Q&A with Mark Watters from The BidBase
Idha Valeur talks to Mark Watters, Managing Director of The BidBase, about bid writing, common mistakes, how to avoid them and what makes a good bid writer.
How did you get into bid writing?
I started my career as an Apprentice Electrician at the Sellafield nuclear site in Cumbria. During this time, I also started an electrical contracting business with a colleague. My career at Sellafield progressed and I became an Electrical Engineer, Project Manager and Operations Manager before heading up the Low-Level Waste Repository nuclear site in Cumbria. In 2005, I decided to grow my commercial experience and left Sellafield to work for a variety of consulting and construction contractors in the nuclear industry – latterly leading the growth of one of them to become a £50mln-a-year turnover company.
Running my own company, I realised pretty quickly that’s where my real passion lies, so I decided to once again start my own company, which was then called Prosure Engineering. We offered project management and bid support services at the start, but demand for our bid support service just grew and grew, and it wasn’t just from construction firms, so I created The BidBase.
Tell me about bid writing
Well, I think bidding or tendering for work is something a lot of people are familiar with, because for a lot of businesses, it’s an important source of revenue and opportunities, but it can be a major source of frustration too. It’s something most businesses need to do at least occasionally, but it’s surprisingly hard to do well. Being able to actually communicate what makes your company great, what your customer needs and knowing how to stand out from your competitors, while keeping to the format of a bid, can be the key to unlocking some huge contracts and opportunities.
Many of our clients are really good at what they do. They may be great at communicating how good they are through marketing, on the phone, or on LinkedIn, but being able to communicate that in the format of a bid, specifically, is a whole specialised skill in itself.
What makes a good bid writer?
I think the main thing is great attention to detail, because with bids it’s usually the case that if you don’t fulfil one requirement exactly, you’ve lost your chance. But it’s also about keeping your eye on the big picture and making sure the bid as a whole communicates what you want it to about your company and making sure it fits in with your overall bidding strategy and pipeline.
What does the process look like from A to Z?
It can go a lot of ways, because for some clients we help with one particular stage of the bid process, and for some we just look after the entire process from start to finish.
We’d normally start at the very beginning with a consultation, which helps us get a full picture of the business, and once we understand it thoroughly, we step right back and independently review the entire process of bidding. How does the client currently find opportunities to bid for? How do they select from those? Is it actually working?
Then we help to identify customer requirements, competitor position and what the bidder can offer. This helps to build the bid strategy and to distil the key ‘win themes’ – the features of our client’s offering and their customers’ needs that are going to clinch a win. That can be a great base for existing bid teams to work from too.
Then we can manage and coordinate the entire bid process. From researching and gathering information to writing the bid, designing the branding, layout and graphics, and printing it. We also help manage any post-bid clarifications and adjustments and bring together and manage technical information and resources that might be needed.
I think the most important part is afterwards. We’re always reviewing the whole process. Is it working? What is the success rate and what is the return on the time spent on the bids? It’s about constant refinement and getting the most out of the resource you have.
What are the most common mistakes?
There are a lot of obvious mistakes that are surprisingly common – like everyone in a bid team not noticing some kind of key requirement until it’s too late. I think the fundamental, most common mistake is bidding for things that you’re not going to get. The old approach used to be “just bid for everything and burn your staff out”. You only have a limited resource to spend on bids, so you should look to get maximum value.
The other thing to bear in mind is that tenders are longer, more complicated pieces of work than they used to be. Having a dedicated team in-house is a big cost, but a big mistake is just expecting other staff to pick up the slack. It’s pretty normal to see companies where staff find themselves pulling extremely late nights or even all-nighters. When it’s done, that’s the last they ever hear of it, so it starts to feel futile and they dread the next bid.
Meanwhile, people are getting worn down and other tasks are going by the wayside.
And what should companies do to avoid these mistakes?
I think the main thing is to be completely systematic. Look at the entire process from start to finish and think, “how can this whole system be more efficient?” Everything stems from that – constant, iterative review and improvement of the whole bidding pipeline.
The other point is that it’s ok to use bid-support. I still hear people treating using a bid consultant as a dirty little secret, saying, “they only won because they used a bid-support consultancy”. Whether it’s to absorb some of the work during a crunch period or take care of everything, people use companies because it’s a smart use of their finite resources and because it works.
Does the approach to bids differ between different sectors in science and engineering?
Every sector comes with its own considerations and has its own idiosyncrasies and language – as does every different client for that matter. The details change for every bid, but the process is fundamentally the same. The key is to approach each bid in the same systematic way while dealing with the specific bid detail. Companies who apply a standard and systematic approach to bids can be adaptable and successful in different industries.
Top tips for successful bid writing
- Be systematic – Focus your resources and energy intensely, right where it gets results.
- Really understand what makes you competitive – You might know what makes your company stand out, but are all your staff on the same page? Make sure you’ve clearly articulated what your client really needs and what differentiates you from other companies and make the absolute most of that in your bids.