the art of influencing the evaluator
One of the fundamental principles for your bid is to put the evaluator into a good mood, not a bad one! From my experience of being an evaluator, there’s no magic formula, because influencing the evaluator through your bid is an art, not a science.
For three years, I managed a UK-wide community engagement programme on behalf of the BBC. The objective of this multi-million-pound programme was to engage with the hard-to-reach members of the community to ensure they were aware of the switchover to digital television. As part of my role, I evaluated multiple bids and made contract award decisions that needed to be justified to the BBC and ultimately the UK Government.
Within this article, I’ll share with you my experiences and tips on how your bid can put the evaluator in a good mood and what the consequences will be for you if you put them in a bad mood.
Knowing the evaluator
In my experience, ‘knowing the evaluator’ is far more important than ‘knowing the customer’. The ‘customer’ is too wide to consider. Who is the ‘customer’? Are they a person, a team, a department, or an organisation? We use so many labels of ‘decision-maker’, ‘budget holder’, ‘end-user’ etc and all will have different likes, dislikes, biases, and agendas, etc. But actually, the one we need to know is the evaluator.
The evaluator is the one assessing your bid and judging whether you’ve answered the question. Yes, there may be a ‘decision-maker’ but they usually ‘make the decision’ based on a business case that says who the contract should be awarded to. This business case is usually provided by the evaluators, who base their decision on your bid. So, surely ‘knowing the evaluator’ is actually more important than one of your company executives knowing a customer’s executive!
From my experience, a customer’s executive being able to influence the contract award decision enough to over-rule an evaluation is a myth, particularly in public sector bidding. Senior executives within the BBC’s Switchover Help Scheme couldn’t apply influence on who won the contracts because I had to link my decision to the bids I had received, not any conversations that had been had. Yes, there were a few times when senior executives commented on their surprise that a certain organisation hadn’t been awarded the contract, but my decision was understood and accepted when I provided commentary and evidence on why I’d reached the decision. This all linked back to the bid.
But how often do you start your customer analysis with the question “who is going to be evaluating our bid?”. It’s more likely that you’ll list who you know in the organisation, how influential they are, what their hot buttons are, and how much they like you, and then look to that list to identify who you think will be evaluating.
You’ll have a finite amount of time when bidding, so focus on the evaluators before anyone else – they’re going to have more of a say than anyone on whether you win or not.
If you don’t know who the actual evaluators are going to be or can’t find out, be honest with yourselves that this is the case. This may mean that you won’t know personal hot buttons, but if you understand the customer’s problem and the outcome they are expecting, then consider running a workshop where you challenge yourselves to think of potential hot buttons. What would you look for if you were evaluating? Often, this is best conducted by someone who is completely independent of the opportunity.
Beyond this, all of my experiences and advice that follows in this article will be of use whether you know the evaluator or not.
Evaluators are not robots
Whilst you are obviously needing to provide evaluators with information by answering the question, you need to think about what they will believe from your bid (what they will consciously think) and what they feel (the emotion they will have when reading your bid or hearing your pitch or presentation). Think of the hearts as well as the minds.
For me, I loved reading bids from organisations that showed their understanding of just how important the hard-to-reach programme was. It was more than just reporting good stories, it was the actual impact behind them that mattered. Many of us take television for granted, but for some people it’s their only friend, or the reminder to eat or take medication. And without the television, there would be some whose health and wellbeing would be severely negatively impacted by the switchover. When I saw organisations truly understand this, their emotion came through in their bid. This would play on my emotions and put me in a good mood – it was not just about winning the bid; it was about having an impact on society.
Some of the emotion cannot be influenced because the evaluator will be affected by the environment as much as it affects you:
Their personal life
Whether they’ve just had a good or a bad meeting
Whether they’ve had this bid dumped on them to evaluate with no warning – yes, this type of situation doesn’t just affect us bidders.
But there’s a lot that’s in your control.
Have empathy for your evaluators
If you’ve submitted a 100-page bid, and there are 4 bidders, that means they are likely to have around 400 pages to evaluate! Your bid may be the first they evaluate or the last – you don’t get to choose!
I would say it’s impossible for an evaluator to assess each bid with the same frame of mind, as they are likely going to evaluate over multiple days. This means the reality of life will have an impact on them. For me, this could be anything from a train running late or being cancelled that upset all my timings for the day, to Wales losing a rugby match. These may seem like trivial things to some, but every evaluator will have things happen in their life that will impact how they feel, both positively and negatively, at the point they sit down and start evaluating a bid. And yet, they have to do their best to evaluate carefully and as consistently as possible, knowing that they could have their work challenged. Believe me, it’s not easy!
So you need to help them.
Make sure the bid is:
Easy to read
Interesting to read
Enjoyable to read
Easy to navigate with clear signposting to the answers.
Tell a story
Most of us find it easier to read a story than a textbook, so make sure your bid has the flow of a story. Have some common themes running through the bid that will resonate with the evaluator.
Don’t forget that those hot buttons you’ve identified are emotional. Play on that emotion! Don’t lose the hot button to the noise of information. And have it on going throughout the bid – this will help put the evaluator in a good mood!
I hated reading bids where each section was separate from the next. Where each section was a jigsaw piece, but all of them felt like they were from different jigsaws! They were so boring with no emotion bringing them to life. I always knew when a bid was good when I got to the end of it wanting to read more and would think to myself “I enjoyed that”.
Don’t waste the evaluator’s time by putting pages and pages of content at the beginning that is not responding to a specific question.
If it’s not against a set question, it will unlikely be marked. Especially in public procurement, as the evaluator has to link their score and comments to a specific question.
Reading this additional content will reduce the time evaluators have to mark the content they need to and could bust your page/word count limits, which are set for good reason. They don’t have an infinite amount of time to spend evaluating your bid, so additional content will likely make them rush the evaluation. This will put them in a bad mood.
For me, I would set myself four hours to evaluate a bid. This was broken down into 2.5 hours to read and evaluate the technical section, 30 minutes to do the financial evaluation (including various calculations to assess value for money), 30 minutes to consolidate any clarification questions (including writing them in a clear and concise way to avoid any ambiguity), and 30 minutes to write up my overall evaluation comments. It wasn’t a strict timing and I found for the bids I was enjoying, I would happily spend more time reading.
If you’ve been asked questions in a specific order, repeat that order back in your bid. The evaluator will have the evaluation matrix right in front of them and they will want to follow it religiously. Don’t make the evaluator jump around your bid to meet their evaluation sheet or make them move around their evaluation sheet to meet your bid. This will likely put them in a bad mood.
Tread with caution on these – they are either going to put evaluators into a good mood or a bad one!
Ask yourself, “is it really needed?” or “has it been asked for?”
My advice is, if the customer actively says not to submit an executive summary, don’t! For a start, your bid will be non-compliant, so if they want to have a reason to reject your bid, you’ve given them one! And even if they keep you in, they’ll either ignore it, so your time’s been wasted, or they’ll be put in a bad mood and that will affect the way they evaluate your bid.
There’s a common myth that executive summaries are read by the executives or decision-makers. In my experience as an evaluator, this was not the case. An evaluator will not share the executive summary to demonstrate why they have made the decision they have on which bidder should be awarded the contract.
If you do put in an executive summary, you need to use it to get the evaluator into that good mood. Give them a warm, fuzzy feeling about you. Hit their emotions!
Well, say the marking scheme is out of 5. If the evaluator feels positive at the end of reading the executive summary, they will likely immediately think “this bid is a 4 out of 5”, without even reading your responses that are going to be marked. This will then be their base score for each of your responses.
If they don’t get this positive feeling and are put in a bad mood because your executive summary is too long, or all about you, or filled with generic marketing content, or doesn’t have a story, then instantly they’ll think your bid is a 2 out of 5. 3 at absolute best! So you’re already fighting an uphill battle.
What really put me in a good mood when I read executive summaries was when I saw organisations write in a way where the importance was more about delivering the hard-to-reach programme than winning the contract. Where they were bidding to deliver, not just to win. Where I could tell that a bidder had just gone through the motions in putting the bid together, that instantly put me in a bad mood – and yes, an evaluator can tell this.
Just as a page full of text that has zero thought to its layout is hard to read, so is a page with loads going on! You need to get a happy balance so that the evaluator is drawn into your story.
Signposting is really important for evaluators. Using layers of headings, each with their own subtle format, consistently throughout the bid helped me know where I was in the bid. I’d hate it when a bid had similarly formatted headings and sub-headings, as it made me need to think more consciously as to whether I had moved onto a new evaluation section or not. One particular bid that comes to my mind was one that had a list of each section in the left margin. The section I was in was highlighted, so it was easy for me to see where I was, where I’d been, and what was coming up next. This was great!
Also on layout, if you justify your text on both sides, my advice is to stop this immediately!
By having both sides justified, the spacing between words is not linear. This makes it harder to read because your eyes and your cognitive recognition actually like consistency. If it’s not consistent, it means your brain has to work harder.
The use of certain language can put evaluators into a bad mood straight away. Keep the language simple. Make it easy and enjoyable to read!
How many executive summaries have you read or written that start with “Company X is delighted to submit this bid to deliver Project Y into Customer Z”?
As an evaluator my reaction to this was always “well good for you! If you didn’t want to submit a bid, I wouldn’t expect to be evaluating it”.
Whenever I read statements that had conditional words like ‘should’, ‘can’, ‘could’, etc. that always made me a bit cautious of what I was reading. I always preferred bids that were more certain, where a bidder would say that they ‘will’ do something. For me, the conditional brings into question the maturity of the bidder’s solution.
Remove all unqualified statements! And by this, I mean “Company X is a world leader in ABC” or “We deliver an unparalleled service in X”.
As an evaluator, I would read these sorts of statements and instantly think “says who?”! It automatically made me think the bidder thinks they are better than they are. It didn’t give me a warm feeling because statements were not backed up with evidence.
Having a consistency in the writing style and use of terminology is as important as having the story flow through the bid. Just as it’s easier to read a story rather than a textbook, it is easier to read a story than an anthology, because it is written by one author.
I found it difficult to evaluate when the writing style and terminology changed throughout the bid. The inconsistency would impact my concentration, which then impacted my flow of evaluation. I know that we cannot have a single author write the bids but having a simple style and terminology guide that’s followed by all will certainly help increase the consistency.
The point of a page cap is not for you to find a way of getting 6 pages worth of content into 3 pages. If you do that, your layout will suffer, and you just go back to pages of solid text. So in the storyboarding process, ensure answers are being planned to the page cap, rather than just answering the question without recognition of the cap.
Go over the page cap at your own peril! It’s not that content beyond the cap might not be read, it will not be read and will not be taken into consideration in the evaluation.
If you don’t have any page caps, that doesn’t give you free rein to go off and write as many pages as you like! If you can, find out or calculate from the procurement timetable how long the evaluator might have per bid.
Use that to work out how long the bid should be and set your reviewers the same length of time when they do their reviews. If they can’t meet the timescales, then how will the evaluator?
Checks and reviews
When I was an evaluator, I could tell whether a bid had been checked and reviewed prior to submission.
Things like different font type, or sizes of font, or line spacing, inconsistent punctuation, incorrect use of grammar, spelling mistakes, were an instant ‘bad mood’ setter. For me, it made me feel that the bidder couldn’t be bothered to do the final check or ran out of time. This made me think “what is their quality going to be like if I award the contract to them?”.
Take heed of the feedback evaluators give you and do something about it. That includes on both bids you’ve lost and won!
If you’re bidding into the same client multiple times, then chances are you’re going to have the same evaluator or evaluators on some of your bids. So find out what works for them and either start or continue doing it! Don’t forget, it’s all about putting them in a good mood!
When I evaluated bids from a repeat bidder, if I could see that they’d not taken note of my feedback from one bid to another, it put me in a really bad mood!
Be mindful though that the evaluator can and will change, and that can mean you need to change your approach. People feel differently – they have different emotions. Again, evaluators are not robots.
Being the incumbent
As the incumbent, you should know the evaluators better than any other competitor. But that can be a curse as much as a benefit.
Don’t rely on the evaluator’s knowledge and relationship with you to give you marks for what’s not there! The old “but they know that already!”.
Evaluators should only mark you against what’s in front of them. Now, yes, if you’ve got a good relationship with them, it can mean that they’re already in a good mood when they start evaluating your bid, because they know you. But this assumes that the relationship is good, which isn’t always the case.
But, if you don’t cover something as well as the evaluator is expecting you to, that may actually put them in a bad mood because they think “I know this can be better”.
The result, instead of getting a 4 out of 5 because they know you, you’ve annoyed them enough that they may actually only give you a 2 out of 5! Why? Because they will highlight more of what the answer is missing rather than what it’s including!
It’s more than answering the question
So to conclude, start by knowing your evaluators!
Have empathy for them.
Think about what they will think and feel about your bid.
Go beyond just giving them information.
You can make it easier for them by making your bid easier and more enjoyable to read!