CA Service

Tender Preparation

I am not a shoe salesman!

A facilitated strategic planning session at Philips is about to unleash some powerful emotions. Someone has suggested that engineers need to be more consumer minded, to think more like salesmen. A red-faced design engineer stands up and says:
"I worked hard all through school and most of my life to be a design engineer, a Philips design engineer. I make the best products, and I believe people will buy because they will know they have the best. Now, you want me to find some other way to sell what I make. Time I should be spending on the design you want me to worry about guessing what people can be tricked into buying. You want me to be a salesman. But if I wanted to be a salesman, I would work in a shoe store. I would sell shoes. I am a Philips design engineer; I am not a shoe salesman."

- Lewis Pinault1

Most engineers are bought up on quantifiable facts and provable logic. This leads to the view, so neatly stated by the Philips design engineer, that if a product is well-designed it's worth should be self evident to all. The idea that emotion should play a part in a customer's buying decision is hard for them to accept - as is the notion that:

the customer's perception of your product is the only reality
(as opposed to the product's intrinsic beauty as perceived by its creator)

This is why all tender teams must have a sales function responsible for developing the customer's emotional need for the product and a technical team that describes its characteristics.

That said, it's an unfortunate truth that, in a tendering scenario, despite the presence of skilled salesman, much of the selling must be done on paper. The skills of the salesmen must therefore infuse and pervade all tender documentation. The unique selling proposition must be tightly integrated with the technical description. The salesman must be joined at the hip with the engineer. This is where CA can help:

We provide technically literate engineers who can sell
both in person and on paper

We love the work. It allows us to combine our systems engineering background with a passion for design and communication. We enjoy the challenge of transforming mundane facts and figures into a compelling story that sells an organisation and its products.


The process of getting your story into another person's mind and having it stand out from the competition requires a multipart strategy that plays out in all phases of tendering. Our services are therefore best described by our participation in each of these phases.

Making the Bid/No-Bid Decision

Having analysed the tender documentation you must evaluate your capability to deliver. You may also do a back-of-an-envelope competitive analysis and determine whether or not to enter into what can be an expensive tendering process. The larger the project the more sophisticated the client. Sophisticated clients often introduce substantial compliance requirements that may not be familiar to you. For example safety-related projects may introduce standards such as IEC 61508. Rail industry projects routinely call out the CENELEC standards: EN 50126, EN 50128, EN 5129. Ticking the "comply" box against standards such as these can be an extremely expensive commitment.

CA service: If you are unsure about the cost, scope and schedule ramifications of compliance with any software or systems engineering standard CA can provide advice. Don't wait until after tender award to find out that compliance costs have blown your budget before you start.

Staffing the Tender Team

Most organisations do not maintain full-time tender teams. People are routinely busy executing urgent projects. Proposal managers often find it difficult to get experienced resources.

Nothing is more heart-breaking than seeing an under-resourced proposal manager pull an all-nighter to get a submission across the line, only to realise that line items are missing or - worse - the submission is non-compliant.

CA service: We can play the following roles in a tender team: proposal manager, systems engineer, technical writer, estimator, quality-controller, editor, technical sales support or direct sales. We can provide experienced people who hit the ground running.

Identifying the Customer's Problem

To be the winning solution you must first understand the customer's problem. Core problems are seldom spelt out in tender documentation. They can only be discovered by full engagement with the customer. Engagement means studying the customer's mission and culture and using every opportunity to meet with him to discuss his requirements; including the ones that lie between the lines: the unspoken but expected requirements. For example, you need to not only understand the evaluation criteria but also have a clear grasp of the reasons behind them.

CA service: We have decades of experience in eliciting and specifying customer requirements. We put these skills to good use in tender preparation. Our involvement can range from running customer focus groups to producing detailed system or software requirements specifications. Our people have won business purely by understanding our customer's story and restating it in simple terms they can understand while adding value by flowing down these requirements into an attractive solution.

Conducting the Risk Assessment

Under relentless pressure to win at all costs and pumped up by hubris with lashings of wishful thinking, organisations sometimes pair back their estimates only to suffer the winner's curse: having to actually deliver on their commitment to an unachievable scope at a loss-making price in an impossible time frame. The role of the tender risk management process is to make sure that your organisation can deliver on its commitments. It analyses the standard risk raisers in technology projects such as wishful thinking, size, complexity and immature technology and ensures that sufficient contingency is built into schedules and cost estimates. It also deals with the customer's budget constraints and competitive pressures. For example, will the competition attempt to buy the business by lowballing their quote? (See the sidebar The Elephant in the Room)

CA service: We provide risk management services, facilitating focus groups and tracking the results of risk reduction activities. See our video: Risk Management Planning.

Preparing Tender Documentation that Sells

They say: "You never get a second chance at a first impression." Whether it's delivered in a snappy three ring binder or a three ton truck, tender documentation that makes a good impression:

  • Convinces the customer that you understand their story and its problems. (See sidebar Destroying the competition)
  • Is professionally presented
  • Complies with all the customer's stated an implied guidelines and requirements
  • Emphasises customer benefits first and technical features second
  • Presents a price the customer is willing to pay
  • Is easy to understand
  • Sells not only the end product but also the organisation's capability to deliver
  • Has a WOW factor that makes it stand out from the competition. For example, it might offer benefits that are unexpected AND attractive. (See sidebar The WOW factor)

Achieving these goals requires preparation and planning. For example, maintaining the selling message with consistent themes and overall coherence throughout a large documentation set is best achieved with standard templates and storyboards. A proactive approach to quality is your only option. Attempting to edit consistency into hundreds or thousands of pages of completed tender documentation is just not possible.

Understandability is enhanced through extensive use of graphics ("words tell but pictures sell"). A well-chosen image stirs the emotions and tells an entire story, in seconds. A high quality diagram can summarise pages of information in a memorable way. A well produced video or animation can summarise the complete offering in minutes. If the customer can absorb your offering with minimal effort he's more likely to buy.

CA service: We manage document production for small or large tenders. We have experience with storyboarding, review, editing and document management. We can also provide engineers to develop elements of the tender response. In particular we have skills in developing graphics: from simple diagrams to Adobe Flash animations and video presentations. We have found that moving pictures are extremely effective in explaining complex ideas. (For an example, see our video Earned Value Management Basics).

Developing the Cost Estimate

The ideal cost estimate is accurate and defensible. Unfortunately no tender team operates in an ideal world. Estimate accuracy varies with project phase. The more that is known about the product the higher the accuracy. Companies must make value judgements as to how much engineering work must be done on the proposed solution to yield acceptable precision in the estimated cost at completion. Accuracy is also impacted by the integrity of a company's cost models and its understanding of its people's productivity. As a minimum requirement there should be a consistent approach to estimating together with standard costs for various project activities and deliverables. For contracts that require earned value management the estimate will become the Planned Value (PV) or Budgeted Cost of Work Scheduled (BCWS). It will therefore play a major role in project cost performance measurement. It should therefore be structured in a way that supports easy calculation of cost and schedule variances during project execution.

CA service: We format and manage cost estimates using the work breakdown structure model. (For further information see our video The Work Breakdown Structure Development Process.) Leveraging our background in military projects we can assist companies to configure their projects for earned value management. If required we also provide training in estimating software intensive systems. (For further information see our training workshop Managing Software Development Projects.)

Inspiring the Customer

So, you've prepared and submitted your tender and now you've been invited to present it to the customer. The centrepiece of your presentation is persuasion. You must persuade your customer to buy your solution. It's a big mistake to believe that the unassailable logic embedded in that three ton truck load of tender documentation is enough to win. Logic is necessary but not sufficient. You must engage your customer's emotions. You must bind your customer to your solution with a memorable presentation.

Your people may recognise the importance of persuasion but struggle to communicate the great complexities of your offering, let alone inspire the customer to buy. Too often the persuasive selling message is either missing or drowned out in an endless maw of companyspeak shovelled down the customer's throat by an infinity of PowerPoint slides. Is there another way? Why is persuasion so difficult and what can you do to set your customer on fire?

Our best advice is to accept that people are not inspired by reason alone, toss your PowerPoint slides and learn how to tell a good story instead. Engage your customer on a whole new level by uniting the idea of your offering with an emotion - through story telling.

CA service: We plan, prepare and participate in critical customer presentations. We assist clients in formulating their stories acting as story consultant and providing presentation support with graphics, animation and videos. CA involvement will make your presentation unique and memorable.(See sidebar Selling With Storytelling for more information on our approach.)

Case Studies

Defence Projects
(radar, communications, battle management)
CA has provided services, both in Australia and internationally, to numerous defence projects including multibillion dollar radar installations and technically challenging battle management systems. Our roles on these projects have been to: define the project management approach, develop work breakdown structures and manage cost estimates, prepare and integrate technical documentation and present elements of the solution to the customer.
Railway Projects
(railway signalling, train monitoring)
CA worked with Invensys Australia to assemble tenders for various railway projects. Our roles included facilitating customer focus groups and preparing system requirements specifications for inclusion with tender responses.

Vignettes from the Annals of Tendering

by Les Chambers

The elephant in the room. We spent one day in a facilitated bid risk management session. The facilitator was good. An experienced guy who knew his stuff and put us through a comprehensive risk management process. But we didn't address the elephant in the room. We had 20 people on the bid. We knew our competition only had five. We knew they had a reputation for lowballing quotes to get the business in the door. Nobody wanted to talk about it though. Our bid was highly praised by the customer for its engineering excellence but it was $6 million above our lowballing competition. We lost. I think we learned that no amount of process will save you if you're not prepared to engage with the real risks of doing business.

Destroying the competition. My company was desperate for new business so I put a lot of effort into writing up the customer's requirements as part of our bid package. I absorbed their story, wrote it down and handed it back to them. I'll never forget the face of the customer's chief engineer when he entered the room with my specification in his hand. He was smiling and exclaiming "This is it, this is it! This is what we want." We absolutely destroyed our competition. They never had a chance. There's nothing like that feeling.

How embarrassing is that. Spreadsheets can be a benefit or a hazard. My client had just put in a multimillion dollar proposal with a cost estimate prepared with not one but several layered spreadsheets. After the tender was submitted they discovered there were zeros against some of the line items. Very embarrassing. I worked on the next proposal and built a database system that integrated all the estimates as part of a work breakdown structure. That worked. We could at least audit the thing to make sure everything had a nonzero estimate.

The WOW factor. An associate of mine won a contract to refurbish some government offices all over Australia. As a bonus benefit he included, at no extra cost, a website that would report the status of all refurbishments anywhere any time to anyone the customer would like to nominate. Who knows if it won him the contract but it certainly sharpened his differentiation from the competition.

Selling With Storytelling

by Les Chambers

Storytelling has proven to be a highly effective device for breaking through the hard shell of lassitude, cynicism and outright rejection that usually greets sales presentations. Storytelling has long been recognised as a powerful tool for persuasion, so powerful that as far back as 388 BC classical Greek philosopher and mathematician Plato urged the governors of Athens to banish all poets and storytellers. "They are a threat to society", he argued. "Storytellers deal with ideas, but not in the open, rational manner of philosophers. Instead, they conceal their ideas inside the seductive emotions of art." By transforming your pitch into a story you deal with your audience on a deeper more emotional level where purchasing decisions are made.

Thinking in stories. In more recent times cognitive psychologists have agreed that Plato had a point. Research has shown that, to understand and remember, the human mind naturally assembles the components of experience into a story, beginning with a personal desire, a life objective, and then portraying the struggle against the forces that block that desire. Stories are how we remember; we tend to forget bullet pointed lists. The secret to moving your audience is therefore to go with the flow; to feed the human mind's desire to frame experience as a story, and thereby have your submission understood, valued and remembered.

Storytelling is hard but effective. Presenting your proposal as a story requires more creative energy than the normal engineering logic based show-and-tell. It demands vivid insight and storytelling skill to present an idea that packs enough emotional power to be memorable. But it's worth the effort. In the toughest, most cynical environment in the world: Wall Street investment banking, corporations employ story consultants to help them pitch investment opportunities and routinely get their money. Some of these consultants have hundred percent success rates. Very early in my career as a business development manager I witnessed the power of story. (See above: Destroying the competition.)

Why are stories so effective? Well, using your presentation to tell the customer that everything is going to be rosy just lacks authenticity. Everyone knows that no complex systems project is going to be easy. Better to put the problems in the foreground, characterise them as antagonists and tell an honest story of how your company will overcome them in partnership with your customer. Your customer will knod and say, "Yeah life's like that." It does wonders for your credibility, positioning your company as the hero struggling against the forces of darkness as opposed to a slimy snake oil salesman promising, "trust us and everything will be fine".

Discovering the good story well told. At tender award all projects are an exciting drama just waiting to happen. Driven by some imbalance in his everyday world, your customer is about to cross the threshold into a supernatural world full of tests and trials. To discover the story of how it will unfold the storyteller askes himself certain questions:

  • Desire. What does my protagonist (the customer) want in order to restore balance in his life? Desire is the blood of your story. Desire is a core need that propels your customer on a quest from which there is no turning back. You must make it clear that you understand that desire and will be the agent of its fulfilment.
  • Antagonists. What is keeping my protagonist from achieving his desire? Doubt within? Largeness? Complexity? Perceived lack of competence? Lack of time? Lack of trust? These are the antagonists.
  • Actions. How will my protagonist act in order to achieve his desire in the face of these antagonistic forces? In all good stories the hero is always the one who acts. This is your opportunity to describe your actions (your project approach) and cast yourself as the proactive solution to the customer's problem.
  • Characters. Who are my cast of characters? This is the point where you introduce your people. Don't tell your customer they're good, let him discover their true hearts through stories of what they did and the choices they made when put under pressure in previous projects.
  • The elixir. What is the physical manifestation of my protagonist desire: the elixir? In all compelling stories, and after numerous tests and trials, the hero returns to his everyday world with an elixir that restores balance to his existence. What is your client's elixir and how will you deliver it?
  • Truth. Is this story true? Is life really like that? Is it neither an exaggeration nor a soft-soaping of the struggle ahead? Will the customer believe it?

QMS Framework