As we step into 2009 and clients get more picky, it’s time to think about how to stand out from the crowd

As the astronauts of Apollo 8 were sitting on top of thousands of tons of highly flammable and volatile fuel just before their launch into outer space, the last thing they would have wanted to hear was that the contractor that built their rocket was selected because it put in the cheapest bid.

Nasa, I’m sure, would not have taken that risk. An extensive selection process must have taken place, using the best brains and experience at their disposal, as any malfunction would have been catastrophic.

I am not saying it’s that extreme in the UK construction sector, but we have to take the same professional and calculated approach to selecting the right contractor – especially in these difficult times. Experience and credibility can take you a long way, and choosing the right project manager with the most experience is vital.

We have recently completed a project in the City of London, during which one of the subcontractors went insolvent early in the process. This ultimately resulted in a costly six-month delay. The effect of choosing this financially unsound subcontractor was that it cost all the other contractors and the client a lot of time and money.

Clients always want to reduce their risks and costs. They want to be safe in the knowledge that they will get delivery for the projected cost. In-depth preparation and consultation with all the trades early on in the design process, well before the finalisation of the design, reduces the possibility of unforeseen costs and lost time on site. Given the economic situation, I’m sure they are going to be even more careful and professional when selecting the main contractor and look more carefully at their supply chain.

As such, to win business in 2009 as a subcontractor we will undoubtedly have to sharpen our pencil. Nevertheless, as I have said, experience and credibility can take you a long way.

Delivery, a proven track record and a good financial standing are required. However, there are a few other tactics you can use to win business.

It’s human nature that people listen to the last person that they have spoken to. It is not an exact science and does not always give you the ultimate advantage, but it certainly helps

First, during a tender process it is important to take the time to speak to all the project team members to understand exactly what is involved. Your own project team needs to ask all the relevant questions early and look into every aspect in as much detail as possible before the tender is submitted. No one individual can see all the angles, so experience from your entire team must be brought to bear. There is no substitute for team effort.

Second, try to find out who you are competing against. It’s important to know if your client is comparing apples with apples. There are many cowboys out there who push boundaries, placing the entire project at risk.

Third – and this is pure common sense – double check everything, assess the risks and make sure you have all your costs covered and are competitively priced. These are not the times to get it wrong.

Last, and appropriately so, I like to be the last team seen when we are called in for a post-tender meeting. It’s human nature that people listen to the last person that they have spoken to. It is not an exact science and does not always give you the ultimate advantage over your competition, but it certainly helps.

There is no doubt that the year ahead is going to be tough – but be positive and don’t give up, this is summarised perfectly by the pilot of the command module of Apollo 8 – Jim Lovell. “There are people who make things happen, there are people who watch things happen, and there are people who wonder what happened.”

To be successful in 2009, you need to be a person who makes things happen.