Without diving too deeply into the murky waters of modern politics it might be profitable to reflect on some recent events and personalities if you want to understand how perceptions can affect your business and your chances of winning major bids.
At the extremes, managing perceptions can overpower evidence and reality in the battle to shape opinions and determine actions. How else do wealthy, privileged individuals become seen as anti-elitists?
And what was the purpose of the Trump and Kim Jong-Un meeting? To avert a nuclear disaster or as a PR strategy to alter the perception of both leaders on the world stage? Whatever you think of Trump, he certainly understands the power of perceptions.
On less controversial ground, why do great sports teams so often implode when the guiding force departs? Was Sir Alex Ferguson’s impact as a manager down to tactical genius? Or was it down to the aura, trust and belief he created among the squad and the sense of inevitable defeat he created in opponents?
This aura (and the perception of expected success) began to unwind almost as soon as he resigned as manager. None of his successors have been able to rebuild it, despite spending huge sums on new players. Yes his players were good, but the same players couldn’t produce the same results under a different manager.
In sport and in business it isn’t necessarily about being the absolute best to win. It’s more about the opposition (or in business, the client) believing that you are that matters most.
Are You Expected to Win?
How do your prospects perceive your business today? And what can you do to change those perceptions in a positive way?
One of the most powerful perceptions you can create is one where your client believes that you understand their needs and concerns better than others. Link this to a perception that you are focused on their needs and concerns more than your own and you potentially have a winning formula.
In reality, the technical solutions proposed by a range of bidders may be identical, but the extra value of having the client perceive that you understand their needs better provides the value that differentiates you from them. With all other things being equal this should win you the work.
Your client isn’t just looking at the details in the bid. They are also subconsciously asking: ‘What happens if our requirements change or unforeseen problems throw the project off course, who's going to respond in the most positive way?’
Is there a simple trick to get your client to perceive that you understand their needs? Not really. It comes down to proposals and presentations that talk about your client more than your outputs, achievements and awards. It’s also about the questions you ask, how you ask them, and how you respond to the answers.
It’s often the case in business that as the size of the opportunity increases, so do the risks and the number of views on how to proceed. A significant contract opportunity could represent a sizeable chunk of your business. It’s likely to touch on key areas of your business strategy and may have implications on your share price or even your viability.
The challenge for a bid manager can be about building a consensus quickly so there’s a route forward that everyone can get behind. One that has a good chance of success and which delivers long-term business value.
If you’re faced with a high-stakes, short deadline challenge, how do you proceed?
To illustrate the options I’m going to draw a parallel with where Theresa May found herself when she inherited the PM’s job. A huge challenge (with far-reaching consequences), no consensus, and a fixed deadline. And, of course, still with a great deal of routine business that has to be taken care of.
Do you try to sell your ‘deal’ after the event, or find out what has majority support and work with that?
As a bid manager trying to hit a high-stakes deadline under pressure you have three basic choices:
Option 1: Go it alone. Stay within your inner circle of colleagues and try to persuade or browbeat them to adopt your position so you can take this to the client as being representative of the entire team.
Option 2: Stay within your closest team, but seek out a plan that works for all of them, perhaps with a bit of compromise. Agree what they will be prepared to stand by, come what may (no pun intended with the “may” reference!).
Option 3: Engage the widest possible audience so that you can create a plan based on what could work best for the widest possible range of stakeholders.
And don’t forget, your organisation isn’t the only party involved. Whatever you come up with still has to be sold to negotiators on the other side - your client (or the EU in the case of Brexit).
Each of the above approaches has its merits and drawbacks. Option 1 clearly has the advantage of speed, but what happens when the project actually has to be delivered (“I said this would never work”).
Option 3 is safer but will you ever get to a decision?
How do you decide which route to take? Maybe an external ‘mediator’ would help to take the personalities out of the process and identify the common ground that is best aligned with what your client wants to achieve.
The answer I believe is to understand all of the different views and then take the route that you believe will have the best chance of being accepted by your client. BUT, this is with the proviso that the compromises needed don’t involve selling your business down the river.
With big business decisions such as major contract opportunities there’s always pressure to get the deal ‘over the line.’ Doing the deal, whatever it takes, can become an obsession. Who, under these circumstances is going to be the one to hold their nerve and say, ‘a win on these terms isn’t a win at all.’ And who was doing that at Carillion, Mitie, Interserve etc? And I’ll dodge the question of who’s doing it in the Government.
Drawing clear lessons from the EU election results is proving taxing for political pundits. For me, there is no clear message, except one. And it’s a message that anyone involved in submitting bids and tenders would do well to heed.
The parties that did best in the elections were the ones with the clearest proposition. Whether it was pro or anti Brexit, people knew what they stood for. Parties that tried to sit on the fence and appeal to all shades of opinion ended up satisfying very few and getting punished at the polls.
These same parties also tried to distract the voting public with other issues to be considered within the “who to vote for” debate, hoping that these less divisive areas might provide a stronger platform. Clearly the voting public had a clearer set of priorities.
A Clear Value Proposition
So what’s the relevance to bids and contracts? Experience tells me that having a clear and well articulated vision of what you stand for, and showing how this is in tune with your clients’ needs and aspirations, is every bit as important.
Like Brexit, there could be differences in perceived needs from differing stakeholders within the decision making process, especially if the decision is contentious. The way to address this isn’t to make your proposition so vague and loose that nobody could object - that just means that nobody will prefer it either. Far better to argue your case with conviction and make sure that everything you communicate reinforces a clear position about what your solution stands for.
Clearly there is a risk. Picking the wrong side could mean handing success to a competitor. But it would at least avoid the muddled middle ground of no-one being quite sure what your position is.
If you have a defined rationale behind the bids you pursue you will be on much safer ground when sticking with your beliefs. You should already have weeded out the contracts that aren’t a good fit, where objectives are unclear, and where you aren’t in a strong position.
Evidence or Belief?
Permit me another brief side-track into the world of Brexit for a moment. What strikes me about the debate is how much it is belief-based. Attempts to introduce facts, evidence and methodical research are generally shouted down as people feel comforted by what they want to believe.
I’ve seen bid teams attempt this as well. When research and evidence point to the fact that a client’s vision may not be in tune with theirs it’s still hard to change tack. Some teams would prefer not to go looking for the evidence at all because it complicates the process. Teams with the best winning records are never fazed by facing up to the reality of clients’ real needs and aspirations.
An unambiguous position makes it easier for the team to get behind a vision and then do everything within their power to convince the client that their solution will deliver the best outcomes. This can be supported by focusing on the 2-3 most important factors that support your solutions and arguing against the validity of the counter arguments that might be being put by your competitors
Know Where You Stand
In politics, everyone’s views and opinions are well known to the competition. But with bidding there isn’t the same degree of transparency. So understanding what position the competition might take is much less obvious.
For me that means making sure your solution is as unambiguous as possible is even more critical. In most cases it can only be measured by the procurement team by what they read within formal documents. If it isn’t clear it won’t score well.
Procurers may be also be marginally influenced by what they see or hear through any less formal business communication channels. Whilst these might not be ‘scorable’ they help to build an impression in clients’ minds about your overall value proposition as a business. This may have a slight influence when it comes to scoring the documents.
With the difference between winning and losing often being less than 1% ,“every little helps” (as they say). But only if the message is consistent and totally clear.
I have many years of senior sales and account management positions.
This experience taught me how to interpret exactly what clients are seeking, and what they need and expect to see and hear from the successful bidder. We draw on this experience to give your team an additional competitive advantage by building on their existing strengths while improving their team-working and self-awareness.