No Harm in Asking

A simple yet crucial key to tender success should precede the writing, but is often overlooked.

The way to view any tender process is that it is less about what you, the professional firm, wants to sell, and much more about what the client wants to buy.  That’s quite a difficult message for many professionals, whose capacity to earn a living is, in their view, entirely predicated on their experience and expertise.

I once attended a seminar delivered by a partner from a Magic Circle firm. I can’t say which as they have very generously offered me a small fee not to mention their name (I declined a larger fee to suggest it was one of their competitors’ names instead of theirs). I digress. The audience was a mix of internal lawyers, trainees and the like and some clients. The partner walked into the room, up to the lectern, said ‘Good morning’, called up his first slide, which looked like a page from a Dickens novel and then started reading. Suffice it to say it was much less entertaining than Dickens.

He continued thus for the duration. No interruptions, no eye contact, no engagement at all. He lost the audience slightly after ‘Good morning’ and never got us back. At the end, he asked if there were any questions and, predictably, there were not. He turned on his heels and walked out. We looked at each other, ‘Is that really it?’ It was. In his view he had done the job, imparting information for the benefit of those who wanted to learn from his encyclopaedic knowledge. But it’s rarely, if ever, only about the knowledge and the same applies in a pitch scenario. Never underestimate the power of empathy.

Our experience and conversations with those who were kind enough to help us out in the research for ‘Win more, lose less’ suggests that there are still plenty of people receiving a brief, accepting the invitation and then getting straight down to write the proposal. You could envisage that where there is an existing relationship so the business and its legal requirements are well understood and the supporting brief is especially comprehensive, then that might just be the right approach. But for every other situation it is unlikely to be effective.

The essence of what I am getting to, is summed up in the comment below from a FTSE-100 company’s GC,

“The tender document should spell out what the client requires and not a vague, amorphous hint of what you want. Always phone up and ask me about what we want. Unless you can clarify what the client wants, how can you deliver?”

If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

I have met partners who take a different view. Phoning the client to talk about the brief or, God forbid, having the temerity to ask for a meeting to discuss it, is (in their view) tantamount to self-disqualification. One told me it was unprofessional, whereas in fact we contend that the opposite is true.

The art of selling in any business-to-business situation is to listen. Then ask questions and ensure the answers are fully understood. The firm that has the best grip on the client’s requirements, is the firm that is most likely to win the instruction.

This is not just about information and insight. Those who invest time to get to grips with what the client wants and how they like to work, are demonstrating commitment and empathy. This says you want to understand their requirements beyond their brief, you want to get to grips with their business. You want to build bridges and will make a time investment to do so. And finally, it says you want your proposal to be better than anyone else’s, which just underlines that you are dead enthusiastic.

It is often said that any selling process is much more about listening than having the gift of the gab. And the firm that just starts writing without so much as a cursory phone call, is the firm that is not so much professional as uncaring and assuming it knows best on how the task at hand should be handled. To a client that looks like arrogance, even if the firm is right.

In the book, we regale a story of a pitch where one of the firms in a tender situation sought to speak to the client in depth. Insodoing they found the client had some research of their own that would have an impact on the matter they were competing to win. The client said it would release it after the pitch.  This firm wouldn’t take no for an answer and persuaded them to release it to them alone. Immediate competitive advantage. They won. Who said anything about life being fair?

I have met partners who take a different view. Phoning the client to talk about the brief or, God forbid, having the temerity to ask for a meeting to discuss it, is (in their view) tantamount to self-disqualification. One told me it was unprofessional, whereas in fact we contend that the opposite is true.

The art of selling in any business-to-business situation is to listen. Then ask questions and ensure the answers are fully understood. The firm that has the best grip on the client’s requirements, is the firm that is most likely to win the instruction.

This is not just about information and insight. Those who invest time to get to grips with what the client wants and how they like to work, are demonstrating commitment and empathy. This says you want to understand their requirements beyond their brief, you want to get to grips with their business. You want to build bridges and will make a time investment to do so. And finally, it says you want your proposal to be better than anyone else’s, which just underlines that you are dead enthusiastic.

It is often said that any selling process is much more about listening than having the gift of the gab. And the firm that just starts writing without so much as a cursory phone call, is the firm that is not so much professional as uncaring and assuming it knows best on how the task at hand should be handled. To a client that looks like arrogance, even if the firm is right.

In the book, we regale a story of a pitch where one of the firms in a tender situation sought to speak to the client in depth. Insodoing they found the client had some research of their own that would have an impact on the matter they were competing to win. The client said it would release it after the pitch.  This firm wouldn’t take no for an answer and persuaded them to release it to them alone. Immediate competitive advantage. They won. Who said anything about life being fair?

About the author: Tim Nightingale

Tim founded Nisus Consulting in 1996 with the aim of helping professional services firms become more client focused. Tim has an MBA from Cass Business School, is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing and a full member of the Market Research Society. See Bio… 


‘Strategic Tendering for Professional Services – Win More, Lose less’ is published by Kogan Page and can be ordered directly from the publisher, or from Amazon or all good bookshops. Price is £29.99.