Look Before You Leap

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It’s an interesting subject that Martin and the team have selected for this issue of BQ. To specialise in an industry or not to specialise?

I may well get typecast as a construction work winning professional, considering my background in leading functions for construction market leaders such as Arcadis and Mace. But these days I’m lucky enough to flit between different markets and sectors, working across professional services, outsourcing and infrastructure (to name but a few). We are blessed to be in a small group of consultants and trainers who really get under the skin of different organisations’ maturity levels and work winning functions across the spectrum. The following points are true of construction and in many other markets too.

We have diagnosed a key dynamic in our maturity benchmarking work across markets. In general,  the greater the complexity and the number of moving parts in a product or service, the greater the opportunity to differentiate becomes – and (naturally) the less mature in winning work the organisations in each market tend to be (as perhaps they don’t have to work so hard for the win).

For instance, I spent a period leading the growth function of an enforcement services business, eventually leading to a successful sale of the firm. Their actual service is incredibly simple – largely, make some phone calls and send some letters. Pricing is set by legislation and clients don’t like to interview, so tendering all comes down to your quality submission score. It was bidding nirvana, incredibly competitive with absolute writing precision required to win. You had to be really well positioned, prepared and organised.

But I have also worked with massive, well-known, incredibly complex engineering businesses that get hit in the face cold with recompetes for deals where they are incumbent. And I work with building contractors all the time that fail (or bring in consultants to support them) on really basic aspects of bidding, e.g. breaking questions down, storyboarding responses, etc.

There are obviously exceptions. We do find the bigger firms with higher win rates tend to be relatively more mature than their smaller competitors in most markets, with maturity levels tailing off fast the further down the list you go. But you do get the odd, interesting challenger firm that is growing fast, usually with entrepreneurial leaders with experience working at bigger, more mature firms or with a natural talent for bidding deals.

A crossing point happens when it comes to framework bidding. In construction for instance, bidding for a big government framework is much higher stakes but also much more competitive than bidding for a project. How you will run your framework team and look after end clients is a much easier task than figuring out how to construct a complex building. The oxygen for differentiation is in much shorter supply.

So what does that mean for us bidding professionals and whether we should specialise?

In our bid writing training sessions I always say half of a Bid Manager’s role is to project manage the successful submission of a compliant compelling response to the client on time. Much like the work of your IT function, no one should even really notice that part of our work taking place. Crucially though, the other half of the job is facilitating a winning proposition out of the business and landing it in your proposals. This is harder to do as an outsider in a mature and competitive market, so this is where sector experience really comes into its own. Industry knowledge becomes more powerful.

It logically follows, as a rule, that you can move more easily in markets/sectors selling complex deep solutions with an immature work winning approach rather than within highly mature markets where the service and proposition is quite straightforward (and where you need to work really hard in the detail to derive a winning proposition).

There is a route to bridging the gap though. Deals are largely won and lost before the RFP is ever written. In the enforcement company example, I didn’t really know the industry at all. I brought value to the firm (beyond providing a focus on bidding excellence) by being the ‘work winning professional’ –  moving the eyeline of the business up to focus on capturing key deals in the pipeline far before tender and robustly managing current client accounts. I see a movement upstream into capture (and away from the clutches of AI) as a fertile ground for bidding professionals with skills that are far more transferable between markets (particularly as capture is so immature in itself outside the US).

Of course there are some ‘watch outs’ when moving industry. Most people in bid teams work for immature organisations that are bidding everything, with low win rates, unpleasant environments, etc. Do your research. Probe them on their approach and levels of maturity during the recruitment process or target bid teams you know are successful and would like to work in.

Moving industries and sectors can be the making of your career as well as a useful tactic when dodging the impact of recessions and other change. Just do your homework and figure out the value you will bring to the firm. Make sure you look properly before you leap.

This article was written by Jeremy Brim.

Jeremy works with leadership teams and business owners as a consultant and advisor to plan and deliver sustainable growth through analysis and interventions across the sales cycle. Jeremy has also taken on leadership of the Bid Toolkit, bringing with him a wealth of bidding knowledge and desire to help businesses of all sizes improve their win rates.

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