5 Steps to Writing a Winning Bid

The Bidding Season Begins

Just like buses, after months of waiting, it’s bid season in the employment related services and adult skills sectors.

Having been stood up, stood down, demobbed and re-enlisted, bid teams across the sector are now scrabbling to come to terms with the tender opportunities coming down the pipeline at a rapid rate.

In our defence, we’ve had little sight of what our customers – the DWP and the SFA – were going to want and even less sight of when they were going to come to market. There are certainly lessons there for them. Hopefully, they’ll recognise them!

Wing it or win it?

It never ceases to amaze me the panic that this can throw a business into. It’s like we’ve never done it before. Fag packets come out, pencils are sharpened and bid writers’ keyboards fly into a flurry of high speed tapping before it’s too late. We wing it.

Look, sometimes when you wing it, you win. I know, I’ve done it. But you’re really playing the lottery. I’ve seen operational and commercial directors hold their heads in their hands in dismay when presented with a bid that was won on a wing and prayer. Improvisational genius has its place. In a jazz band.

The problem is that, quite often, we’ve no systematic process for approaching the production of a bid. The truth is, if you follow a few simple steps, you can significantly increase your chances of writing a winning and deliverable bid, even at short notice.

5 Steps to Take Before You Start Writing

1. Read ALL the tender documentation

It’s amazing how many people don’t do this first. But then, it’s amazing how many people start to assemble a piece of Ikea furniture without reading the instructions, right?

The first thing you need to understand is exactly what it is that the buyer is looking for. If you’ve been working on this opportunity for a while and you’ve been talking to the buyer, you will hopefully have a deeper insight than that outlined within the Invitation to Tender documents – you’ll know what they are really looking for. The provider guidance, dull though it might be, is also crucial in helping you come up with a solution that works.

Look for the buyer’s key ideas and themes, learn their language so that you can speak it back to them. Using a word cloud tool (like wordle.net) can be really helpful.

You need to understand the scoring criteria. What’s most important and how do you win? Is price more important than quality? Is your solution more important than your track record?

Once you’ve understood the weighting, you need to look at how the scores are awarded. Then you need to scenario test it. How can you win? How can your competition win? What do you think your opponents will do in terms of price, solution, etc? How does their track record compare to yours?

You’ve got to understand the game to play the game. I’ve been part of bid teams that scored 100% for quality, but still lost because they didn’t anticipate the impact that price competition would have on the final score. So I know how much that sucks.

You really need to read all of the rubric and submission details. Dull though it might be, it’s not worth writing a beautiful tender at the price to win, but then failing because you don’t follow the correct process. I’ll be honest, I’ve never fallen could of that, but I know some people who have. Apparently it sucks.

Read the tender documentation again and again. Until you’re bored of it. Until you’re sleep-talking it.

2. Create a bid plan and a deliverables matrix

Before you do anything else, these two documents are key.

Your bid plan will show all of the activity that needs to happen between right now to the submission date and beyond. This will allow you to sequence it all properly (for example, you can’t storyboard properly until you know what your service solution looks like). It should also enable you to see if you’ve got enough resource to complete the job in the timeframe available. If not, you need to think about where you can get that resource. It should cover each work stream, from supply chain development to bid production.

Your deliverables matrix is for the bid production team (no matter how small that team is!) and outlines section by section, attachment by attachment, all of the material that needs to be created or completed by the writing team. Each item – each question, each form to be filled, each item of supplementary material (accounts, etc) – should have an owner assigned, who is personally responsible for producing it. Each question should have several draft stages (depending on how long the bidding window is) and these should tie in with the timeline outlined on the bid plan.

Work backwards from the submission date. Don’t forget to build in contingency. Plan to be complete 24 hours before the final submission date/time. Don’t forget to build in time for sign-off. Don’t forget to build in time for review and revision. Build in clear deadlines and make sure that the whole team are aware of them. Schedule regular reviews for the bid team, to keep everyone up to date and on track.

3. Know your answer before you start writing 

This seems so obvious, but you wouldn’t believe how many bid teams break this simplest of rules. Some of them don’t even know it!

If you don’t have the answer you cannot write an answer. So don’t write one until you do.

Before you start typing, you need to make sure that:

  • you’ve designed your solution
  • you’ve storyboarded the entire bid
  • everyone agrees that the answer is the answer

So, pause for breath at this stage, remember that you still don’t know the answer and move onwards to step 4.

4. Design your solution 

There’s another series of posts in here, but if you don’t know what the service that you are selling to the buyer is or how it works, forget it. And if they still go ahead and buy it from you, they should forget it.

You need to get all relevant people in the room on this one. Operations, systems, commercial, marketing, senior management, human resources, business development. No one can design this in isolation. You need as much input as possible. Everyone needs to understand the model and everyone needs to be able to talk about it.

(We wonder why there’s often so little innovation in public service delivery and why we so often fail to deliver results that are any better than we’ve previously delivered. Think about how much time we collectively spend on service design and solution development and you’ll wonder less…)

5. Storyboard the WHOLE bid 

Don’t just start writing. Get your best brains around the table and work out the answer together. It’s a collaborative process. Get out your flipchart or whiteboard and get people talking.

Break the question down into its component parts. Make sure that you have a clear answer for every question and sub-question that the buyer is asking. Work out the right structure, order, content and evidence. Get sign-off at this stage, so the business is on board with the story you are going to tell.

Follow these simple rules:

  • 1 idea = 1 sentence
  • mirror the question – don’t change the buyer’s order
  • use the buyer’s language – speak them back to them
  • every sentence should lead back to the question – if it doesn’t, delete it
  • answer only the question and all of the question
  • use clear language that is easy to read (think Daily Mirror, rather than Guardian, as I was once told)

Now you can get started…

You’ll notice that these are all activities that need to be completed before you begin writing. It might be a hackneyed phrase that ‘proper planning and preparation prevents poor performance’, but it’s never more true than when setting out to write a winning bid.

What do you think?

Are you prepared for the bidding frenzy or do you feel like you’re drowning?

Have you and your team taken the five steps above?

What’s the one thing you could do today to make sure your bid team are better prepared?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments below, on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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