Winning sales
– Government tenders

This month our dear Editor challenged me to turn my decade of experience in “selling” emissions standards to governments into some actually useful advice to our readers: how to sell power equipment to governments. By Gary Fooks.

Over the years I have won about 20 government tenders and lost about forty, so you may say that is not a good success rate. But to be fair, I have learned to be far choosier on where I Invest my time and so my success rate is better, and my most recent win was worth $1.3m.

Let us start by separating rumour from fact. Not all government tenders are a done deal, and not everything is won on price.

Yes, there are tenders that are clearly written with one product or brand in mind. The specifications are so tight that it reads like a brochure for XYZ chainsaws. Perhaps the wise move is to walk away at this point. It could be that they have been buying this brand for years, the staff are trained, the shed is full of spares and frankly it is hard for them to abandon all that investment and change brands.

A long-term thinker would put in a competitive bid and expect to lose – this time. What is needed is a lot more pre-selling. Get them to trial your machine. Arrange a long-term loan or a side by side demonstration. And change the rules.

One example I saw at play was all to do with garden blowers. I do not know the history, but blowers are being sold on wind velocity produced. But in practice higher wind velocity doesn’t make a better blower.    

One brand I know well does not have a high velocity, so loses out on sales, but it does have a very high volume and is better at pushing trash. To explain why, ask which would push more leaves – a garden hose on high or a fire hose on 50 per cent? So, this is a better product in practice, but not on paper.

The solution is to get the Council staff to try them out. Even gamefication: have a Friday afternoon tournament – their existing high velocity machine vs the high volume (and low noise) machine over  a game of garden blower hockey.

Your aim here is to get them to widen the specifications for the next tender and open the door. Of course, this is a long-term view. But if you have a long way to travel the best time to start is now.

What bureaucrats are really buying

A good salesperson knows that the best thing they can do is listen, and then listen some more until they understand the buying reasons and can meet the customers’ needs. Talking never sells. Listening and answering always sells.

So how do you listen to a Tender?

First understand how we treat public servants. I call this the ‘RSPCA Theory’ and it goes like this: if you got yourself a puppy and trained it with punishment for doing wrong and no rewards for doing right, you would have a timid dog, afraid of people and you would be in hot water with the RSPCA. Yet that is how we train our Public Servants. 

If they make a mistake, the media treats them as if they caused the sky to fall down. As soon as they get any rewards  – a conference trip, a dinner – well that is not allowed! Only punishment and no rewards.

That makes for a risk averse Civil Service who avoid making any decision for fear of making the wrong decision. The outcome is they often hire consultants to tell them what they know already.

When it comes to awarding a tender, they choose the safe option. Here are some ways to make your offering “safe” to buy.

Approach and content

First, read and re-read the tender and read between the lines. Try to figure out their focus or agenda and write your submission accordingly.

Understand their decision process. What the evaluation panel will often do is evaluate the 22 submissions by reading every response to question one, then they read every response to question two and so on, giving each a score as they go.

What that means for you when writing a tender response is to never assume that your submission is read through in one sitting. Instead, write each topic area as if it were a stand-alone document and fully explain you answer to that question, within the section.

That will probably mean that some information will be repeated many times in the same document, in support of each question in turn. You can always refer to a single appendix but that does not always help the document flow.

Next look for the safety questions. Not how safe your lawn mower is, but what the bureaucrats need to be assured of to protect their own backside.   

Make sure you answer fully and completely, even with too much information any question about insurances, workers compensation, WH&S policy and the new one I discussed last edition, ethical purchasing and the Modern Slavery Act.

As most of these are hygiene* questions, missing one answer or having insufficient insurance coverage would normally be an automatic fail. You can do a work around by being proactive.

One remedy that worked for me when the government wanted a crazy amount of insurance was to ask in advance (in writing) if we could prove that insurance if successful. In the meantime, attached was a copy of our current insurance and a letter from our insurance broker stating that if we won the tender, the insurer has agreed to increase the Policy to $X, for a premium of $Y.

(*Not actual questions about hygiene, more like hygiene in a restaurant; if it is missing it’s a fail, but if it is done, it won’t win you any awards.)

Dos and don’ts

attend all briefings, visit sites, look at what they are doing now, be on time, and follow the instructions exactly, ask why you lost and learn (yes some will formally provide feedback).

assume you will win even if you won the last 20 years of supply; be superior; assume this is an advertising brochure – it is not, it is a factual tender; do not even think of twisting an arm, calling up, applying political pressure – that will make them duck for safety and choose someone else.

I am never afraid to stick my neck out so let’s see if I know what I am talking about here. As I write this I am waiting to hear if the tender proposal I have been leading since July has won one of more of the five slices of Queensland government work. The total pie is worth $90m, so even winning one division will be a good day in the Office. I’ll let you know next edition.