Spot the Difference: Can You Win Across Different Industries?

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I told Martin, “I can’t really write for this edition of BQ. Sorry.”

Why? Because I work across many sectors (not one industry) in my role at Strategic Proposals. The biggest contrast has been from nuclear power stations to stationery providers. And yes, the end customers did ask some of the same questions! That makes me smile.

Anyway, he said, “Didn’t you spend ages up to your neck in PCs bidding in IT?” Well, yeah, about ten years and I still do tech bids today. Then he said, “Didn’t you spend three years working at least 60% of your time in a professional services company?” Good point! So here we are, my article on some of the industry differences I’ve seen and some of the things to look out for.

Firstly, a note on transferable skills. As a senior buyer once told me, “Working with one of our competitors is a conflict of interest. Working with multiple organisations in the sector makes you a sector specialist.”

Experience counts. When we meet our new clients for the first time, they often ask what we’ve done in their sector. People think it’s important. Why?


Familiarity. Terminology. You get it. You can start quickly.

If this is really what your employer wants, it’s probably because they want you to write on behalf of their subject matter experts (SMEs). In that case you really do need to know the market you’re working in. On the other hand, perhaps you’re editing or managing and reviewing, so bring the advantages of not being in the SME echo chamber. Horses for courses. Whether you’re a contractor going into a new role or applying for a new job, it’s important to know what your future employer is looking for.

That aside, here’s what I’ve seen in terms of differences across the sectors I’ve worked in and what perhaps makes a difference.

TechnologyProfessional services
Buyers • Move from just procurement, finance and IT department decisions

• Stakeholders from the business now make much more complex contact plans

• Move to seeking solutions more than just product purchase

• Pricing of solutions is key

• Typically focused on the return on investment (ROI) and cost-effectiveness

• Often interested in forming long-term partnerships

• Trust, credibility and working collaboratively seen as crucial

• May rely on referrals and word-of-mouth recommendations

• Strong emphasis on compliance

• Intermediaries can be used to play the procurement role – strong gatekeepers who can issue vanilla, sometimes anonymous tenders

Internal teams• Lots of marketing effort to position brands

• Strong sales and BD influence, with often very experienced, expert sellers who work on bigger deals

• Lots of inexperienced sales people building their skills and experience on the job working on smaller deals

• Technical specialists are critical to developing those solutions

• Finance input is critical on pricing

• Contributors are usually fee earners who are focused on delivery (so time poor), though they are critical to success

• Often super-intelligent, highly educated team members who may struggle to use non-technical language in the proposal

• Senior management input (e.g. partner level) prevalent, but can be last-minute

Key characteristics • Competition fierce

• Typically formal processes, but often lots of proactive proposals and pitches

• Many high value deals, but many more lower value

• Often quick turnarounds, high pace

• Lots of sub-sectors with distinct differences

• RFPs/ITTs with sometimes large numbers of technical questions – sometimes solution overviews required to paint the ‘big picture’

• Mostly very competitive

• Several big global dominant forces and then large numbers of relatively smaller organisations often battling it out between scale and depth, versus specialism and lower rates

• Concern over a race-to-the-bottom on price on day rate-based standard services

• Capture prevalent for large ‘big four’ type deals, but then much more reactive in other contexts

• Shorter ITTs/RFPs with typically a small number of questions (outside of compliance sections)

Public vs private end customers• Lots of frameworks in public sector

• Both tend to use formal processes, as deals tend to be large (when compared to sectors like professional services)

• Much more formalised processes in public sector

• Lower value deals more likely to be decided by a pitch in private sector

• Lower value public sector tenders tend to be very cookie cutter in style

Top tips• Pre-engagement is key – if you haven’t been engaging with them, someone else will have

• You need experienced sales and technical folks in your team to win

• Key to understand customer’s unique needs, provide tailored solutions, and effectively communicate value

• Lots of similarities across ITTs, so good quality and broad knowledge bases can help with efficiency

• Key is building trust with customer pre-tender

• Responses need to showcase credentials, especially niche differentiators amongst proposed staff

• Proposals need to show deep domain knowledge

• Time poor contributors may need hands-on interview/writing type of support

• Gain partner trust early to demonstrate you can/will bring value


The key to working in bids and proposals across different sectors is understanding what’s expected from you. Sometimes deep subject matter expertise may be expected, sometimes not. Moving from one sector to another can be a steep learning curve, but it is also very rewarding to individuals and can be seen as bringing in fresh ideas to employers. Working in different areas is certainly one of the reasons why I still love doing what I do.

This article was written by Graham Ablett.

Graham Ablett is a Consulting Director at Strategic Proposals, where he helps clients to win specific opportunities as well as implementing effective and efficient proposal processes. He is a former board member of APMP in the UK, holding APMP Professional status, and is an APMP Approved Trainer.

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