I wish I could tell you the five (or 10 or 30) things you should do that will guarantee you win your next major opportunity.
I wish I could tell you how to create a capture machine. One that can manufacture winning pursuits like SUVs on an assembly line.
But I can’t. Any such attempt would be misleading. Here’s why.
There’s one inescapable truth that all capture teams face: They are selling to humans. As humans, their thought processes and decision-making criteria will not always be rational. There will be some expected consistencies, especially at the 30,000 ft level. Price – Quality – Experience – Timing. How much of the decision will those measurable criteria really drive? What about the factors that exist at the micro, truly personal level? Trust – Fear – Ego – Politics?
(And don’t talk to us about “scorecards.” Prospects will claim scorecards add a large measure of rationality or objectivity to the decision process. Almost every time we hear that a prospect used a scorecard, we find out that they’ve argued among themselves about how to score a certain element, or they’ve changed the scores to meet their predispositions. The notion that scorecards are objective is like saying the Oscars are objective.)
Will an assembly line approach to pursuits do you more harm than good? Quite possibly. Artemis would be disingenuous if we told you “here’s what you must do to win.” On the other hand, after 25 years and over 400 high-stakes engagements, we’re very sure of this:
We know what teams do that cause them to lose.
If you want to improve your capture rates, you should take the time to dissect your losses. Avoid the “We did our best … we couldn’t have done better … it’s not our fault” hypotheses. Assume it was, indeed, your fault, and try to learn from your mistakes.
Maybe you’re a lot like me. While the wins feel good for a while, the losses stick with you a very long time. Not that we agonize over them. If we did, we’d be reluctant to ever get back into the game. We make sure to dissect each loss to see what we can learn about it. Sometimes, there’s absolutely nothing we or our clients could’ve done differently. The other guys just had a better idea or product than we did, and there was no way to predict that until the pursuit was decided. Or maybe some competitor swooped in and blew the client away with a fee proposal that we couldn’t have matched under any circumstances.
While teams can take comfort (maybe) in thinking the loss wasn’t their fault, we challenge them to think otherwise. Because except for those rare instances above, hindsight almost always reveals something the team said or did or didn’t say or didn’t do that hurt their chances.
So, we can also say this with confidence:
If you avoid the things that capture teams do that almost always lead to a loss, you’ll improve the chances that you can win.
Not sure what even qualifies as a mistake? You’re not alone. That’s why this document exists. To show you the errors that pursuit teams commonly make. And to give you a way of preventing them, or recognizing them before they torpedo your efforts.
Here are the Top 10 mistakes that we’ll cover here:
1. Start the pursuit when you receive the RFP.
2. Say yes.
3. Meet the requirements specified in the RFP.
4. Focus your intelligence gathering on the decision makers.
5. Ensure the prospect knows what makes you great.
6. Try to present the absolutely best solution.
7. Show up on the day of the presentation or interview.
8. Be a great presenter.
9. Have the best answer to every question.
10. Expect trust.
As you read the list, you might say, “Funny, some of those look like the right thing to do, not a way to lose.” And that’s exactly why teams lose. It’s not that doing these things is the problem. It’s that doing ONLY these things will leave you way short of winning.
Let’s look at the 10 in some detail. Our tour guide has a Master’s Degree in the Longshot Pursuit (MLP) We’ll call him DJ, the head of business development for Three Letter Acronym (TLA), Inc.
MISTAKE 1: Start the pursuit when you receive an RFP
DJ can’t be more excited. He’s just seen a message pop up on his iPhone screen. It says “RFP attached.” It’s from Marshall Bridges Industries (MBI or “Bridges”), a company he’s been hoping to do business with. A significant player in its category. DJ hasn’t had much contact with Bridges before. But he’s been hoping and hoping and hoping to get an RFP one day – a legitimate shot at a project. A chance to add that company to TLA’s client list. A chance to finally chalk up a big win.
DJ’s surprised and ecstatic. He’s going to blast a message to the higher-ups and formulate a pursuit team. His email, which will include the RFP, will be go out with the subject line: “Great New Opportunity!”
But is it really? Read the next paragraph and then tell me where you think the flaw in his reasoning is. And why he’s about to embark on a path to almost certain disappointment.
While TLA has been checking in on Bridges for a while, it’s had no prior contact with most of the key individuals associated with this project. Shouldn’t be a problem, DJ reasons. “We know we can come up with a great solution for them. We fit the description of the kind of provider they want to work with. And chances are everyone receiving the RFP has had no prior contact, meaning that the competition will take place on a level playing field.”
Found DJ’s potentially false assumption?
Artemis has learned that there are at least two things that should be predictable, but are rarely considered by business development leads.
1. Just because you haven’t had prior contact with decision-makers or influencers, chances are close to 100% that someone among your competitors has. Maybe they’ve already done projects for one or more key decision makers or influencers. Maybe they’ve been courting that company for months before the RFP dropped.
2. There’s always a favorite. It’s human nature. At the start of a major, high-stakes search, there’s always at least one contender that the project owners consider to be the firm they hope to work with. (And there’s usually one they think is almost certainly not going to win, even if they were invited to bid.)
As my colleague and friend, Neal Foard, says, if you sit down at the poker table and don’t know who the sucker is, it’s you. Or, to bring it to our world of business development:
Everyone doesn’t have an equal shot. The playing field is never level.
Your best play in business development is to get to know prospects long before the RFP drops. You need to be seen as the favorite, or at least one of the top three contenders when the formal evaluation process starts. Otherwise, your odds of winning are very, very slim.
Should TLA participate in this RFP?
Let’s take a closer look.
MISTAKE 2: Say yes.
DJ has a chance to make the smart decision. He’ll sit down with TLA leadership to review the opportunity. And he’ll make the wrong decision, because he – and they – share the same old school, two-part paradigm:
A. This is their big chance. They definitely have the chops to handle the project.
B. RFPs like this don’t come around often. Hard to say no to it.
When fertilized by the immense optimism of BD leads, their bosses and their SME’s, these two ideas grow into immense redwoods that block out the sun and prevent TLA from seeing the forest. This business is probably not winnable. And an objective review of Go/No Go criteria would easily reveal it.
Sadly, TLA is like many companies out in the real world, falling into one of three camps.
1. They don’t have qualifying criteria.
2. They have qualifying criteria, but they’re too broad or maybe even ambiguous, to be of much use. 3. They have qualifying criteria, and they’re well thought out, but capture teams and leadership will either ignore it, or just adjust the numbers to suit their narrative.
In the Artemis point of view, qualifying criteria aren’t used to justify getting into a pursuit. Just the opposite. Qualifying criteria exist to prevent you from pursuing opportunities. Your motto should be this: Pursue Less. Win More. Do it any other way, and you’re putting yourself in a position to lose too often.
Back to DJ and TLA. However he qualified the opportunity, the decision to pursue was made. So he’s left himself vulnerable to the third big mistake.
MISTAKE 3: Meet the requirements specified in the RFP
DJ and his team carefully study the RFP. Their confidence has gone up. TLA can provide the required information for every question. They have capabilities, credentials, and cases which would seem to be just what the Bridges assignment needs. TLA has a competent proposal writing team. Information is gathered. The proposal is written and proofed. There are enough design elements to make it look good. DJ and the TLA team are confident the RFP response will get them to the next round.
Of course, they don’t.
If this is truly an important opportunity being put forward from a major company, the list of firms that are going to respond to the RFP will be lengthy. (And, as we said, already skewed towards a favorite.) Even if the playing field is level, we’re confident that many submissions will meet the requirements stated in the RFP. While TLA might be proud of its work, its history, its staff, its clients, and so on, that information is not likely to differentiate it from the competition. At least not from enough competitors to put TLA near the head of the pack.
Here’s something we’ve learned through many disappointments:
Senior decision-makers didn’t write the RFP. They probably haven’t even read it.
TLA has to provide the information requested in the RFP, or it has no chance of moving forward. Then, TLA must go beyond. It must make itself relevant to the real decisionmakers. It has to put its response in context meaningful to Bridges leadership. TLA can’t show that it’s a better firm than the competition. Instead, it must try to show that it has a better understanding of what matters to decision-makers.
Of course, it’s hard to know what really matters if TLA doesn’t start its pursuit of Bridges’s business until the RFP arrives. That’s the point we made above, and one we’ll make again.
MISTAKE 4: Focus your intelligence gathering on the decision makers.
DJ and TLA have done their homework on The Marshall Bridges decision makers. They know who they’re likely to be at the RFP stage and perhaps at the final interview. This is good. Now DJ has a real challenge ahead of him: Does he know what the decision-makers really care about? Does he know the lens or filter through which they’ll view the proposal (and all communication from TLA, for that matter)?
We’ve all seen “The Cone of Silence.” As soon as the RFP /RFI / RFQ has dropped, that Cone descends on each prospect stakeholder. The Bridges people will be prevented or at least discouraged from speaking with firms like TLA who are likely to propose on the project. At that point, TLA will need to rely on input from others who work at Marshall Bridges, or others who are somehow connected with the project at an early or late stage of development.
We think it would be a mistake not to be in touch with these sources. Not just out of necessity due to The Cone of Silence. But throughout the pursuit.
Consider this. You’re in the design and build space. The building you’ll be bidding on has owners, sure. And people with the responsibility of selecting providers to design and build spaces. Are they the only ones who care about the building? How about the users? The financiers (bankers or donors)? The building management group? The mayor and community board?
It’s possible that none of these others will have a vote. None will see the RFP response or the oral presentation. Yet their voices will count. If DJ can show that TLA has gone the extra mile to get their inputs, TLA will be a more valuable asset to the Bridges decisionmakers. TLA will create more separation between them and the others. They’ll be a stronger competitor.
The RFP response can now be tailored to address challenges, or dreams, of those decisionmakers. Even in a highly regimented response, TLA can use the cover letter, executive summary, or section introductions to make a compelling case to those decision-makers.
Knowing what the decision-makers care about – and reflecting that in all submissions – is essential to have a chance to win. Winning a high-stakes pursuit means you need to go beyond the decision-makers. You need to know what matters to a wide range of influencers and constituents.
MISTAKE 5: Ensure the prospect knows what makes you great.
We’ve been emphasizing the importance of deep and broad prospect intelligence in order to win a pursuit. Many companies fail to get this. They don’t even try. Why? They think they’ll win by doing the best job of explaining who they themselves are and how they work.
DJ knows that TLA has a long, distinguished history. It has great people. It’s done great work. That works flows from a robust, replicable process. He and TLA leadership are proud of it. He’s certain it must be a big part of the pursuit. If he’s successful at registering this with the prospect, Marshall Bridges will know for certain why it must put TLA at the head of the pack.
There are a few things that DJ isn’t considering, which will make this strategy a loser.
1. TLA is a well known firm in its space. If decision-makers even care, they can find out everything they need to know about TLA from its website, Google search, LinkedIn, etc. They can use their network to get info from other client, prospects, even employees.
2. As a top firm, TLA is going to have similar capabilities, credentials, processes as do its competitors. A straight recitation of them, no matter how thorough and authentic, won’t create the differentiation DJ wants.
3. Here’s the Big One: Prospects don’t care what you can do. They only care about what you can do FOR THEM.
I want to be clear. The mistake isn’t talking about yourself. The mistake is talking too much about yourself and not enough about the prospect. And the companion mistake is talking too much about yourself too early in meetings, proposals and presentations. It’s self-centered. It’s boring. It’s not as effective as you think it is, even if you’re really good at it, and really enjoy doing it.
You all know “ABC” from “Glengarry Glen Ross?” Always be closing. Artemis extends this to ABCC: Always Be Client Centric
Should TLA say nothing about itself? That’s not our recommendation. Very early in the pursuit process, decision-makers might be missing some important info about TLA. And when replying to an RFI/Q/P, DJ should answer the questions, many of which are about his company.
To have a chance to win, he’ll have to frame those answers to make them relevant to the decision-makers. Show how TLA’s capabilities reflect the challenges facing Marshall Bridges and that specific project. To make those answers Client Centric.
We like to think of it this way. When a decision-maker tells you, “Tell me about yourself,” they’re really saying, “Tell me about myself, how you can make things better for me, and why I should believe that’s true.”
MISTAKE 6: Try to get the absolute best solution.
Not every project pursuit requires the submission of a solution recommendation. Some specifically prohibit it. (These are our favorites. We don’t approve of RFPs that ask for free work. And we want our clients to think twice about participating in these pursuits.)
But some projects require that solutions in some form be proposed. DJ and TLA are now looking at this requirement for the Marshall Bridges Industries project.
Naturally, then, TLA goes all out.
The solutions team goes to 24/7 mode, led by Kim, a strong product innovation director. The goal: Come up with a solution (in fact, several) that will exceed expectations. There’s not nearly enough time in the schedule to do this the way TLA would do it if Bridges was already a client. Oh well. That’s life in the capture lane.
The team generates ideas. Kim kicks them all back, looking for something better. Meanwhile, DJ’s team is waiting for Kim to come forward with the recommended solution, so they can build their proposal and orals around it.
But Kim isn’t going to let TLA show anything to Bridges that isn’t awesome. At the end of the process, there’s good news and there’s bad news. The good news is that everyone at TLA agrees the solution that’s to be delivered to Bridges is great. The bad news: it’s now so late in the submission process that the solution is going to be served up in a really clunky way. The presentation of the solution will lack persuasion. It will appear to Bridges that TLA barely had time to figure out how to present it. Of course, they’ll be right.
DJ – and Kim – have learned what Artemis has known for decades:
A ‘B’ solution, well sold, has a better chance of winning than an ‘A’ solution badly sold.
In most – not all – project RFPs, the request for a solution is essentially a request for proof of concept. Competing firms are trying to make the case that they understand the challenges and are capable of developing and delivering an answer. The offered solution might not even be likely to be executed.
Instead, the solution needs to fit into a narrative that essentially goes this way:
1. You -- our prospect -- face these challenges or have this opportunity.
2. You will have access to our capabilities, people, insights, processes that will help you overcome this challenge or capture this opportunity.
3. Here’s an example of what we’ll do to get you the best possible outcomes.
4. Here’s why it’s likely to work for you.
It’s more important to get 1, 2, and 4 right. Then, 3 will flow organically into the narrative. If 3 comes too late, and Kim hasn’t considered how to sell it in the context of 1, 2, and 4, TLA will lose.
You can build that cohesive, persuasive, even fun narrative with a good solution. You don’t need a great one.
Oh, and to be clear, we’re not advocating that you can win with a poor solution. If poor is the best you can do, buh-bye.
MISTAKE 7: Show up on the day of the presentation or interview.
(For our purposes, we’re going to assume that, somehow, TLA was invited to a final round meeting.)
DJ’s capture team at TLA is stretched. All SMEs have ongoing project responsibilities. The proposal team is working on six other RFPs. Despite the Cone of Silence, there are important constituencies who can be consulted at Marshall Bridges, and there are a couple of calls allowed with project decision makers. Yet few on the capture team can find the time to be part of these meetings.
And as far as a robust rehearsal schedule is concerned – good luck with that.
Rashad is senior exec on the SME team. He told DJ, “Don’t worry. My people will show up for the interview. They’ve done it before. They’ll be fine.”
Ahh, so Rashad subscribes to the Philosophy of Life that’s often attributed to Woody Allen (when he was funny and relevant): “80% of success is showing up.”
I don’t want to mislead you. It would be a mistake not to show up to the interview. What I’m talking about is this: Thinking you have a great chance to win because you show up at the interview.
This has two manifestations. Both are bad.
One is expected. You’re more likely to lose when your pursuit team comes across as uncoordinated. On autopilot. Indifferent to the prospect. Maybe even indifferent to each other. (More on that later.) That’s a big problem when the team doesn’t work together early in the pursuit process. When they don’t get on the same page for messaging, for approach, for authenticity. For style.
This can happen even when some teams rehearse. DJ saw it himself a couple of years earlier in a major rebid. Felicia, the CEO, flew in for two days of rehearsals. Her role was to close the interview and ask for the business. When it was Felicia’s turn to rehearse, she told the team, “I don’t need to rehearse. I know what I’m going to say.” Maybe you can guess what happen. Though Felicia was smooth and confident, her content cost DJ’s firm the account. Feedback from the now ex-client will stick with DJ forever: “You had it won until Felicia got up to speak. Then we remembered all the reasons why we put the account into review.”
Back to showing up.
The second problem has nothing to do with rehearsal. Marshall Bridges Industries has had little to do with TLA prior to the RFP. At the same time, it’s likely some of the competitors on the bid have already invested time and energy in getting to know Bridges, its people, its challenges. They “showed up” long before the TLA team received the RFP. To Bridges, TLA hasn’t shown up at all until now.
Showing up only when there’s an RFP or an interview isn’t going to help TLA win. It’s going to remind Bridges that TLA hasn’t cared about them until there was money to be made. And it’ll make the other guys – who showed up a long time before the RFP – look that much better.
MISTAKE 8: Be a great presenter.
The TLA team has been given a chance to meet with Marshall Bridges. They’ve been given an hour. DJ works with the team to put together the best possible presentations. He knows they could use more like 90 minutes to present all that they’d like to. But they’ve put together a strong presentation with a detailed slide deck that they can complete in an hour, with a stiff tail wind.
The team has rehearsed. They’ve removed their umms, improved their confidence. The deck’s been checked for typos. The tech is working. 60 minutes seems doable.
Kudos, DJ. Your team will feel like stars until they get the news that they’re not being considered for the Bridges project.
The mistake starts with the goal. It’s not a presentation. It’s never supposed to be a presentation. Go ahead and click on the word if you’re reading a digital copy of this. Look for synonyms. Demonstration. Performance. Exhibition. In other words, you talk. They listen. They’re entertained and impressed. Or supposed to be.
That’s not enough to win a competitive pursuit.
DJ shouldn’t plan a presentation. And he doesn’t need great presenters. He needs to plan an engaging, informative, memorable conversation in which the emphasis is on two-way communication. On engagement. On interaction.
I like to look deeper at the concept of “communication.” More specifically, successful communication. What’s your definition of successful communication?
Successful communication is when information is exchanged and understood, leading to something that has changed as a result.
A lot to unpack there. But right away you can see that a presentation isn’t guaranteed to lead to successful communication, though it certainly could.
The odds of success are improved when presentation elements are reduced in favor of engaging conversations that are enlightening and informative. Conversations in which both sides have points of view and open minds. Conversations that can guide the prospect to think, feel, or do something as a result of the communication event. The traditional oneway communication of the highly-engineered presentation isn’t guaranteed to get the prospect here. It may just lead to the opposite result.
MISTAKE 9: Have the best answer to every question.
DJ has learned that the first 10 minutes of a meeting with a prospect, especially if that meeting is the pursuit’s orals or interview, can foreshadow a win. He’s also starting to learn that the last 10 minutes are the most dangerous time in that same meeting. It’s in the last 10 minutes that Felicia torpedoed the meeting we talked about before.
It’s also in the last 10 minutes that Marshall Bridges Industries will ask its toughest questions. And things will blow up in DJ’s face.
The Bridges leader posed a question that was handled pretty well by one of the TLA subject matter experts. Before the next question was asked, Rashad added to the answer with something that was a little bit off message. Another question came. Rashad fielded it, then a teammate chimed in, then a third response came. DJ saw the Bridges people start to squirm.
Two more questions, six more responses.
Then déjà vu for DJ.
“You guys did great until the Q&A,” was the candid feedback. “Then you started stepping on each other, contradicting each other.” (DJ thought that was a bit of an exaggeration, but perception is reality.) “By the time Q&A was over,” feedback went on, “we weren’t comfortable that you were a cohesive team. It just looked like you were trying to show each other up. To grab the spotlight from each other.”
Oh man, that’s a sucky way to lose a pursuit.
The TLA team was driven to provide the best possible answer to the question. They didn’t see themselves as lacking cohesion. They saw themselves as trying to be as smart as possible. It didn’t work as planned. They should have expected it.
You’ve got to avoid this mistake. In Q&A go with the first answer. Unless it’s flat out wrong, let it go. Correcting might do more harm than good. Don’t worry about looking diminished in the meeting if your brilliant answer isn’t going to be heard because someone else answered before you. Your stature won’t matter to the prospect if you’re not hired to do the project.
MISTAKE 10: Expect trust.
DJ’s team is fully aware of the importance of trust in prospect decision-making. To them, it’s about Marshall Bridges Industries holding the belief that TLA is capable of delivering the project with quality, on time, on budget. They believe that should be a slam dunk in their favor.
So they’ve pressed hard on their own attributes. Their capabilities. Their CV’s. Examples of their work and the outcomes they’ve achieved. Their processes. You get the idea.
They’re not wrong. To a point. So why did we see the loss coming?
We’ve discussed the folly of too much emphasis on capabilities and credentials before. Here’s one more thing that we consider when we press teams to shift the focus of the pursuit. It relates to the well-documented Trustworthiness Equation, cited by Maister, Green & Galford in “The Trusted Advisor.”
Trustworthiness = (Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy) / Self Orientation
If you’re not familiar with this, please note:
First, it’s “trustworthiness” not “trust.” Trust isn’t something you’re granted. “Trust me,” means less than nothing. Instead, trust is something you earn through your values and behaviors. In other words, you prove your trustworthiness.
Second, notice the terms “Intimacy” and “Self-Orientation.” The traditional pursuit approach that emphasizes capabilities and credentials is, in this context, banking heavily on Credibility and Reliability. Intended or not, that’s what you get from the emphasis on what you do.
That emphasis reduces the visibility of the two elements of Trustworthiness that can surpass Credibility and Reliability in importance. Your capabilities don’t provide Intimacy (honesty, openness, authenticity), nor do they reduce Self-Orientation. Just the opposite. The greater the focus on capabilities, the more the prospect might see you as Self-Oriented. That automatically reduces your Trustworthiness.
Want to get a higher score in this pivotal element of business development? Spend more time getting prospects to talk about themselves. And spend more time sharing insights, visions, hopes, dreams, limitations. These will get your Intimacy and Self-Orientation scores moving in the right direction, which will boost your Trustworthiness.
Where do you go from here?
Every pitch is different because every human is different. But they’re all human. (At least until we get to AI decision-making. Don’t get me started.) For humans, there are predictable elements of communication and persuasion that qualify as nearly universal truths.
Not every decision-maker in every company in every sector is turned off by all 10 of the mistakes we’ve covered here. Some decision-makers actually lean into some of these. “Presentation” is a great example. In creative fields like advertising and entertainment, the presentation counts a whole lot. The bigger and better the production, the better. We’ve worked on multiple successful Olympic bids that turned on stagecraft and theatrics.
Nevertheless, these factors, when taken cumulatively, has an inverse effect on your likelihood of winning. One or two might not matter at all. But five or six – that’s a problem. And seven or eight (not all unusual for us to see as outside observers) – well, that’s a surefire loser.
As leader of your firm’s business development activities, use this as a negative checklist. The fewer boxes you can check off as you proceed with your pursuit, the better the likelihood of winning.
About the author.
Bob Wiesner has over 25 years of experience helping major corporations pursue and win new their most important opportunities in the most competitive industries and professions. His clients have included KPMG, Deloitte, JPMorganChase, BBDO, TBWA Chiat Day, Saatchi & Saatchi, AECOM, Gleeds, and many others. He has also helped firms raise capital and has worked on two Olympic bids. As a founder and managing partner, Americas, for The Artemis Partnership, Bob is responsible for the company’s strategy, and supports critical client projects. Prior to beginning his consulting career, Bob was a senior executive at McCann Erickson advertising. He’s the author of a new book, “Winning is Better: The Journey to New Business Success.”
About The Artemis Partnership.
Artemis exists for one reason: To help its clients win their most important pursuits more often and earn higher profit. Since the mid-1990’s its three founders - Bob Wiesner, Ian Forbes (EMEA) and Graham Kean (APAC) have helped clients on over 400 high-stakes bids, resulting in a cumulative 75% win rate. Artemis has 40 professionals globally, all with deep experience in consulting, business development, and sales.
You can reach The Artemis Partnership at:
To receive a new chapter of “Winning is Better: The Journey to New Business Success” each month at no charge, please opt-in at WinningIsBetterBook.com .