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Beating the Big Boys At Bids (Part 1)

You’re An SME? Capitalise on Your Natural Advantages

This is the first of five commentaries in a very special series especially for SMEs  . . . . that is, for the sake of clarity, Small & Medium-Sized Enterprises(since “SME” also doubles as an acronym for Subject Matter Expert).

Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises have generally been considered to be at multiple forms of disadvantage when tendering for big-ticket Government contracts . . . and particularly in the civil infrastructure space.

Back in the day, marketing academics referred to this as “the IBM Factor” . . . which was a reference to the broader sentiment that “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM” . . . which, in turn, was a reference to the usually accurate observation that going with the big, well-entrenched names was simply a case of personal career insurance for management and procurement executives.

To a still-significant degree, that mindset remains in place. Of course, it’s politically incorrect of me to say so. But it’s TRUE – and it’s a reality of which many SMEs who are also seasoned bidders, are acutely aware.

I’ve Seen Both Ends of Town – Up Close & Personal

I’ve been involved in the bidding world since 2005 (that is, in an exclusive manner . . . before that I was in general marketing, PR, and also specialised industry intelligence). To take a rough stab at proportions, I’d say that, overall, my client base has represented 25% to 30% SMEs . . . the rest of my client portfolio having been corporates.

So I’ve seen both ends of town – up close and personal. I’ve made observations and formed conclusions that have remained consistent across that entire decade and a half. And many of those conclusions don’t look like changing any time soon.

I’ve also capitalised greatly on these observations to help some small players (organisations that prior, didn’t even register on the “Tier” scale) to take out the biggest names in their industries, and in bids that were the biggest game in town at the time. (Just so you know I’m not making anything up, please see their comments and testimonials in the Clients Debrief section).

In fact, these David vs Goliath challenges are, arguably, my favourite form of bid.

Reality & Profitability

But first, to cover off something that overarches this entire series:  commercial reality and discernment. Notwithstanding the theme of this series, don’t let bravado cloud your judgement.

As part of your assessment as to whether you’re going to enter a bid, make sure you actually do have the smarts, the kit, and the resources to competently and profitably deliver the project, do the job, or service the contract. (That’s an assessment any competent bidder should begin months, if not many months, in advance of the tender documentation being released. No, you don’t yet know what the Evaluation Criteria will be, BUT you can build a reasonable picture of what they are likely to be, and gain a reasonable degree of confidence that you will meet these – or not.

But let’s assume you’ve completed a critical, comprehensive “go or no go” assessment, having paid very careful attention to the competition you’re likely to be up against . . . and that you’re well positioned, well qualified, and sufficiently resourced to deliver the project, contract, product or whatever the subject of the tender is. And by the way, as with almost every article, segment, book, or training product I produce, I’m approaching this from the perspective of non-price criteria . . . that is, I’m working to get you over the line through skills, smarts and strategy on your part . . . not by comprising your profitability.

In this series, I’ll break the topic down into the same five subtopic areas that represent the names of the five Modules in my BEATING THE BIG BOYS AT BIDS training and field guide series.

Capturing & Capitalising On Your Natural Advantages

In this first article of the series, let’s dive into capitalising on an SME’s natural advantages.

The natural SME advantage that’s always stood out for me, most of all, is that employees in most corporations are quite frankly, in my humble opinion, often too far removed from being able to make the connection between the success of that organisation and their own personal pay packets (unless they’re either incentivised sales personnel or they’re pretty close to the C-Suite).

And while the brand of commitment they give to a bid might certainly be worthy, by the same token, it often isn’t anywhere near the very personal degree of dedication that can be seen in the staff of many smaller companies.

I know that there will be listeners from larger organisations that take grave exception to that statement. And if they are an exception to it, so they should. But you get the point I’m making. The BDs and other personnel of smaller organisations usually have a closer relationship with those at the top of the company than do the personnel of larger corporations. As a result, they have a greater feeling of personal investment . . . like their own future is more closely tied to the outcome of a big bid.

Secondly, there’s flexibility.

If a bidder has done its homework early and well, its frontline operatives will have brought key insights back to base. These insights might well indicate a chasm between the bidder and the buying organisation in any number of areas . . . but these may not be at all insurmountable, if we’re talking about a switched-on, nimble bidder.

Identifying those issues and making the necessary provisions and adjustments can pay dividends both in the bidding process itself, as well as in the level and quality of service that can be convincingly put forward as part of the actual offer.

Still on the note of flexibility and nimbleness: Not only are smaller operators more agile; there are fewer layers of decision-making. Things get done quicker. And problems get solved faster.

A smart bid strategist and a talented writer will find a way to demonstrate that the customer or client organisation won’t be dealing with 17 levels of bureaucracy, layers of paperwork, and three months’ lag time, every time the client needs something done in a slightly different way, or if some part of the arrangement is broken and needs attention.

Position Yourself As A Minimised, Well-Calculated Risk

Indeed, if you can demonstrate that you’re a well-calculated risk and not simply a wild card, the client may well consider a small and manageable degree of risk worth taking, in order to avoid the pain of that sort of slow-moving bureaucracy . . . which can be especially painful if the big players are part of international corporations.

I’m thinking, by way of an ideal example, of smaller players in the Facilities Management space, versus the monolithic, global beasts that dominate the FM industry . . . big ships with no hope of cultural or procedural influence by any but the biggest and most important clients.

Thirdly (and then I’ll leave it at that for this first article in the “Beating the Big Boys At Bids” series), there are fewer links in the chain for critical communications and insights to have to make their way through . . . getting diluted, convoluted, or lost in the process.

That too plays out in both the bid process and in the post-bid, project/product delivery or contract servicing phase. Certainly, a big bidder might have a dedicated business development manager (pre-bid) or a key account representative (post-bid) as the organisation’s frontline operative. But the information he or she channels back into the grid– in a corporate – will often end up being dispersed out around a variety of parties and job descriptions – and through multiple communications channels. By contrast, the frontline operatives of a smaller organisation usually inject that information far more directly into the bid’s knowledge base (pre-bid) and the organisation’s service or delivery team (post-bid).

The trick is not to LOSE that advantage . . . but, instead, to CAPITALISE on it, by making sure you’ve got your production processes and your strategy smarts optimised.

If that’s whet your appetite, that whole line of tuition is added greatly to, and expanded all the way out, in Module 1 of the BEATING THE BIG BOYS AT BIDS training manuals set . . . which, of course, is available right here.

Why the War Room is A Farce

As a strategist, it is my opinion, my observation, and my experience, that the ability to think logically underpins any successful strategy.

So in this segment, I’d like to challenge the logic of a practice that has become the norm for corporates, in the production of big-ticket bids.

That is:  The “WAR ROOM”.

What. A. Nonsense. What an absolute nonsense. What an illogical, counterproductive nonsense to create an environment that fosters maximum interruptions and distractions, for the execution of a task that requires maximum concentration and focus: The task to which I am referring is, of course, writing. And not just any old writing either. Strategic writing, no less.

Writing is a task for the INDIVIDUAL. Yes, liaison with the authors of other submission sections is required, BUT this represents the minority percentage of the time that should be dedicated to authoring activities – and the necessary interaction is something that could be easily conducted by phone or by popping into someone else’s office, or by meeting them in a meeting room, for the specific amount of time necessary.

The majority of the response-authoring time is still spent in the actual writing function. Or, at least, it should be.

The root of the issue lies in the fact that a clear-cut, comprehensive, documented-in-detail bid strategy hasn’t been produced prior to setting the writing team loose on the task.

If a detailed strategy document – preferably supplemented with a Writer’s Guide for each major section of the response – were to hand, for each section author, there would be very little need for discussion from that point onwards. And that is because the theme, content and direction for specific answers, would be laid out in front of the relevant authors, in – quite literally – black and white.

Writing Is A Task for the Individual

While the development of strategy is a group activity (and frequently, the more inputs the better), the task of writing submission sections is one distinctly for the individual.

Writing in general, if you’re going to do it well, requires focus and concentration. So how much more focus and concentration does strategic, bid-winning writing, therefore justify?

It’s NOT a group task. It’s one best done in silence and solitude; not one done in the crossflow of conversations (a percentage of which aren’t even related to the bid), mobile phone calls, and other constant, interruptive goings-on.

Take any big-name author you can name – whatever the genre . . . fiction, nonfiction, business, academic . . . whatever. Can you imagine any one of these writing greats tapping away at the kitchen table with spouses, kids or friends etc carrying on conversations all around them?

Of course not. And if the writing greats perform their craft alone and in peace, why would anyone else – most especially, for example, a subject matter expert who probably doesn’t write as a day job – think a silent, focused environment is optional for them?

You may well argue that your bid teams pull it off.

My question to you is:

How much would the quality of your writing be improved, how fewer rounds of editing would your submission need to go through, and how much would your productivity rate be increased, if the writing function was treated as one worthy of the utmost seriousness, focus and concentration?

I can answer that for you:

The answer is the job would get done in about half the time.

However, the quality of the written output would still depend on the existence and quality of a written bid strategy document. Which is another topic . . . because rarely does such a thing exist. Or not what I would call a credible bid strategy blueprint, anyway.

But if one did exist, along with a Writer’s Guide for each section author, and if that section author was given a quiet, undisturbed environment, the greatly increased quality of output would match the greatly increased performance in productivity.

Spotting Porkies In A Pre-Probity Meeting

Your bid strategy is only ever going to be as good as the information you feed into your bid strategy formulation process.

So it goes without saying that you want to make sure the information and insights gathered in by your Business Development operatives – as your frontline, primary research gatherers – are as accurate and as “real” as possible.

On which note . . . . in the same manner as clients will often be cagey or omit key information in tender debriefs, they’ll often be not quite as upfront in pre-probity meetings as you’d like to think or hope.

So it’s incumbent upon your “BDs”, to make sure they make a savvy judgement about the accuracy of the inputs they’re getting from the prospect’s personnel.

Here are some critical cues that your fellow meeting participant isn’t being completely on the level with you.

  • Evasiveness (a la classic politician-style behaviour):

Typical signs are long responses to a question, but no actual direct answer.

For example, the procuring organisation might not be certain that they’re really going to actually award a contract at the end of the tender process. Maybe they haven’t got their funding secured yet – but don’t want to disclose that, because that would certainly discourage any bidders that don’t wish to waste time or budget bidding for a project or contract that might be an illusion.

A prospect being questioned in this scenario might, for example, go into all manner of sideline issues.

  • Exclusionary qualifiers:

For example, “fundamentally”, “not really”.

These all amount to a desire to give an indirect answer or an indirect denial.

They beg for a follow-up question. And you should ensure you ask one – gently, but savvily nonetheless. You’re going to be investing major resources if you decide to go for this bid, and you want to be doing it on a foundation of true and accurate information.

  • Dressing up the lie:

“Tell you the truth.” “Frankly.” “Honestly.” “To be honest with you.”

You know them. By the way, sometimes these can be simply habitual for someone . . . maybe you do this yourself. Be careful with it. The question may well be asked, Aren’t you always telling the truth? Aren’t you always being honest? So why bother with making a special point of it with the particular statement you’re about to make this time?

  • Offering too much information (especially if some of the information is irrelevant) in answer to a specific question:

This can (depending upon the context) be indicative of a desire to smoke over the facts. It can also be a ploy to manage your perception and convince you of a greater degree of honesty than is actually the case.

This tactic is closely related to the evasiveness tactic.

  • Attempting to be over-convincing:

This is the opposite of evasiveness. It’s basically an attempt to ensure believability.

The skill with this tactic is to work out whether your prospect is over-compensating, or just passionate about the issue you’ve raised . . . which makes it particularly important to have your antenna up throughout the conversation leading up to that point.

THEY’RE ALL DIVERSIONARY

In a sense, all of these are diversionary tactics . . . and any combination of them can be employed.

A particularly key point of awareness for a BD in a situation in which they suspect their fellow meeting participants aren’t being straightforward, is to take the prospects’ language literally. For example, “wouldn’t” does NOT equate to “won’t” or “haven’t” or “didn’t”. What these are, are protesting statements without an actual denial.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of listening through the filter of your own emotions or your own logic, or your own ethical standards, and to try to make sense of what you’re being told, from that perspective. And that’s a very easy way to allow yourself to be misled.

Two Massive Red Flags

Two massive red flags that you’re inadvertently threatening to uncover information the prospect doesn’t want uncovered, are:

  • An aggressive or overly defensive response (i.e. attacking the questioner . . . not a good sign), and
  • Turning the question back on the asker, in a particularly animated way.

Of course, any of these could be habits in their own right. BUT . . . too many in quick succession, form what is known as a “cluster” . . . a combination of tell-tale signs that definitely spell cause for concern.

Also in the outright dishonesty category is a verbal / non-verbal disconnect. A simplistic example: A prospect nods his head while giving a “No” answer verbally. That’s a cue that the brain is so confused with trying to disguise or protect their ingenuine position, that it can’t keep up.

Closely related to that – in the arena of body language – is a new, sudden physical movement at the point where the body connects with the floor or the seat e.g. bouncing the foot or shifting in the chair. Investigators say this is a big one.

Similarly, sudden grooming gestures, such as fixing a tie, or running the hand across the hair, glancing at a watch, moving the hands to the face. This is a typical, unconscious response when someone flicks into the“fight or flight” mode of the autonomic nervous system.

The Eyes Are Indeed the Windows of the Soul

Still on body language, remember the adage, “the eyes are the windows of the soul”.

Looking up to the right, means they’re visually picturing or constructing something that’s never actually happened. But looking up to the left, means they’re remembering something. However, that applies only if they’re right-handed. In the case of a left-handed prospect, the opposite will apply . . . so be careful with that one, especially since you may have no idea whether your prospect is a right or a left-hander.

And still on eyes, shifty eyes usually indicate dishonesty. Here’s the big clue with a shifty-eyed meeting participant:  Does he or she look straight back at you after completing a statement? If so, he or she is typically trying to see whether you buy what’s just been said.

Of course, on the phone, you lose the nonverbal cues. But you can, for example, still hear a chair moving or paper shuffling, or a keyboard being tapped, when a question leaves the other party feeling awkward and fiddling unconsciously while trying to think up an unnatural answer.

Aside from being aware of these cues per se, and the likelihood that they’re being employed more often than you’d like to think, your most critical communication strategy is not to allow your mind to fast-forward to your next intended question or statement. As soon as you fall into that trap, you stop yourself picking up all the cues being projected in the answering of your current question.

A WORD OF CAUTION

Mastering this is the field of the expert. It’s easy to learn these general principles and then make the mistake of applying them universally, in an overly simplistic manner.

There’s a wad of variables to take into account:

  • Is something entirely normal behaviour for the individual you’re conversing with (versus does their communication modus operandi suddenly change . . .
    especially in mid-conversation)?

If you know someone and you’ve got a baseline understanding of them, you know how that individual typically communicates and conducts themselves . . . “THEN” any variance on this is a reasonably reliable flag.

  • Is someone demonstrating “closed” body language (arms crossed, for example) purely because they’re cold? Make an indirect observation that helps you confirm or deny that.
  • Is someone jiggling their foot simply because they actually are a jiggler? If it appears to be a response to a statement or a question that made them uncomfortable, move on to a more comfortable topic . . . and then move back towards the less comfortable one. Does the jiggling stop and then resume?

When someone is stressed, the body emanates that stress . . . generally. Compulsive, pathological liars can, of course, be a totally different kettle of fish. They take a whole elevated level of smarts to deal with. Let’s hope we don’t encounter too many of those in the organisations of our prospective clients.

BUT if you DO ever encounter someone you suspect falls into that category, here are three key cues  to look for:

  • Indirect answers.

Yes, it’s a typical ploy that some people use to get out of a tight spot. But compulsive liars turn the indirect answer into an art form.

  • Repeated vagueness in statements.

People who lie will typically avoid being detailed; they know there is too much to have to remember in a future conversation.

How to Get Invaluable Feedback As An Incumbent

Attention Incumbents: Strategies for Mining Out Valuable Client Feedback

Bid submissions are often peppered with kitschy self-descriptions of the bidder as a “business partner” to the client or customer organisation.

How to make that concept more than lip service once the bid is won (and thus keep the business when the contract is up for renewal and a new market call is on the horizon)?

The key is to build in client feedback mechanisms and instill both your business development and your service delivery teams with an “always seeking client feedback” mindset.

Here are some tips:

  • Show genuine, selfless concern – all the time, for no reason other than that you care.Don’t make sales calls. Make service calls. Use these to determine what extra value you can be delivering as part of your current contract and cost base – and make sure you take the opportunity to extract as much feedback about your organisation’s / product’s current performance as possible.

Show them how much you care . . . without giving them an invoice for it or expecting a sale out of it every time.

  • Every six or so months, conduct a formal and multi-level feedback exercise.Seek permission to extend your feedback efforts to all stakeholder groups, and work collaboratively with the client on a strategy and instrument for extracting the feedback.

Be clear with all parties as to the reason you want these insights, and precisely what you are going to do with them – and (equally precisely) how (in genuine terms) you intend to use this information for the benefit of the client or customer organisation.

  • Make sure that any survey instrument you might use is not formulated in the manner of the almost-always self-centric conventional questionnaire.These are usually highly transparent in being an exercise in the interests first and foremost of the supplier/service provider, rather than in the interests of the client / customer and its stakeholder groups.

Keep in mind the fundamental objective: To identify exactly what each group needs and wants, and to determine how well you are delivering on those expectations/needs/desires.

Then drill down into the minutiae of the various components of the topic.

Keep a constant check that you’re not letting the questions come across as loaded or self-serving.

  • Design any questionnaires in such a way that the responses are actionable. This will likely involve following any qualitative/open questions with quantitative/closed questions for confirmation of the intent of the respondent when answering a subjective question.While (for the sake of minimising the respondent’s time commitment and thus maximising participation), you will want to have a heavier weighting of quantitative/closed questions than qualitative/open questions, ensure you nonetheless have sufficient options in any multiple choice type approach, to allow for a reasonable range of answers.

It may or may not be appropriate to incentivise participation, although in formal customer survey programs (especially in the B2C environment), this is often considered almost essential for a reasonable degree of participation.Over to you. I’ll refrain from making recommendations on this potentially controversial element of the process when applied to the B2B environment.

However, if you DO take this approach, make sure you (a) set a deadline for responses to receive rewards, and (b) offer a prize to every respondent who submits a response within that timeframe, with the best level of prizes going to the first responses in.

Bait & Switch – A Poor Strategy

10 Reasons the A Team for B Team Bait-and-Switch is A Flawed Strategy

There are reasons beyond the obvious that you really don’t want to be one of those tenderers that engages in the flawed strategy of surreptitiously swapping out delivery team members for those of a lesser calibre, post-bid.

But let’s start with the “above the surface” reasons:

  1. Depending upon how far down the food chain you’ve reached for your substitute team members, you’re taking a performance-based risk on multiple fronts – from those in hard core commercial areas right through to safety issues.
  2. You’re demonstrating either an inability to plan and forward-schedule work and projects, or an inherent untrustworthiness. Or both. Going forward, that untrustworthiness and/or incompetence will see your general credibility compromised in the eyes of the client.

Now let’s look at the more insidious, “below the surface” ramifications of swapping out ‘A Team’ members with ‘B Team’ members.

  1. Actually, if we are honest here and with specific reference to the civil infrastructure sector, it’s not unheard of that it’s worse than a ‘B Team’ for ‘A Team’ swap-out. Some contractors have been known to roll out the F Troop. There’s no way that strategy, or any part thereof, can ever be excused by the client or project owner, to whom it will now be clear that you should never have submitted a bid in the first place.
  2. That eroded trust factor will cast suspicion over your honesty in, for example, variations. So – whether you’ve been honest or not – if you’ve gone as far as presenting the C Team, the D Squad or F Troop – you’ll be on the back foot, in terms of the client’s attitude towards you – in any negotiations that need to be had during the project or contract.
  3. If this project or service delivery doesn’t go swimmingly well, a default conclusion by the project owner or client will be that the lesser calibre of team members likely contributed significantly to a compromised or non-optimum outturn.
  4. In the mind of the client, if you’ve pulled this stunt once, you’ll likely do it again. That doesn’t augur well for your chances in future contracts for which you may want to bid.
  5. Used in accordance with a savvy strategy, testimonials are powerful inclusions in submissions. Thus, every testimonial you are able to collect from a completed delivery, or even a delivery in progress, is of immense value. What sort of a testimonial are you going to get from a client with a sour taste in his or her mouth over a disingenuous move like substituting key personnel?
  6. Sin begets sin. Once moral standards are compromised in one area of a project, the bar gets lowered in others. Often, it becomes a systemic problem for the business as a whole.
  7. The “uneven wheel” syndrome: Bringing in personnel of a lower calibre / qualification / experience level than the remaining original members of the team, stands to cause disgruntlement in those members, and potentially, to destabilise the dynamics within the delivery team as a whole.
  8. If an individual is elevated “above their pay grade” and into a project that they’re not truly up to, when that individual leaves your employ and your project is included on the CV his new employer submits for future bids, a savvy tender evaluator – who’s been around for a while – is going to look at the calibre of individual you put on projects you win.

Don’t underestimate that last point

The individual who found himself or herself “over-recognised” by inclusion on a project that he or she shouldn’t have been, is going to herald that entry on their CV prominently. And you were, of course, their employer at the time.

Reducing the Dole Queue with An Innovative Addition to Infrastructure Bids

Infrastructure Bids:
Stepping Outside the Box to Get the Motivated Out of the (Post-COVID19) Dole Queue

Remember the “LIPPs” (Local Industry Participation Plans) from the project alliancing collaborative contracting heyday?

Anyone who’s not a newbie in the industry is well aware that, for just shy of two decades, Australian Government procurement agencies and the construction-and-design sector employed – extensively – this specific type of contracting and project delivery methodology, to power through a backlog of mega and major civil infrastructure works.

Whether or not this methodology, in its own right, delivered the actual budgetary value that was, at the time, claimed, has been a matter of fierce debate ever since. But . . . built into the Government’s huge, multi-faceted tender documentation for this delivery method, was an element designed to ensure direct economic benefit to the local region in which any given project was being constructed. That is, benefit not only in the form of the structure being delivered to the community and other stakeholders, but benefits to that region’s local economy and supplier base by virtue of the local sourcing of products and services required for the project’s construction.

In keeping with engineers’ love of acronyms, this was called the “LIPP” i.e. the Local Industry Participation Plan.

A strong, authentic and viable LIPP was worth a serious percentage of the overall point score that the Government procurement agency’s tender evaluators gave the tenderer.

What’s the relevance to post-Covid19 dole queues?

Taking this basic concept, being creative with it, and applying it to the objective of getting good hard-working, motivated economic “displacements” out of the post-Covid19 dole queue, what about the major players in the civil infrastructure sector offering to introduce something we might, for example, call a “RANCOP” (Re-skilling & New Careers Opportunity Plan) as part of any major projects tender we respond to?

As part of this industry-initiated “RANCOP”, the bidder would submit a plan detailing:

  • The total number of beneficiaries the bidder would commit to taking off the dole and retraining;
  • The categories of employment / specialisation in which that enterprise would provide full classroom-to-workplace training, and the breakdown of the total trainee numbers in each;
  • The specific institutions and/or qualified in-house personnel that they would fund to provide the training;
  • The qualification each trainee would come out with, and
  • The specific opportunities that successful graduates of the training would be offered.

Of course, we’d be talking about opportunities greater than road works crew. We’d be talking about grey, and even white, collar jobs.

Certainly, there may have to be some deals done with the standard technical institutions to formulate compressed training programs. But if the current economic crisis doesn’t justify a few academics thinking outside the well-entrenched institutional square, then I don’t know what does.


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