At various points in this book, we talk about doing your formal client engagement before the bid becomes a bid. This period is your safe zone for asking the idiot questions and the clever ones too. Once you enter a procurement process, in the interests of fairness and transparency all questions directed to the buyer may be shared with all bidders. So, you lose the opportunity for open dialogue.
Public sector buyers have very clear protocols around engagement, and the fastest way to get yourself kicked out of the competition is to breach those. If they say ask all questions through a portal, you ask all questions through a portal. You do not email individuals. On high value/high profile contracts some twitchy procurement officers will report you without hesitation, so just play the game and do exactly as you are told.
- Do not ask any questions that are going to reveal to the competition where your thinking is at. Some bidders engage in counter-intelligence by asking fake questions just to throw off their competitors.
- Do not ask questions that will antagonize the buyer by asking them to reconfirm information that you should be able to work out for yourself.
- If you have a valid question that the buyer repeatedly fails to answer properly, then accept they are fudging, trying to buy time, or just don’t know.
These procurements will usually include market engagement events such as open-days, pre-bid conferences and bid openings open to all competitors. The format includes a presentation about the project from the buyer followed by a formal Q&A. If you are attending one of these events, you can gather great intel at registration, during coffee breaks, lunch, and at the end of the day.
Here are some essential tips for working a market engagement event:
- Ask good questions, prepare some beforehand, keep them brief, don’t ramble.
- Introduce yourself to each of the buyer’s team.
- Observe the buyer’s team personalities, power hierarchies and dynamics.
- Discreetly map the competition.
- Take pictures – but remember to get permission first.
And the biggest tip, see if you can get an independent professional researcher to attend in their own capacity. Without the burden of a name badge, they can ask obvious questions and soak up some good competitor intel.
In very complex bids, buyers will have a set timetable of meetings with each bidder covering different topics or workstreams. These are called by a variety of names, but often referred to as ‘dialogue sessions’, and are used to develop solutions that need input from bidders. When you are preparing for a dialogue session, it is really important that you are prepared. Dialogue sessions are often organized around topics, for example, on a hospital construction bid you would to expect to see a dedicated workstream for legal and commercial issues, construction, design and facilities management.
Before you attend a dialogue meeting find out the names and roles of each person from the buyer’s side, so you can make sure you match them in expertise and seniority. When in a dialogue meeting, the most important thing is to listen. Confirm their requirements, ask enough questions to get a real feel on where their pain and drivers are coming from. Be careful that the questioning doesn’t last too long because they can become frustrated if you are not feeding anything back to them.
I have been in two competitions now where I have seen the opposition kicked out for their unprofessional behavior at a competitive dialogue meeting. In both instances, the bidders were so stubborn and argumentative that the buyer decided right there and then that they did not want to work with the bidder. Behavior in these dialogue sessions is really important, it is where you start to build rapport and your working relationship.
A key purpose of the dialogue meeting involves kite-flying. This means you are flying some outlying ideas to test how far their thinking will go. Most bidders do not have the confidence to do this, but in the competitions where we have been the most effective, we have gone in with one kite-flyer, one observer and the senior person. The senior person is never the kite-flyer because they always have to keep their seniority. The kite-flyer has to be the most disposable person, because if it is too radical, that person should not be seen again. What you are doing is testing the waters as to how open the buyer is to pushing the boundaries, and you do that in a structured, smart, subtle way so they do not even know what they are experiencing. All the while, your observer is looking at how they are reacting to your concepts. People do not have to tell you – you can see it in their faces. You are looking to see where the lights shine.
How to behave with your buyer
Just be human and likeable – enthusiasm, interest and passion will come across if it’s genuine. Be sure to engage every single member of the buyer’s team in discussion. Take notes of what was said and agreed. Observe their reactions to what is being said by your side. Afterwards, respond to clarifications raised at the meeting, fully and promptly.
- Openness and trust
- Can-do, will-do attitudes
- Constructive challenge
- Turn up without knowing exactly who you are meeting
- Focus on the problems without providing a solution
- Bore them with PowerPoint presentations
- Be evasive if you are asked a question
- Fail to follow through on actions you promised to do
- Go in for the hard sell
Engagement with the private sector can be a lot more straightforward. However, a degree of caution is needed in private sector bidding. Our observation is that a lot of RFPs from the private sector are sloppy and not thought through. Buyers are not clear about what they want. This presents a big opportunity and a big risk.
If the buyer is dependent on you for their thinking and needs a lot of hand-holding, your engagement will focus heavily on unpacking all their issues and defining their pain points. But here’s the burn. You can very easily find yourself in a position where you are presenting them with problems that are bigger than their pain, that they cannot influence or change.
One of the most effective engagement strategies that suits private sector buyers is to highlight where they are vulnerable to disruption. You show them how you have their back. “This is what I have been thinking about on your behalf” or “This is what your competitors are doing” or “This is what your sector is doing.” Only do this, if (a) you understand the industry well, (b) you work with the buyer’s competitors and (c) the buyer is a highly functioning person who gets it and wants a competitive edge.