Purchasers don’t want to listen to glory stories or watch amazing slide transitions, they want to assess if the suppliers are the right people to work with their organisation and there is a short period of time to make this assessment.
Each organisation is unique and although it is very tempting to assess a situation and make links to similar projects with others clients, this route can lead into the dangerous territory of assumption making. Reading their website, talking to people who know the organisation and searching for articles which reference the organisation will all help to build up an understanding of the organisation and their culture. An observation made by a purchaser from a global sports retailing organisation focused on the critical importance of service providers assessing the culture of the organisation and ensuring that it is actually a good fit with their own business objectives and style.
If there is a perceived mismatch between the cultures then it is better to acknowledge this than pursue a pitch which, if won, will cause a problem for the supplier organisation in the long term.
One of the potentially fatal errors that suppliers can make is to just talk at the purchaser. One procurement panel member gave an example of two organisations who were invited to attend a pitch. The first organisation did exactly what was expected: they pitched at the panel, giving them examples of their work, talking about their abilities and reiterating all the points they made in the written documentation. The second organisation took a different approach; they started by asking the panel what they wanted to know more about from the written documentation. They entered into a dialogue with the panel and gave the panel the opportunity to pick out the issues which really concerned them. It was this more flexible approach which helped to secure the organisation the contract. Tony Barr, VP for Marketing and Business Development with BEUMER Corporation and founder of BrandReasonality (a brand innovation and growth strategy consultancy), makes a similar point when he comments that “when I feel I am being pitched to I tune out pretty quickly”. The supplier needs to demonstrate that they have an ability to listen to the concerns of the client and to respond appropriately. Tony Barr also observes that when an organisation wants to engage a supplier it is for their specialist skills and insights and these insights can only come
“through careful, deliberate discovery driven by purposeful questioning and determined listening”.
However this approach also requires that purchasers are flexible too. During the research examples were provided of situations where the supplier wanted to have a dialogue approach but the purchaser insisted that they just made a formal presentation to them, with no opportunity for discussion.
The majority of the time allocated for the pitch should be given over to finding out more about the issues the organisation are facing and providing relevant responses to the concerns which they seem to have. The pitch is an opportunity for both organisations to reach a mutual understanding of each other so that both can assess if a good working relationship will result from the project. Developing a dialogue changes the power dynamic into a more equal relationship between an organisation with a problem and a supplier who might be able to provide a solution, both parties can each reach a mutual agreement about their suitability.
The procurement process has a desire for equality at its heart and therefore will seek to ensure that each organisation has an equal chance in the process. This means that timescales can be very strictly adhered too. An example of the application of this process in practice was provided by Steve Goodwill, Director of Goodwill Training, from an early experience of a formal tender process. Steve’s colleague presented first and was picking up very positive reaction and became enthused and as a consequence slightly overran on the time, when she handed over the presentation continued to go well with a good reaction from the panel. “However suddenly one of them asked me to stop, announced our allocated time was up and we were virtually thrown out of the room”. The feedback given was that the tender had not been won by the team because they had not managed their time. As Steve comments “it could be argued that they were pedantic and inflexible, but it is a lesson to be remembered!”
Often clients have some flexibility with their timing but they will appreciate awareness from the supplier of the constraints on time. A recommended strategy was to set a discreet alarm to go off 5 minutes before the allocated time is over so that there is enough time to summarise and answer any final concerns before leaving.
One of the most consistent comments from both providers and purchasers was the importance of honesty. “Being accurate in your detail, transparent and honest will secure credibility of your proposals” observes Andrew Hobman from Capstone HR.
Clients don’t want snake oil salespeople who try to manipulate and persuade by their clever use of smoke and mirrors. They want to find the organisation that will be able to do a good job for them for the right price.
As a purchaser from the regeneration sector commented “we want to know what we can expect to get for our money”. So the pitch is the time to be honest about what can be done do instead of an opportunity to for the supplier to hype their abilities and imply that they are able to do anything that the purchaser wants them to do. Eric Edie from e.Edies elaborates on this further, “way too many consultants go in overselling, adding too much or saying that they are an expert in areas that they are not, just to get the work. Most companies find it refreshing to hear plain old honesty. This will make you stick out in the crowd”
The importance of honesty was also stressed by a number of respondents when handling questions. The temptation for a supplier to make up an immediate response to a question is very high. However the purchasers are adept at spotting an answer that is not coherent and it would be far better for the supplier to be honest and to say that they don’t know and then to promise to find out the answer and get back to them. This builds a good relationship of trust and integrity.
Serious questions need to be asked about the appropriateness of Powerpoint Presentation to a dialogue based presentation. The problem with Powerpoint, Gabriella Hauser from Validus Engineering observes, is that you can “become a slave to a well rehearsed sales pitch” and to follow the familiar route through the slides instead of responding in a flexible manner to the questions and comments that the client is giving.
Having a Powerpoint presentation pushes you into a position of being a monologue situation instead of dialogue and makes it much more difficult to change tack to meet the emerging concerns.
Another trap for the unwary is when the supplier already knows some of the panel, perhaps when they are re-tendering for work. Observations from clients indicate that sometimes the supplier adopts a more informal approach and this can come across as unprofessional and inappropriate.
Suppliers can sometimes be fooled by an informal company culture, just because the panel are wearing jeans and trainers doesn’t mean that they adopt a casual approach to figures and margins. They still expect their suppliers to treat their issues with serious intent.
Pitching is an expensive business and in these challenging times for business strategic choices need to be made about whether to invest the considerable time that doing a pitch really well will demand. Rory Sutherland, President of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising questions whether some of this effort is worthwhile and whether instead of chasing every pitch it would be more effective to be more selective and to put the rest of your time into “making your existing clients happier and more valuable to you” ()
For both suppliers and purchasers the tendering process could be enhanced by focusing more on a mutual exploration of the issues and the ideas. The construction of a dialogue process instead of a formal presentational format would greatly assist both parties to reach this shared understanding and increase the likelihood of the most appropriate solution being selected.
Rory Sutherland Interview,Guardian Media, 16.02.09
Clients buy consultants time to help them to address problems. It is really important that the supplier is clear what the problem is from the client perspective. In some situations this can be easily achieved with a phone call to clarify the brief with the client. However some procurement processes forbid contact with the direct client and suppliers will have to comb through the procurement documents to ensure that the requirements have been fully understood. One obvious point, which is often neglected, is highlighted by Andre Keyter, Executive Manager at Key Business Solutions, who observes that suppliers need to “make sure that you understand the problem that you intend your product or service to address and that the solution is in fact a solution”.