Bid process

Talking to clients part 3: Debriefs

How often do you request* a debrief with the client after the procurement process has concluded? Rarely or never? Always, but on losses only? Or do you request a debrief every time, whether you have won or lost the contract?

If your answer isn’t the last option, you could well be missing out on important feedback on your tender, your team, your pricing and your approach in general. Without understanding why you won or lost an opportunity, how will your submissions improve? It really is that old adage of the definition of madness being doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

Client debriefs are a real opportunity (whether on the telephone, video conference, or even emailing tailored questions) to understand what you did well or where you need to improve. Many bidders only request a debrief on losses, but they are equally important where you have won; you cannot and should not assume the client liked everything about your submission.

So the client has agreed to your request, now what should you be asking? Clearly there will be specifics from your submission, but some ideas are:

  • What were you were looking for from the procurement process? Did it achieve what you wanted?
  • What was your perception of us prior to the procurement? Did this change during the process?
  • How did our submission measure up generally against the other submissions?
  • What did we do well? What could we have improved on?
  • Was there anything in other bidders’ submissions that you particularly liked?
  • Do you feel we demonstrated our experience in your sector/market clearly and effectively?
  • Do you feel that we [have] proposed the right core team for you?
  • How important was pricing in your final decision? How did our pricing compare to other bidders?
  • How did we do in the presentation stage? Do you feel we brought the right team to speak with you? Do you have any comments on any member of the team?
  • How did you make the decision? What was the process? Who was involved?
  • What did other bidders offer in terms of added value services, or meeting your unwritten needs?
  • [If a win] Do you have any concerns about our ability to implement, or our relationship with you going forward?
  • [If a loss] Are you happy for us to stay in contact with you in relation to relevant mailings and event invites?

But don’t let the debrief process end there. File and save the debrief notes, and start coding the responses (e.g. strong team, evidenced qualifications, good use of technology, poor recruitment processes, lack of innovation), chart them, track the themes and share across your organisation with the relevant people. This can provide vital information to your organisation on where you need to focus future strategy and investment, and what you need to focus on as you onboard if you were successful, or tackle for the next go around.

How can you move on and develop a stronger relationship if you don’t know what to address?

All feedback, positive or negative, will help shape not only your next submission (and hopefully improve your success rates!) but also the future of your organisation, and your relationship with the client – whether you won or lost on this occasion. How can you move on and develop a stronger relationship if you don’t know what to address? Learn lessons, improve and share knowledge.

*For the purpose of this blog, we’re talking about the bidder requesting a debrief, not whether the client then agrees to provide one, and not the generic feedback letter you receive upon contract award.

Bid process

Talking to clients part 2: Pitch presentations

Rory Gilmore, setting the presentation rules

This week, we’re turning our attention to presentations during the pitch process. The importance of the presentation is confirmed by the APMP Body of Knowledge (BOK), which terms them “oral proposals”. Put simply, they are the opportunity to vocally prove, and evidence, what your written proposal described. As the BOK states, “The written proposal qualifies the selling organization, but the oral proposal may determine the winner.”

Although the team may be made up of highly intelligent people, they may not be experts in oral presentations

APMP Body of Knowledge

If the client has invited your firm to present, they already know, to some extent, you are capable of meeting their requirements. The purpose of the presentation is more likely to assess whether you are the right people for them. How do you gel as a team? What would you be like to work with? Who you choose to attend is therefore vital, and you should give real consideration to at least one of your team being someone who will be ‘on the ground’ with the client – not just the most senior / impressive people in your organisation. If you are including someone more junior or less experienced, consider using a coach to prepare them, and in fact the rest of the team. After all, as the BOK says “although the team may be made up of highly intelligent people, they may not be experts in oral presentations.”

Once you’ve decided on your attendees (within any team size restrictions imposed by the client of course), there are other housekeeping factors to consider:  

  • Client instructions – have you been provided with an agenda, or is it a free format? If the client has given you scope to shape the agenda, ensure you cover the main themes/sections of your submission, and the win themes to draw out.
  • Time limits – is there an overall time limit provided, or timings by agenda point? Does the overall time include Q&A?
  • Setting – is it in-person, or by video conference which has, for obvious reasons, become more prevalent over the past year. If the latter, ensure well ahead of time that the required software is downloaded and works, and you have at least one practice using this software if it is not your organisation’s native video conferencing product.
  • Client team – who will be involved from the client side? What do you know about them and their focus areas? Carry out research before your planning sessions so you can identify the key messages you should be hitting.

When you have considered all the above, in particular the running time and the agenda, thoughts should finally turn to the presentation content itself. Many organisations still see ‘presentation’ and immediately open up the PowerPoint template – but death by slides can be a very real and negative experience. If you are not asked to provide a slide deck, consider why you are still reaching for PowerPoint. Is it really to provide key information to the client, or simply to act as an aide memoire for your team? If you still choose to use slides, ensure they are concise and limited to key points and diagrams only – after all, you don’t want the client-side team reading the slides rather than listening to you.

Just like your proposal, carefully plan the content of your presentation and make sure everyone really knows your written submission. The BOK provides a really useful template to help with this, which doesn’t just focus on replaying the content from your written submission, but calls on you to State, Support and Summarise the key features and benefits of your solution for the client. Assign topics to the most appropriate team members, and ensure everyone gets to speak or the client will question why they are there.

Do not be afraid to add further sessions if required, and encourage all presenters to practice their content on their own

Then it’s rehearse and practice time. You should factor in at least three practice sessions ahead of the presentation date – one to discuss and run through the content at a high level, a second (timed) practice to present more formally and make adjustments to content against running times, and your final practice which should run as though you are in front of the client. Do not be afraid to add further sessions if required, and encourage all presenters to practice their content on their own as well in between sessions.

This planning should mean your team don’t need to rely on the slides to help them through, so consider a one-page placemat instead, which summarises the key points of your submission, your team and your organisation. This should use the same colour and imagery themes as your bid submission and should be handed out after the presentation, not before – else again you risk the client spending more time reading this than listening to you.

Finally, but by no means less important, most presentations include a question and answer session, for which you should be equally prepared. Consider the questions you’re likely to receive – by reviewing the client’s requirements and your submission, assessing the client’s market and sector, and gathering intelligence from within your organisation. Have other teams previously pitched to the same client for other services? Or to similar or even competitor organisations. A little bit of groundwork can often help you plan for the majority of questions you will be asked by the client. But your preparation shouldn’t end there:

  • Group the questions into themes, and divide them amongst the presentation team. Again, if someone is silent during the Q&A it may make the client query why you included them, or what they will actually bring to the relationship. But don’t just allocate for allocation’s sake. If you have the most appropriate attendees on your team, the questions should naturally fall between your presenters. For example, if your project manager is attending, they would naturally answer questions about the onboarding plan, overall project plan and budget. A head of contact centre would be able to answer any questions about the service delivery, recruitment and training, performance management and so on.
  • Practice answering questions more than once, using an independent interviewer who should act as the client, e.g. with little prior knowledge of you and your business.  
  • Build answers into your presentation for those questions you think are most likely. The less the client has to ask to reach their decision, the better!
  • Consider your worst case questions and ensure you have strong answers to these, including covering off any known issues you have; for example if you are the incumbent and performance has slipped recently, come armed with an action plan of how you’ll get the service back on track.

If you find you are regularly falling at the presentation hurdle, try something different. At one firm, we used a mock panel approach for strategically important bids, asking senior staff to sit as the client presentation team. We provided a synopsis of the written submission, and they asked any questions that had naturally come up for them from the synopsis and during the presentation. They then provided feedback on the content and team. We did this stage independent of the pitch team, and then fed back to them after – allowing the mock panel to be as honest as they needed, and provide truly objective feedback which allowed our team to refocus.

Above all, while it may seem like overkill if you know your subject: prepare, prepare, prepare. It could well be the difference between a win and a loss.

Bid process

The question of clarifications

According to the APMP Body of Knowledge (BOK), a clarification is: “Communication to eliminate minor irregularities or apparent clerical mistakes in a request for proposal (RFP) or in a proposal.”

In our experience, there are two extremes of clarifications on bids; at one end of the scale, those bids that are pretty self-explanatory but there may be a little more information you’d like, or the ones you read and think, “what are you talking about?!”

But when should you raise clarification questions? And what are the best types of questions to raise?

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

When (and how) should raise your clarifications?
If the client has provided a clarification deadline after which they will respond, always try to submit your questions at least one or two days before this if you can. Just like submitting your response on a portal at the last minute, there’s a risk that systems may not work, or every other bidder has the same idea – meaning your messages could get lost in the chaos.

Some clients don’t provide a deadline, and clarifications can be raised (and answered) throughout the procurement period. Here, you should try and raise your questions as soon as possible. Firstly, why not get the information you need as soon as you can? Secondly, it provides a further opportunity to go back to the client if things are still unclear and before it’s too late down into submission.

In either scenario, unless it is impossible for logistical reasons (or the client’s response prompts more clarifications!), you should always try to raise your clarifications in one batch. Think about how frustrating it could be for your potential client (or existing client, if a retender of course) to receive multiple questions in separate emails / messages from you. Having said that, we’ve not long worked on a bid where the client send out over 300 clarifications in individual message threads…

Clarification: Communication to eliminate minor irregularities or apparent clerical mistakes in a request for proposal (RFP) or in a proposal

APMP Body of Knowledge

What types of clarifications should you be raising?
Looking back at the BOK definition, it’s perfectly valid to clarify the date of submission, or the deadline for clarification questions, if different dates are provided across documentation. If you are submitting via an online portal, it’s rare (in our experience at least!) that the date there is incorrect – so this could be used as a deciding vote.

If the documents refer to forms or other documents to be completed, but which haven’t been provided, these should definitely be raised as a clarification. For other clerical errors, you may be able to logically work out yourself without embarrassing or annoying the client by raising them formally – such issues include incorrect page numbers or headings, spelling mistakes etc.

You should also raise clarifications if information is missing or unclear, that you consider vital to submitting your response, such as (but not limited to!):
Information required for pricing purposes, e.g., in a tender to supply contact centre services, you would need to know average call lengths and volumes to determine how many staff you need to price up for. Or in a professional/consultancy services tender, you might need to know how many hours / days’ work they require over a set period.
Information required for logistical purposes e.g., where the client needs services to be delivered from, or whether any existing work or staff would need to be transferred.
Information on current operations, such as current contract spend, areas with the highest volumes of work or areas of greatest concern to the client.
Evaluation or scoring criteria hasn’t been included, or no weightings have been provided by the client – in most cases, this information can help you shape your response accordingly.
Contractual points, e.g., are there clauses that your company cannot agree to that you would seek to negotiate at this time, or does the client reference performance indicators which aren’t defined?

You shouldn’t, however, make your (or your competitors’) lives more difficult through your clarification questions. Don’t ask questions you don’t want the answer to! The ones that always make us roll our eyes are those bidders who ask for word or page limits to be increased. Unless they’ve made a mistake, the client has assigned those limits on purpose – they may have a small team, who can’t read 10 submissions of five volumes each. Or, they are simply judging how you follow instructions, and present information concisely. While you might have the client who is open to extending, or removing, word limits – what does that really achieve, especially if you’ve already drafted a response, other than additional work and potential impact on your colleagues?

Think carefully about what is vital information, de-risk your questions, and always be polite – and don’t be that bidder that all the others roll their eyes at!