Win (or lose) the pitch off the pitch

It is a little odd to be writing about winning pitches when currently we are surrounded by the news that the UK’s West Coast main line rail franchise tender, awarded recently by the UK Government to FirstGroup, has just been recalled. Not only is that new contract cancelled, but 3 other tenders have been halted part-way through pending the findings of an enquiry. All tenders will have to be restarted.

The West Coast rail line tender was for a 15-year franchise to run the trains between London and Glasgow, and it was won with a bid of £13bn, beating the second placed bid of £11bn by Virgin Group into a cocked hat.

Sir Richard Branson squealed loudly immediately after the bid was awarded, claiming it would be impossible for First Group to pay what it claimed it could, and that as a result the franchise would go bust and we’d all be in the poo, and have to catch a bus or plane instead. We are scheduled to run out of trains just before Christmas, or pay the incumbent, Virgin Trains, a fat fortune to carry on beyond their contract end date.

Virgin Trains will run a little longer.

Virgin Trains will run a little longer.

Despite all this white noise and smoke I am going to write about winning and losing pitches ‘off the pitch’.

The normal government tender process involves pitches less and less, instead preferring more and more tender documentation. But in the private sector, and in the public sector where human professional skills services are required, pitches are still the main diet for clients.

Actually the debacle over this rail franchise only serves to highlight my subject, which is to offer some insights about winning (or losing) a pitch before it has happened, and to share some of the reasons why focussing on this underestimated area is important if you want to win more pitches. (If you don’t, skip to the next article.)

I can give one very big example of this: the London Olympic bid. The team here took every legal opportunity (bidding is tightly regulated now) to meet the IoC voters in the months, weeks and days before the pitch. It was a key factor in the win.

‘Off the pitch’ means that area of the pitch process where you are not in the formal, and usually final, phase of winning. It’s the time that is most often before the formal pitch, when dialogue, meetings, phone calls and emails all help to build up or complete a picture of the supplier in the mind of the client.

By the pitch, most clients have either made up their mind who they want, or at least have a pretty clear rank order of preferences.

Here are the main areas where you can improve this key phase of time:
Pre-pitch meetings
First, pre-pitch meetings or phone calls. It still staggers me how few times a prospective adviser or supplier will even ask for such a meeting. This simple act, by doing it, can win pitches, and the failure to do so can lose a pitch. Only if the rules of engagement ban you from doing, so is it likely to be the other way round; I should know, I suffered just that experience once. Thankfully many years ago, and not since.

To start with, just asking for a meeting shows interest in the client, and that you would like to invest in winning the work.

So even if a meeting is not permitted, or not possible with diaries or the team, you get a point for asking. If you get the meeting, then so much the better.

This is a chance to find out many vital things, for example: what the client wants from you, who they want to meet (and not meet), what sort of people they (and you) are and where their biggest concerns lie. It is then so much easier to walk in to the pitch and shake hands with people you already know, and then spend your time on what really matters to them.

Too many highly paid professionals think they know their client before a pitch, when in fact they don’t. This is arrogance or stupidity. Or both.

If the clients are happy to talk, but it is impossible to arrange a meeting, then arrange a (preferably video) conference call. Don’t just give up and think you can meet on the day. Get to know them and their concerns.

We role-play pre-pitch meetings and calls in workshops, and the learnings are huge, whether you are on the adviser side of the call, or role-playing the client. It always surprises people who role-play clients how much they learn about their own firm’s strengths and weaknesses. There, for example, you realise just how important it is to build real rapport early on.

You have got to prepare well for the meeting or call with your questions and comments, and at the event be prepared to continue asking questions further than you thought ‘polite’ (a very British syndrome we call “self-stopping”) and to listen very hard to what they say.

Despite today’s huge technology advances, phone calls are still largely made on poor mobile phone or land lines, the call quality can be terrible, and a negative effect created. So get the technology right and keep background noise down for such important calls.

A good team pre-pitch meeting

A good team pre-pitch meeting

Team meetings
My second major area is team meetings. Again, these are either absent or unfocussed, yet it’s not rocket science. It is best to have one either side of the pre-pitch contact, as well as rehearsals.

These meetings should focus on:

  • sharing what you know about the client and their needs around the whole team
  • Brainstorming why you are an excellent fit to their needs and different from your peers
  • Who should be in the team that goes to see the client at the pitch
  • What you might say in answer to the client’s tough but predictable questions
  • Developing the few visual materials you need to show in support of your case
  • Rehearsing at least three times before a pitch of any significance.
  • The logistics, for example of how you get to the pitch meeting a little early (never late!), that your business cards look the same (and that you all take them), who is bringing the printed material and the equipment, or whether the client is supplying it (bring yours anyway, as a backup).

I have had many joyful experiences of having pre-pitch interaction go well, and sadly too many painful stories from clients where off-pitch contact was missed or messed up. Whilst you still have to get your pitch right, you can be well positioned as prospective pitch winners’ whilst everyone else are the dozers. In a world of few differentiators, this may be your only one.


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