BD/Bid Manager.
On 27 December 2014, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson began the first ever free climb of El Capitan’s ‘Dawn Wall’ (Yosemite National Park). As I recently re-watched the documentary covering their amazing feat*, I was struck by the similarities between their challenge and the bid process. The latter with, hopefully, less physical pain and hanging off a wall for days on end.
Tommy has completed more routes on El Capitan than any other climber, including numerous first free climb ascents**. He is its incumbent. Over seven years, he spent months climbing and analysing the Dawn Wall, attempting to map a route through the hardest free climb route in the world. Looking up at the Wall, it seems impossible; and many said it was. A vast expanse of apparently blank rock. But Tommy looked between the “known lines”, the existing climbing routes, finding the path (a series of pitches – told you there are similarities!) through the maze. He knew he couldn’t achieve the climb on his own, hence partnering with Kevin.
Does this remind you of anything?! You know a bid is coming out. Maybe you’re the incumbent, the challenger or, like Tommy and Kevin on the Dawn Wall, it’s a brand new opportunity. You prepare; researching the target, and gathering evidence. You receive the bid papers. You comprehend the requirement. You read, read and read again; looking for every small nuance for how you can wind a path through the submission and win the bid. You have no idea where to start. Just a blank page. You know you can’t meet all the requirements yourself, so you reach out within the business, or team up with a third party. Some stakeholders or contributors might think we can’t do it. But we’re going for it.
Day 1 on the Wall. Tommy and Kevin take in the 3,000 feet of sheer granite ahead of them, adrenaline pumping, can’t wait to get started. Day 1 on the Bid, it’s the kick off workshop – the whole team is enthusiastic, raring to go. Win themes decided, production plan shared. Of their attempt, Kevin said “this was Tommy’s world – he had a clear vision of what it should be…I could never tell if we were wasting our time or in pursuit of something grand.” Of our attempt, it’s the Bid Manager leading the team on the vision, the journey to win.
By Day 3, reality has hit. You’ve been drafting content outlines, holding daily progress calls, issuing plans and answering queries non-stop. It’s all-consuming. Back on the Wall? Tommy says he’s “gonna wake Kevin up with some coffee”. Yep, I hear you. Already, spectators have started to gather, watching their progress. For us? Senior Management and Board members are starting to show interest.
On Day 4, Tommy and Kevin are hit by a 70mph snow and windstorm. The portaledge on which they rest and sleep is repeatedly bounced against the wall. It’s chaos. Yet Tommy, grinning, says “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I love this sh*t”. How many of us feel that way about bids?! They can be stressful, even terrifying at times. Ideas and content flying everywhere. But we keep going. Many of us in this career for the long-haul.
Day 8, and Tommy and Kevin have reached pitch 15, the sideways traverse. A sequence of tiny movements over seemingly smooth rock, each to be completed perfectly to make it across. A few false starts, then for Tommy, “it just came together in this amazing, magical way”.
On the Bid? It’s content deadline day, sections start coming in and you have a jigsaw to fit together. Somehow, the response appears.
Word begins to spread, and on the Wall, Day 9 marks the media phone calls, wanting to chat with Tommy about how it’s going. For us, it’s often our stakeholders, checking in. About a week later, Tommy “accidentally” drops his phone – those around him seem to think it was no accident. I’m guessing a lot of us would share that frustration when we just want to get on with the bid but our stakeholders, partners, Board want updates.
Pitch 16 on the Wall is Tommy’s next big problem. There is nothing to grab onto – the only way across is to leap. But then, staring at the Wall, he sees another way; he can down-climb and go around it. Problem solved. How many times do clarification questions seem like a showstopper? Or a resource/technology issue appears we hadn’t thought about? We work our way around, solving the problems and getting back on track. Or we might have a team member like Kevin, who, having previously been stuck on the traverse pitch for nearly a week, makes the leap. A spark of inspiration.
2,000 feet up the Dawn Wall is a landmark known as “Wino Tower” – a lump of rock, marking the first point you can sit (or lie) on the whole route. For the Bid team, we’re 2.5 weeks through, and most of the hard work is done. The content is in and a full draft written. You might be waiting for the red team review or design work to be complete, but you can sit (or stand, or lie) and breathe. And, maybe take the “Wino” part fairly literally by this point…
Day 19, and Tommy and Kevin are enjoying their last day on the Wall. They pull themselves over the edge to the top of El Cap, crowds watching live and cheering them on. They’ve done it. The team has made it, despite how unlikely that seemed at times. For us, it’s submission day. Your MD is over your shoulder, watching as you upload, then maybe popping the champagne. The Bid team has that feeling of euphoria when you submit. You’ve all worked so hard for it.
But, as Tommy says, it’s almost bittersweet, because the experience is over. Till the next bid, and the next climb. For Tommy and Kevin, they go home, see their loved ones, and get some rest and motivation for the next climb. I think we’d agree.
*The Dawn Wall, 2017, dir: Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer. If you haven’t seen it, what are you waiting for?! I also highly recommend the Oscar-winning, equally amazing and somehow more terrifying Free Solo (2018, dir: Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi) documenting Alex Honnold (Tommy’s friend and fellow climber) attempting the first free solo, i.e. without ropes, harnesses or safety equipment, of El Capitan.
**https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tommy_Caldwell Free climbing is driven by your own body, often just fingertips and toes (and in Tommy’s case, nine fingertips as he’s missing his left index finger!) You secure ropes as anchors along each pitch to hopefully prevent you falling, but they don’t help you climb the pitch.