Our second Insight examines specialisation in bid writing: what it means; the rewards it brings; and potential limits to specialisation in an internal team. Ultimately, we show we harnessing the specialisation offered by a dedicated firm will benefit companies bidding for strategic opportunities – and why Kittle Group is well-places to provide the level of specialisation needed.
The value of specialisation
‘Specialisation is a method of production whereby an entity focuses on the production of a limited scope of goods to gain a greater degree of efficiency’. (Will Kenton, Investopedia)
Thirty years ago, project management was not appropriately recognised as a professional discrete discipline.
Today, project management is considered to be a business-critical workstream. It ensures that complex and large-scale projects are managed effectively, in turn reducing risk, increasing certainty, and driving efficiency.
Bid writing is at an earlier stage of maturity, but is increasingly recognised as a key capability for organisations bidding for public sector contracts. This has driven further growth as adopters have enjoyed a competitive advantage.
Project management is almost always entrusted to specialists because the purpose and benefits of specialisation in this area are well understood, whereas the benefits of specialisation for bid writing are less well-recognised. Both because of this and despite it, working with specialists can offer significant added value, and drive a successful and streamlined bidding strategy.
In this Insight Note, we explore what specialisation in bid writing ‘looks like’; the benefits it brings; the limits to specialisation within an internal bid team; and the case for using an outsourced bid writing firm.
What specialisation in bid writing looks like
It is trickier to define specialisation in bid writing than for a mature disciple such as project management, due to the newness of the discipline; the lack of an agreed, official position; and varying bid writing methods such as Shipley.
Nonetheless, most would recognise the general core competencies which separate a specialist bid writer, and enable them to produce high-quality bid documents consistently. These include:
- Technical writing skills
- Communication and engagement skills
- A full understanding of bidding processes, legislation, and language
- Being highly organised and structured.
We detail these further below, and in each case identify the benefit(s) and rewards they bring to bidding strategy.
Technical writing skills
It is common sense to point out that a specialist bid writer must be able to write. This means writing clearly, using a wide vocabulary, and presenting key messages persuasively.
As internal sales managers tasked with writing responses soon discover, the skillset needed goes beyond the basics. It combines skills from a range of writing professions such as technical writing, business writing, and copywriting, which must be deployed in aid of the role’s intended outcome: securing high bid quality scores against pre-defined evaluation criteria. These skills include:
- Detailing complex, technical information into simple, readable prose
- Adopting the right tone of voice for the bidder, opportunity, and customer
- Identifying and playing back key language and concepts to show understanding
- Using sentence structure, length, grammar, and vocabulary to strengthen the points being made; keep the reader engaged; and create impact
- Balancing solution detail with sales-focused messages such as win themes
- Structuring responses to foreground key messages while answering the particular question asked.
Added complexity comes from the fact that writers are always at the mercy of Buyers, and must flex their skills accordingly. By way of example, one Buyer might request 30 pages on Health and Safety in a tender for a construction project; another might only allow 1500 words for a comparable contract. A specialist bid writer must be able to achieve high scores in both scenarios: this means altering their writing approach to prioritise and present information accordingly. In some cases, requirements may be downright unreasonable, for instance to cover eight subsections in a two-page response. These situations test a bid writer’s skills, and demonstrate the value of a specialist.
The rewards of specialisation: As well as being a ‘good’ writer – clear, persuasive, grammatically correct, and engaging – a specialist will be able to rise to any situation, from different response topics to challenging page limits. A specialist from a dedicated bid writing firm will also offer the additional skill of writing on behalf of any client by understanding their business and industry; presenting their solution confidently; and adopting their tone of voice. The more experienced they are, the quicker they will get up to speed, and the sooner they will begin adding value as part of the bid team.
Engagement and communication skills
The bid writer is just one role in a wider bid team responsible for the development and success of each submission. In an ideal process, their writing expertise ‘meets’ the subject matter knowledge of technical staff, and the organisational expertise of the bid manager, at the right time, enabling them to write accurate, detailed responses and develop, review, and submit these against a plan.
The specialist bid writer must understand why, when, and how to engage with each member of the team (or more widely within the company) throughout the bid. This might take the form of a kick-off meeting, or a programme of storyboards focussed on specific responses. In these sessions, the bid writer must extract the right information, in the right form, while leaving enough time to ‘write up’ or edit material. They will often need to follow-up, and must respect their contact’s time while being persistent.
The complexity of many bids, including their size, tight timelines, and extensive requirements, demands that bid writers communicate effectively with bid managers and other bid team personnel such as reviewers. This includes clearly highlighting progress; raising any current or future issues; and linking in with other bid writers in support of consistency and quality.
The rewards of specialisation: Effective engagement and communication are essential to a streamlined bid process. If absent or lacking, the bid is likely to be negatively affected, with higher stress levels and lower quality. A specialist bid writer understands this, and will use engagement and communication as tools to not only improve their work, but make everyone else’s jobs easier. They will extract maximum value in the minimum time; ensure shared understanding; and build strong relationships which in turn enhance future bidding processes.
A full understanding of bidding processes, legislation, and language
One of the most common complaints from companies bidding for public sector contracts for the first time is that the process seems needlessly complicated. They are faced with a dictionary of new terms; must undertake a multi-stage process with various (and sometimes conflicting) requirements; and abide by procurement legislation and regulations they may have never come across before.
There’s an ongoing effort by Government to simplify tender processes in order to create a more level playing field and streamline administration for Buyers and bidders alike. However, as things stand, success depends on deploying team members who understand the process to be followed during each competition; the impact of any applicable legislation; and the meaning of the full range of terms contained in the documentation. This should include the bid manager and bid writer(s), who lead the bid and interact most closely with the documentation.
The rewards of specialism: A specialist bid writer will have been exposed to different types of procedure and competition, and typical and uncommon bid terminology. This will, in turn, ensure that they produce compliant submissions which meet all requirements. It will also enable them to apply cross-cutting best practice, further enhancing and differentiating submissions, and limit the time they spend ‘learning’ at the outset of each bid.
A specialist’s approach to understanding language – from procurement and bidding; different industries; and even clients – is particularly valuable. It reflects Wittgenstein’s theory of ‘language games’: the idea that you can only take meaning from language if you understand its context and the rules that govern it. Bid writing specialists develop an understanding of the context and rules in their domain (bidding) and the domains they work within (client and Buyer industries) throughout their career, so can confidently participate in language games with procurement teams; evaluators; client bid teams; and technical SMEs. This mitigates the potential for confusion and makes communication more reliable and efficient. Specialists can also act as a ‘translator’ for clients who may not know the rules of the ‘bidding’ language game, and communicate on their behalf with those who make the rules (e.g. procurement teams).
Being highly organised and structured
The other element of bidding which most quickly becomes apparent to new entrants is the stress they can cause. Often, bidding feels like putting out a series of fires while running a last-minute dash, rather than a calm, measured, and structured process through which a submission is gradually developed and submitted.
Specialists should be able to operate a process in line with the second scenario by defining a rigorous structure and plan at the outset of the bid and remaining meticulously organised throughout. For a bid writer, this means identifying the order in which responses should be completed based on priority; the level of development they should be at ahead of each review stage; and adhering to the plan set out by the bid manager as closely as possible (proactively raising issues, such as becoming a bottleneck). Other areas where they should show solid organisation include document version control; maintaining bid collateral; and raising clarification questions as required.
The rewards of specialism: A specialist bid writer will have learned what strong organisation looks like from working within different bid teams. They will therefore be able to bring best practice to organisations still in firefighting mode. They will also offer a higher level of resilience – having experienced a wide range of challenged during past bids – and agility, as they will react quicker.
The risks of specialisation in internal teams
You may already have hired, or be considering hiring, an internal writing team having appreciated the rewards of bid writing specialisation for bidding strategy and success. Doing so will give you an advantage over competitors who allocate bid writing responsibility to internal sales or business development staff, as you will produce higher-quality, better-written bids and gradually build your in-house bidding capability, in turn driving efficiency.
However, an internal bid writing team cannot offer the true specialisation and added value which comes from working with a dedicated external bid writing firm. This is because an in-house team is limited in the degree of specialisation it can achieve, due to:
- Inexperience in recruitment and training. Companies, and indeed most recruitment agencies, lack a proven set of bid writing skills, experience, and behaviours against which to assess candidates. They may, therefore, hire individuals or teams unsuited to or unskilled for the role, requiring further training. However, this training is likely to be based upon individual ideas rather than a common industry approach, leading to poor practice. Specialist bid writing firms, meanwhile, recruit writers in line with a continually tested and refined set of criteria, delivering the best candidates; training, too, is based on lessons learned from the hundreds of bids we complete each year, and is regularly updated to promote best practice, consistent quality, and efficiency.
- Over- and under-assignment. As we explored in our first Insight Note, companies that bid for public sector contracts typically face the problem of peaks and troughs in their pipeline. This means periods with multiple ongoing bids – resulting in over-assignment of the writing team, stress, and burnout – and periods of under-assignment, resulting in a loss of motivation. The former limits time for continuous development and reflection following each bid, while extended periods of the latter leave a large gap between learning and application, limiting effectiveness. By contrast, external specialist firms with multiple clients are better able to structure writers’ schedules, balancing delivery with learning. This contributes to ongoing skills development and application and therefore increasing specialisation, as well as better rates of retention and higher quality work.
- Absence of knowledge transfer. An internal bid writing team has the benefit of understanding their company very well: contract solutions, bid collateral, and past experience. However, limited interaction with other writers and sectors means knowledge transfer is largely absent, which prevents them from learning best practice outside their ‘sphere’. This, in turn, limits their ability to differentiate bids and continually develop processes, and may lead to a stagnation of quality in the long run. External firms, by contrast, typically work across a wide range of clients, sectors, and bids, and therefore benefit from diverse learning and experiences. These can be shared within the firm between writers and through dedicated training, and result in creative, quality submissions as well as proven processes subject to continuous improvement.
- Overreliance on collateral. Bid writing can become more efficient as internal teams develop a library of collateral to use on future bids. However, many internal bid writers come to rely too heavily on previous material, whether due to over-assignment or a desire to avoid writing yet another mobilisation response. This can have a negative impact as responses may not reflect question, evaluation, and specification requirements; and can read as ‘pieced together’, reducing evaluator confidence. External specialist writers approach each bid in isolation and are guided entirely by the evaluation criteria. This means they adapt bid content; tone of voice; and presentation accordingly to secure the highest marks. By partnering with a specialist agency over the long term, it is possible to develop a shared library and use collateral proportionately and appropriately to drive efficiency.
We have shown that specialist bid writers can create far more value for a company bidding for contracts than non-specialists given responsibility for bidding. This includes greater efficiency during bidding; higher-quality submissions, increasing Buyer confidence and chances of success; and the opportunity for continuous improvement. We have also proposed that the greatest value comes from working with a specialist bid writing firm free from the limitations for specialisation faced by internal teams, and therefore able to optimise clients’ bidding success.
Does our view align with your own, or do you disagree? We’re keen to start a conversation in bidding and collectively build best practice – get in touch. Our Business Development Team look forward to hearing from you at firstname.lastname@example.org or 01184492506.