Crash Course: How to tender successfully

Your business could do with winning some nice, juicy contracts. Trouble is, you often seem to hear about them when it's too late. And when you put in bids, you never seem to win. So how do you play this game?

by Alexander Garrett
Last Updated: 15 Nov 2010

Look in the right places. is a website that publishes a daily list of contracts above £50,000 or so, throughout the EU, mainly in the public sector. offers similar access to public-sector contracts in the UK under £100,000. Says Harold Lewis, author of Bids, Tenders and Proposals (Kogan Page): 'Look on websites of local authorities for smaller-value contracts; and in the private sector, the trade press is very important. The other way is to get to know the people who are in charge of projects, especially in the private sector.'

Get approved. Some organisations have an 'approved list' of contractors for certain types of contract. If you aren't on it, you aren't in the game. So find out how to get accredited status with the customers you really want to work with.

Prepare your ethical credentials. Increasingly, if you can't show that you have sound policies on a raft of issues - eg, diversity, equality and the environment - you won't get past first base. 'A buyer will be looking for a supplier with a similar culture,' explains Rene de Sousa of the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply. 'It's also for accountability: in the public sector to taxpayers, in the private sector to shareholders.'

Pick the right bids. Says Lewis: 'It must be a commercially viable decision for you; it should also make sense strategically - will it add value to your firm? Look at the incumbent; are you really likely to dislodge them, or is the customer just fishing for ideas?'

What do they really want? Find out the underlying issues that may not be stated in the Request for Proposal (RFP). In the private sector, you may be able to engineer a meeting to discuss this; if not, do your detective work by tapping industry contacts.

Dare to be different. 'Think of a USP you can offer,' says David Thorp, director of research and information at the Chartered Institute of Marketing. 'What can you do that no-one else can do?' Buyers will also be looking in the tender document for originality, adds de Sousa. 'They need product innovation for their own customers, and process innovation for efficiency.'

Follow the instructions. If you miss the deadline or put your name on the envelope when the process is sealed bids, you'll be disqualified. Make sure you've read the RFP carefully and answered the question that has been asked. List your previous relevant experience and give other customers as references. And, says Harold Lewis, 'Put all your enthusiasm into it and persuade them that you are the real thing.'

Do say: 'Our bid provides the price, quality and delivery you want through the skill and commitment of our people.'

Don't say: 'This isn't quite finished and it's a bit late, but I'll make sure that doesn't happen if you give us the contract.'

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