1st Jun 2011 AUTHOR: Matt Milgrom

Tender Development: Ten Ways to Lose Your Next Tender: Part 1

It was novelist James Joyce who said: "Mistakes are the portals of discovery". So what can be learned from losing a tender? Here are some discoveries from 25 years in the business. And, how to avoid the pitfalls.


  • A late submission is a non-compliant submission
  • Compliance matters: get it right from the very start of your project
  • Poor writing can be tender suicide - and bad for your brand
  • Writing should focus on the prospect and their business issues, not on the tenderer
  • Don't offer apples if oranges are required by the RFT

Whilst obvious, tenderers are making the same old mistakes time and again

1. Submit it Late

Once upon a time, a 'deadline' was a boundary around a prison. Prisoners beyond its bounds were liable to be shot. Tender deadlines are rarely a matter of life and death: but they ought to be regarded with a similar sense of foreboding. Having a legitimate, compelling reason for submitting late won't change one simple fact: a late tender is a non-compliant tender, almost always. By law, in the case of most large government RFTs.

The Antidote:

  • Set an internal deadline well before the real one, depending on the size and complexity of the bid. Then ruthlessly impose it within the response team.
  • Recognise resource gaps early and address them, if necessary using external assistance.
  • For electronic submissions, upload early to avoid 'jamming' the website at the last minute.

2. Fail to Comply

Reviewers facing an enormous mountain of reading actively look for reasons to disqualify tenders. Especially with government tenders, procurement personnel will often 'triage' submissions before they reach the decision-makers. Using the compliance checklist usually provided within the RFT, they will search for missing elements such as certificates, signatures and statements in order to shorten the short list. Leave something essential out and your professionally presented, carefully written, enticingly priced submission is on the fast-track to the shredder.

The Antidote:

  • Assemble a Compliance Checklist right at the start, including items from the one in the RFT.
  • Ensure that signatories are available ahead of time, and add the process to the Project Plan.
  • Get a fresh pair of eyes to review the finished draft to identify gaps.

3. Write Poorly

Bad spelling and grammar. Long, complex sentences. Inconsistent use of terms, definitions and names. All of these are ingredients for failure. When an organisation communicates badly in a proposal, questions are asked. Will future communication be poor? Is Quality Control important to this tenderer? Are they credible and professional? The answers, all too often, point the same way: to the 'No' pile.

The Antidote:

  • Perform a full spell-check on your finished draft, then read it out loud to test grammar.
  • Write with empathy for the reviewer: use short sentences, subheadings and new paragraphs for new ideas.
  • Consider hiring a skilled tender writer to develop the content with you.

4. Make it All About YOU

A tender is a solution to a business problem. It's not an advertising spot. Unsuccessful tenderers fill pages by bragging about their achievements, capacity and attributes. Sometimes they'll include irrelevant but glossy brochures. Of course, little of this resonates with the buyer. They're interested in something that talks directly to their needs, showcasing the benefits they will enjoy if they choose a particular solution. Anything less is boring, tedious reading, and rarely the mark of a tender winner.

The Antidote:

  • Ensure that the content is centred around the buyer: their requirements, key issues and future goals.
  • Focus on demonstrating benefits, not just features or services.
  • Ensure that every idea you present passes the "So What?" test.
  • Don't brag: let relevant testimonials from delighted clients brag on your behalf.
  • Consider using a 'word cloud' (or other tools) on your finished draft to analyse usage of "you/your" against "us/our"

5. Totally Miss the Point

So you sell the juiciest, freshest apples on the market. And what's more, your special pricing model means they are also the cheapest. A tempting proposal, unless the RFT is asking for oranges. Whilst mismatches that obvious are rare, we're often amazed at how often a tenderer will ignore an RFT's Evaluation Criteria in a headlong rush to be the best, fastest or cheapest. Adopting a "that's not what you want, this is" approach in your response is almost guaranteed to score your bid out of the running.

The Antidote:

  • Truly understand the stakeholders, environment and key issues - preferably before an RFT is issued
  • Make a detailed study of any included Evaluation Criteria - especially the weighting of each dimension
  • Conduct a forensic analysis of the RFT, constantly reading between the lines to discover the big picture

Coming up in Ten Ways to Lose Your Next Tender Part 2: Fail to Provide Evidence, Don't say Enough / Too Much, Don't Use Pictures, Make it Ugly and Hard to Read, Don't Learn from Mistakes.

mattMatt Milgrom is a senior consultant for Tender Success. He has helped businesses avoid submission pitfalls and maximise their winning potential for ten years. Contact Matt to ensure your next response is a success.