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Podcast Transcript: Five best practices for bidding on big contracts

Selling to large multinationals or complex government accounts is no easy task. If you’ve done it before, you know it takes preparation, a lot of time and patience.

Whether you have experience or not, you’ll find today’s podcast to be very practical. Today’s guest will share 5 best practices to help even small and medium-sized firms get an edge over the competition when bidding on large contracts with big clients—making selling to complicated accounts a little easier and, hopefully, a little less expensive. These best practices can be adapted and applied to any sales model so stay tuned.

I'm Michael Mancini, Editor-In-Chief of CanadExport, the official e-magazine of the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service—Canada's most extensive network of international business professionals.

I recently sat down with Leroy Lowe, the Atlantic Region Representative for FITT, the Forum for International Trade Training. Lowe is a FITT instructor, a faculty member at the Nova Scotia Community College in Truro, Nova Scotia, and an international business consultant. We spoke at FITT’s national conference held in Gatineau, Quebec.

Michael Mancini: So thank you, Mr. Lowe, for speaking with me today. We’re going to talk about how small and medium-sized companies, especially in an international context, can learn to sell to large government or commercial accounts in a more effective manner. You’ve got five top best practices that you’d like to share with us. What are they?

Leroy Lowe: So the first thing is “opening an account.” Lots of leads come from individual points of contact. But in the opening of an account, the goal should really be to open a lot of lines of communication. And that’s not intuitive.

Michael Mancini: This all so far sounds pretty basic, but you’re saying that these are mistakes companies often make.

Leroy Lowe: Well, I’m saying the most frequent mistake is to find the group that you think is the most relevant and put all your energy into developing a relationship with them and expect that they’ll get you to the end of the procurement successfully. The problem is that over a couple of years, if a long time goes by before a formal tender is generated, is that other people get engaged in this process.

They have different interests, maybe competing interests. The group that you’re working with might be really keen but some other group might not be at all interested. They may have some other company that they’re working with. And if you don’t have lines of communication with those other stakeholders, it’ll be very difficult to know what’s happening and you’ll – you could easily be blindsided, either by some bureaucratic manoeuvre that basically derails the whole project, by some competitor who’s come in who’s got a stronger partner and a different agenda, and you sort of end up on the sidelines.

The problem with these accounts is they can take a couple of years to develop. Each industry is different, but it can be a long cycle. And if it is a long cycle, and you really don’t understand the landscape, it’s easy for those things not to go in your favour. So the idea then is to not focus on the one group. I mean, you may put a lot of energy into that group because they may be able to help you, but at the same time, in parallel, talk to people who might only incidentally be impacted and maybe only at a later date. You want to understand what their issues and concerns are because ultimately, by the time this get raised to a major procurement, all those stakeholders will be at the table voicing their issues. And the sooner you know what those issues are, the better prepared you will be.

Michael Mancini: What’s your second point?

Leroy Lowe: The second point is about best practices for meetings and interviews. There’s a few things you need to know when you’re hosting or when you’re giving presentations to groups of people. You want to know what their role is and that’ll often come from the initial conversations; what their expertise is; how high up in the organization they are – basic rank, I guess; the degree of influence. This is easier to figure out in a group setting, but there are very junior people who sometimes have been around a long time and hold a lot of sway in an organization, and there are very senior people who appear to have a lot of rank but often defer to subordinates for input. And sort of understanding their influence is really important. And how impressed or not impressed they are with what you’re proposing is important to capture.

In a meeting it’s a best practice to have two people in the room: one who does the presenting, and another person who simply draws a map of the room, takes note of every single participant and starts to develop a detailed picture of each person in the room. Even though people might not say things, body language can be telling. Cultural hints can be dropped. If you have an agent, they can help you sort of parse some of the subtle nuances or things that were happening. But the key is to start to develop a map of all the players. And that’s my third best practice, is that mapping this is important: taking all the information you’ve gathered about the different participants and laying it out and identifying stakeholder groups and major issues is really important.

In particular, you’re looking for three types of people, people who are really, really enthusiastic about what you’re doing. We call them champions. You want an internal champion, someone who loves what you have in mind and will work on your behalf inside the organization to help you. Those people will surprisingly emerge. Frequently there’s just this somebody and your message resonates with them, and they’re somebody that could be very valuable to you. You want to pay attention to who those people are and groom the relationship that you have with them.

The second type of person you’re looking for is people that like to talk a lot. Different cultures have different norms, but in all cultures there are people who just like to give you the stream of consciousness. They will tell you everything they know or that they’re allowed to say. And those people will become important information points. Whether or not they’re bullish on your idea or not, they will often give you an enormous amount of information. So the relationships with those people should be groomed just because they will help you understand things from an insider’s perspective.

And the third type of person you’re looking for are people who dislike what you have in mind. They have a different agenda or they, for whatever reason, absolutely don’t like what you are doing. It might not be possible to build relationships with them, but if you can figure out what part of the organization they’re from and you can identify other people who are around them who are more friendly or open, sometimes those objections can be better understood. Sometimes those are concerns that can in fact be addressed. It may just take some special work to do that.

So the reason that’s so important is because companies get really good at giving standard presentations, and if they go to one group and give a presentation and it goes really well they tend to want to do the same kind of thing with everybody they meet. And that’s a key mistake. In most large organizations there are a lot of different stakeholder issues, and if you don’t understand them your message won’t be tailored to addressing those issues. So you have to catalogue every little objection and, rather than dismiss it and say “yeah, but generally the meeting went quite well,” you have to make sure that the next time you do a briefing and you meet with maybe a larger group from that stakeholder group, that you’ve really spent some time thinking about those little issues that were raised and address them.

So it’s those nuanced, competing interests within large organizations that have to be addressed. And the more subtle, the more carefully tailored your message is to address the issues from all the different stakeholder groups, the more likely it is you’ll be able to address and appease them to the point that somewhere later, as this process gains some momentum, that they aren’t working against you rather than working for you.

Michael Mancini: Right. OK, so the fourth.

Leroy Lowe: The fourth one is really to manage the lines of communication. One key person, usually the lead on this account on the sales side, should be directing the questions and the kind of information they are trying to gather from those stakeholder groups, and all those little side conversations that might be occurring should be funnelled back to the sales lead. Now, in some countries, depending on the company’s resources, it may only be one person doing this. If you’re in North America you might have five or six people involved in the account. There might be a sales manager, there might be some technical people—it really depends. But whoever is in touch with the client, those communications should be directed in terms of basic intelligence gathering so that you understand how the account is evolving over time. It’s key to understand what the message is that you want to put out to address the issues that emerge as those various stakeholder groups wrestle with the idea of the sort of change you’re proposing.

Michael Mancini: OK, so your fifth best practice.

Leroy Lowe: The fifth one is really about directing the procurement strategy. The ultimate goal of this, if the budget hasn’t been allocated and if they haven’t actually made a formal decision to do this, is to coax the organization towards formal procurement. If you can get any kind of buy-in from the company for some sort of low-level pilot project, proof of concept—anything where they spend money and get you involved, those are really key things to help you build momentum. Below the radar is better. Things that can be discretionarily undertaken without much visibility in an organization, that helps put your people on the ground inside the account to meet their people and really understand some of the issues that are there that you might not have been able to see from the outside. Any kind of proof of concept spending at all is a good idea.

Obviously, in some instances, if you do a proof of concept or demonstration and it’s complicated, or if you do a particularly good job on it, you know, in a perfect world, you might even get a directed procurement. More frequently, though, what happens is these are just little tests of the concept or the idea. And if the organization likes it and escalates it, and this is a multi-million dollar activity, most large organizations, be they government or commercial, have formal procurement process that involve inviting other people to come in and bid. And rarely in something that’s going to happen over a couple of years, or whatever timeframe, rarely does this occur in a vacuum. Some people within the organization will tap other companies that they know and say “we’re starting to move in this direction, you might want to get involved.” So competition is inevitable.

Ideally what you want to do though, while things are still in flux, is to find the group within the organization that’s going to be responsible for writing the specifications or requirements that they’re going to ask for people to bid on.

And you want to take the things that are your absolute competitive advantage—the service that you offer or the product attributes that you have that are absolutely a competitive edge—and you want to convince people within the account, in particular the people that are writing the specification or requirements document, that those are things that are very important for them to ask for because it’s going to meet their need in some very special way.

And as long as you can get those requirements written into their specification when it goes out to an RFP and other companies come out of the woodwork to bid on this requirement, they won’t realize that you’ve already had influence on how that document was crafted and that some of the things that you do better than anybody else have been asked for. And that will give you an absolute competitive edge in the bid. I mean, if you’re showing up at an account and an RFP is being issued, you probably missed that entire opportunity. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bid, but your chances of winning those kinds of accounts are really a bid random.

On the other hand, if you were involved with shaping their thinking about what they needed, the kind of solution or service that they would be looking for, and you were involved over a long period of time with a lot of stakeholders and understanding their needs, and even potentially offering them ideas or suggestions as to what to include in their specifications or requirements, by the time that document is made public hopefully you’ve—if you’ve done your job well, you’ll be perfectly positioned to put in a very strong bid that will meet most of their requirements in a manner that other companies won’t be able to do.

Michael Mancini: Well, thank you, Leroy, very much for your time today.

Leroy Lowe: Thank you.

Michael Mancini: Well, that’s all for this podcast edition of CanadExport. To learn more about how the Forum for International Trade Training can help your company, visit www.fitt.ca. FITT equips individuals and businesses with the practical skills they need to succeed in today’s competitive global marketplace.

You might also wish to visit www.tradecommissioner.gc.ca to see how our network of trade commissioners in more than 150 cities can help your company.

For more features articles and podcasts on international trade, visit www.CanadExport.gc.ca. While you are there, feel free to ask the Trade Commissioner Service a business question. A Trade Commissioner will get back to you. Just look for the Ask the TCS logo on the right navigation bar of the CanadExport website.

I’m Michael Mancini signing off for now.

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