As more and more contractors scrap over less work, spending more time on the bid is critical

It’s a competitive world out there for contractors trying to win tenders or gain a place on frameworks. Compared to 18 months ago, the number of firms expressing an interest in a bid is likely to have doubled or even tripled. Inevitably, the client’s expectations rise – the scoring cut-off, for example, might well be 85% today rather than 70% last year.

So what can contractors do to improve their chances of a successful bid? David Mathieson, a director of QS Turner & Townsend who reviews several thousand bids a year, says bidders after often their own worst enemy. ‘They don’t read what they’re asked, or they answer questions in a different order,’ he says. ‘And in a buoyant market, they don’t open the documents quickly enough to allow time for their sub-contractors to get prices in.’

To help give them that competitive edge, many companies are turning to specialist bid-winning consultants. Bid ‘gurus’ include Clive Goulden of Winning Bid Masterclass, and David Harrison of

‘It’s certainly harder to win work these days, you need to take every advantage you can,’ says Andy Marsh, pre-construction director at GB Building Solutions, where Goulden has run three seminars. ‘All too often you think about the product rather than the benefit for the client. The course makes you look at it from the client’s viewpoint.’

‘People don’t spend the time going back to basics,’ says the business development manager of a regional contractor who has attended one of Goulden’s courses. ‘It helped to reinvigorate your attitude to bid-writing and thinking about it differently.’

Goulden, who has acted as a freelance bid writer on major PFI projects, stresses the need for bidders to identify a hierarchy of the client’s needs. In other words, the submission should look beyond the tenderer’s business to the client’s. By identifying which issue is critical – for instance, a private school might want to avoid disruption at all costs – contractors can create ‘clear blue water’ over rivals.

It’s harder to win work these days, you need to take every advantage you can

Andy Marsh, GB Building Solutions

‘Different people within the client are looking for different things,’ says Goulden.

‘The movers and shakers want the applicant to help deliver their goals, the users want to know what the applicant is like to work with, and investors want to see value for money. You need to frame the submission to what all these groups are looking for.’

Contractors also need to rethink their approach to writing itself. ‘Engineers are taught to build up to a conclusion, so outcome statements and benefits tend to come at the back end of a paragraph. You have to think like a journalist, they give you the information to whet your appetite at the front end,’ he says.

Harrison also offers contractors a bid review service, where he examines the pre-qual questionnaire, formulates his own response to it, then compares it to the contractor’s own bid. ‘It’s proving extremely popular. Submissions tend to be a bit dry, don’t focus on the benefits, and don’t focus on the people,’ he summarises.

The good news from Turner & Townsend’s Mathieson is that the overall standard required to win a bid has not risen since the recession. The not so good news is that more bids now reach the minimum standard and most bidders are putting in more effort than a year ago. If your company hasn’t raised the bar already, it could be time to consult the experts.

Top five tips from Clive Goulden

  1. Consider bringing in someone from elsewhere in the company to provide a fresh perspective to the bid team.
  2. Identify the issues the project faces – such as access for the public – and come up with practical solutions.
  3. After completing the bid, take four coloured highlighter pens and mark statements related to client benefits; client needs; your company and the evidence base. A strong bid document will have a good mix of all four colours.
  4. Avoid basic mistakes such as not answering questions fully, missing questions, or answering questions in the wrong order.
  5. Read what you’ve written aloud. This will tell you if your sentences are too long, or if you’ve overused the passive voice, for example ‘It is believed’ instead of ‘We believe’.