Before Writing A Bid To Win New Work, Do You Ask The Best Questions?

What’s coaching got to do with bidding?

In a previous blog post, we explored some of the essential factors to remember when writing a bid document.  You can catch up with that post here.  This time, let’s consider examples of great questions you can ask your clients and yourself before setting pen to paper…or should that be finger to keyboard? In particular, let’s explore how the world of coaching helps us in the world of bidding and responding to an invitation to tender (ITT).

Coaching is all about asking the insightful questions that enable people to realise their own capabilities, strengths, experience and resourcefulness to make progress in achieving challenging goals, which are often seen as too difficult without the support of a coach.  Since the purpose of bid-writing is also to rise to a challenge – of winning new work – it stands to reason that bidding might be able to gain something from coaching, both in terms of probing what matters to clients and also planning answers to questions.

The ‘normal’ questions we ask ourselves

We need to position our businesses for the greatest probability of success, which commonly starts by asking questions that test the viability of our organisation submitting a bid at all.  Examples of such questions are:

  • Can our organisation match the client’s requirements?
  • Can we demonstrate relevant experience?
  • Do we have sufficient trading history?
  • Do we have adequate resources to bid for and then deliver the requirements?
  • What form of procurement is the client using?

These are all important questions that require unambiguous answers.  However, we’ve found, from working with clients who have reviewed their past bids, that there’s a key component missing: what does the client really want?

This might seem a superfluous question, especially if the client’s requirements appear self-explanatory or fall well within our organisation’s experience: build a new office block, set up a direct marketing campaign, deliver a training course, provide project management services, establish a new HR strategy, etc.  The point of the question is to ask what the client wants and needs at a deeper level than that at which the initial request for tenders is made.  The earlier we can probe deeper into a client’s requirements, preferably before the ITT is even issued, the more chance we have of positioning ourselves for success.

Gain the most insight by asking the best questions

In coaching, we seek to help clients set meaningful, relevant, achievable and challenging goals that will drive the steps they need to take for making progress.  The nature of questions we ask, in order to help clients establish the goals that will make the most difference when achieved, has relevance in bidding.  Let’s have a look at some examples by considering six questions.  There are plenty more great questions but these are examples of some very effective ones.

This is where we look at some questions that can be asked when you speak with key decision-makers in your client organisation.  Since keeping an open mind is important and you want to gain as much relevant information as possible, the questions are all open in nature, which means there’ll be no risk of receiving ‘yes’ / ‘no’ responses.  This is a key feature of coaching, too, in which closed questions are avoided because they diminish the client’s resourceful states.  Also, when you’re bidding, although you’re promoting your business to the client organisation, you’re really pitching to individuals, the key decision-makers.  There may be several of them, and maybe not even all in one organisation – eg. the client may have appointed consultants to advise on procurement and bid assessment.  The more people you can speak with, the better, all with the aim of probing their priorities, challenges, existing resources, blockers to progress, etc.  Knowing these will enable you to target what matters most to those people.

Here are six examples of questions we’ve used to good effect:

1  What benefits do you see from this initiative / project / programme?

The personal coaching form of this question might be, ‘What will having X enable you to achieve?’ to encourage clients to focus on all the new possibilities open to them if they achieve the goal under discussion.  In bidding, the answer to this question may vary from one person to another for the same project, based on their own priorities and the outputs they’re tasked with delivering.  This question has proved useful even when a detailed brief or specification was available, largely because the specification was focused on technical and logistical requirements but shed no light on individuals’ specific perceptions of benefits to their clients or themselves.  It’s always worth checking what people view as the benefits of a project because their responses may well yield further priorities that you can link to your organisation’s strengths in your bid.

An example that springs to mind is of a major hotel requiring building repairs to avoid continued deterioration of a façade; the building was to be converted into luxury apartments.  The client delayed the work because it wasn’t viewed as sufficiently important.  A specialist building consultant was eventually appointed to assess the urgency of the repairs.  The report highlighted the physical, safety and operational aspects of the project but further probing by one of the bidders, using open questions, identified the importance of the repairs to enable the mortgage funding for the developer of the building.  This was a primary concern of the developer’s finance director who happened also to be one of the adjudicators of the bids for the repair work.  He commented favourably on the successful bidder’s well-rounded appreciation of the project’s wider benefits beyond those immediately apparent.

2  What’s the most important initial step that you need to take?

This is the same question we use in coaching, once a range of possible options for activity has been established.  The coaching client needs to identify the most important next step for him / her, to ensure the drive and motivation for action comes from within themselves and not from someone else.

You know your sector well and you know how to deliver the services or products in question, but you also have to know what’s most immediately important to the decision-makers in your client organisation.   You need to check what matters most to people as individuals, rather than responding to an assumed collective priority.

We worked with a major contractor on a number of questions in a multi-sectioned bid.  One of the questions was about collaborating for successful outcomes.  Three members of the bid team held different views on how best to approach the question.  Having advised that we create a list of options and form a plan for structuring the answer, we then asked, ‘What’s the most important initial step that you need to take?’  This generated agreement in the team to define and characterise collaboration, as understood by their client, and prioritise the requirements.  There was then an agreed way forward for the bid response and it also ensured the team’s motivation because they took the initiative, rather than being told how to develop the answer.  Our role was then to knit the team members’ expert responses together into a uniform and impactful answer.

3  What areas of your business are relying on this happening?

In coaching, we might ask something more along the lines of, ‘Who else will benefit from your achieving this goal?’ or ‘Who else needs to be involved in helping you achieve this goal?’  In bidding, it’s a good idea to know who else in a client’s business will benefit from the outcomes of a project or, indeed, be affected adversely (within or outside the client’s organisation).  It’s important to know both, so you can portray a broader understanding of benefits in your bid, or show how you’ve thought about mitigating negative impacts on others.

By way of example, we worked with a county council’s outsourced economic development partner to produce their business plan for the next year, setting out their goals for attracting funding to support county businesses.  While this wasn’t a bid document as such, it was very much part of the organisation’s promotional collateral to engage funding partners, including the local authority and the regional local enterprise partnership (LEP).  By asking this question, we were able to focus people’s thinking, in a business planning workshop, on the internal stakeholders who were relying on the success of the plan and, just as importantly, on how those stakeholders would contribute to its success.  The open nature of the question encouraged the widest possible visualisation of benefits and contributions, which led to the best portrayal of our client’s unique offering to local businesses and to supporting LEP goals in line with central government priorities.

4  What’s driving the need for this to happen at this time?

This is a very important question because the answer will reveal all sorts of useful pointers about the wider business needs and priorities.  In coaching, we might ask something like, “Why is this important to you at this time in your life?” to encourage clients to think about the journey they’ve taken to this point in time and how achieving a goal will make a difference regarding what’s yet to come.  The bid interrogation form of the question, as proposed above, could be modified to stress the word ‘this’, so the client thinks about why now is the time for the services or products to be provided.

We supported a start-up business by producing a suite of promotional literature that could be used for brochures or tenders.  The business wanted to increase the size of project for which it provided professional services.  The timing of the marketing literature was based on the need to expand the range of future opportunities by bidding for work in a number of sectors, rather than relying solely on negotiating work.  This required showing how the experience of the business to date would provide the strength needed to address new prospective clients’ challenges.   Asking for more detail about the drivers governing the need for the material at that time was helpful for pinpointing particular aspects of the experience that had to be stressed.  As a result, the material produced was appropriate for use in tenders for more significant opportunities, supporting the drive for business growth.

5  What do you / does your business already have / do that will help?

Let’s not forget that bidding isn’t all about looking into the future; it’s also about considering existing capabilities and strengths that help to make a difference.  Likewise, we ask coaching clients to think about their existing experiences and capabilities that they can use to help them devise strategies for achieving goals.  This question is invariably a successful contributor to unlocking potential and overcoming limiting beliefs.

In bidding, we’re interested to know the client’s existing strengths that they may not have thought about, which may well be numerous.  Coaching is a great way of helping a client to think about their relevant business strengths that can be promoted and used in a bid, when the client’s thinking is focused on the more immediately-identified strengths that spring to mind.  By ‘digging’ deeper, we can identify more subtle strengths that will add value to a bid submission.

6  Assuming your suppliers deliver, what could stop you or impede progress?

This is the question that tests what your client considers to be the possible blockers to progress that can get in the way of their achieving the desired outcomes of the future project for which they’re seeking tenders.  It’s great to know what these might be, so you can refer to them in your bid and show how you’re going to be ready to help your client navigate around the obstacles.  This will show that you’re ready to deliver the primary services as well as provide a supporting role beyond those services, which will enhance the value of your offer.  Everyone likes solutions to the problems that could cause delays, additional cost and hassle ‘down the track’, so why not be the bidder that demonstrates a desire to ‘go the extra mile’?

Don’t be afraid to ask the questions that might seem obvious

Unless you ask a question to which the answer is as clear as day, all questions are worth asking because you never know what nuggets of information might come your way.  Remember one thing: keep questions open.  Don’t give people the easy option of saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ because then you won’t come away with the rich depth of information that you need for your killer bid.

Your go

What are your thoughts about these questions?  They’re just some examples, so what others do you think would be useful?  If you found this article useful and interesting, please share it.

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