Running competitive tenders

25 08 2014

This article from Pinsent Mason is an excellent discussion of how and why to use competitive tendering in your business. It may sound a little over-the-top for small businesses, perhaps spending only a few thousand pounds on a website, but the principles are sound and can be applied to any size of business! You can find out more about making it practical for smaller businesses from these articles I have made available on my website.

When you are pitching for work…

21 04 2010

You’ve submitted your proposal, you’ve met the requirements, impressed the client with your expertise and well-structured response, and now you’ve been short-listed to present your pitch to the client. Here’s some more free advice on how to keep your hopes alive of winning the contract, based on my experience of managing the selection process for my clients. By way of background, typically I will send out a set of questions the client would like answered and (where appropriate) a range of tasks we’d like demonstrated, such as a web content management system or a contact/donor management system.

  • Don’t waste the time you have been given. Spending 10-15 minutes of your allotted time extolling the virtues of your company and staff isn’t going to impress the client. You’ve probably already said it all in your proposal anyway. It’s much better to demonstrate your expertise and the virtues of your company by the way you meet the brief for the presentation.
  • Answer the questions you have been asked. A really good way to do this, as demonstrated by a recent winning supplier, was  to answer each question with an example of how that had been done for another client, e.g. how they would approach simplifying the information architecture of the proposed website. Using examples makes it real for the client listening to you and builds their confidence that you could help them.
  • Make sure you cover all the bases in your demonstration. If we’ve asked you to show the basics of how to create, modify and move a web page using your content management system, it’s a good idea to make sure you do that! If you really want to impress, don’t just use a basic boring test site or test data for your demo, make it relevant to the client by using some of THEIR content, their contacts or their organisation. It shows that you have put a wee bit of effort into understanding their world, and it really does go down well with clients. Again, it’s about building their confidence that you understand them and can work with them.
  • Keep to time. This includes arriving on time (slightly early is best, so any projectors, laptops etc can be set up) as well as keeping an eye on the progress of the presentation.  There will usually be someone from the client managing the time, but it’s more impressive when you explicitly keep track of it, manage questions, cover everything you’ve been asked AND finish on time. It builds the confidence for the client that you can manage a project to time! It may only be a little thing compared to a full-blown project, but if you fail to keep to time, or ramble about in your presentation, then it makes the client wonder if you can manage a project to time.

Finally, if you want to know more about the communications aspects of pitching to clients, check out voicebusiness, who provide tips & training on this and all other aspects of communicating.

When you are bidding for work…

14 03 2010

I help my clients find good suppliers for their IT needs. Usually that involves asking a range of suppliers to submit a proposal by a deadline so that they can be assessed. Here’s some free advice to anyone submitting proposals to potential clients, based on my own experience.

  • Get the proposal submitted by the deadline stated. I find it incredible (literally, I find it unbelievable) the number of times that a submission deadline is missed. Or the electronic version is submitted on time but the paper copy is not. We have set aside time to read and assess your proposal, respecting the work that you have put into it. Missing the deadline does not respect our time – we’re busy too!
  • If you use standard proposals or formats, do make sure you have removed all references to other clients. How hard is “Find & Replace”? Clients are insulted if the name of the company is wrong. They can also be offended if you mis-spell it. Or if you use acronyms where they do not – a common mistake, and it particularly upsets clients if they have taken the trouble to send their brand guidelines which explicitly state that they NEVER use the initials of the organisation. It’s even worse if you use the wrong acronym (I’m not kidding – a recent proposal used the wrong three-letter acronym throughout, thereby compounding the felony!).
  • It’s a good idea to follow any explicit instructions. If the brief says “please respond to every stated requirement”, it’s not good enough to write an essay on the excellence of your web development or design skills. If we’ve taken the trouble to write down what the client wants, it’s courteous to respond explicitly and say whether or not you can deliver them.

If you ignore these basics, you can expect potential clients to be underwhelmed by your proposal, making it harder for you to be chosen as their supplier!

YouTube for not-for-profits…

16 09 2009

Charities can set up web TV on YouTube, with more space for their videos and making it easier for users to find them.

Available only in the US and UK at present, more details can be found at

Insuring your software project

16 09 2009

Mindful of how many IT projects go wrong*, specialist insurer Hiscox is now offering insurance to IT vendors, in case their customers sue them.

Hiscox’s advice for the start of the project? Make sure the specification is rock solid. If the specification is ambiguous, it’s like writing a blank cheque to the solicitors as client & vendor argue about whether or not the system does what it was supposed to do.

And their advice for during the project? Manage changes. Any changes to the spec have to be documented and agreed, preferably under a formal change control process. Otherwise the process known as “scope creep” can derail the project and leave it never quite finished.

* A 2007 survey by Market Dynamics shows that 62% of IT project miss the deadlines, 49% go over budget and 41% fail to deliver the expected benefits…

Are legacies good or bad??

15 09 2009

Isn’t it interesting how a single word can have such different interpretations?

When a charity talks about a legacy, especially a large one, it is usually something that they are delighted to receive. But when an IT magazine publishes an article called “Living with Legacy”, you can be  pretty sure that they are talking about something they see as a problem. In this case, old (or very old) computer systems that are often business-critical, but expensive to look after and to adapt to the changing needs of the business. Given half a chance, many IT managers would be delighted to be rid of their legacies…

Both types of legacy are something that has been “left” to a future generation. If not well planned, both can create all sorts of unforeseen problems.

For a charity, a legacy may be tied up in restrictions that can tie the hands of the charity in using it. If too many legacies are restricted (e.g. to preserve a particular building), there may be insufficient general funds to pay for a fundraiser for other needs. An extreme example, but it illustrates the point that it can be helpful to discuss and plan a legacy with the chosen charity.

With IT systems, one problem is the technology – systems can be written in obsolete languages, to run on ageing platforms. Over time, the number of people able to understand the programs, let alone change them without causing problems, gradually reduces. While, of course, the cost of maintaining them steadily rises.

Another big problem (not just for IT systems) is foreseeing the future! When a system is built, all sorts of assumptions can be made that later turn out to be false or unsustainable.  When BT built its customer service systems (CSS), everyone just knew that telephone lines only had one end, the customer end – all lines went from BT to a customer end. So that was all that had to be recorded. Sadly, the introduction of new technology (leased lines) meant that lines now had two ends… When computer systems were built in the 1960s & 70s, no-one thought they still be around in the year 2000, so information about the year was often recorded using just 2 digits rather than 4. Which was why there were all the dire predictions about what might happen due to the “millennium bug”. It cost billions to update these long-standing legacy systems.

When you’re thinking about a new computer system to support your business (or charity, for that matter), it pays to think forward a wee bit when writing the requirements. It’s still guesswork but it’s worth considering at least a few questions about what might be. What do you expect the lifetime of the system to be? How might people want to use it in future? What assumptions might completely derail your business model or the design of your system? If BT had considered the question “what if… technology changes and lines have 2 ends in future?”, that would have saved them millions in building a completely new set of systems for private circuits. What are your “what if” questions?

IT in the downturn

7 08 2009

In the current climate, what’s the right approach to IT for a small business or charity? Cut costs and don’t invest? Or take advantage of discounts and spend now to be ready for the upturn? Train staff to be more effective with the IT already in place?

Depending on circumstances, any of these might be appropriate for an organisation. However, many of these approaches seem to assume that the answer is just to cut every possible cost or to defer all expenditure. It’s very understandable that a business owner or charity chief executive would want to retain their staff rather than make them redundant in favour of spending money on technology. But even when the stakes are as high as that, it can be worth looking at how the business could improve how it does things, for example, by doing some affordable training during a slack time.

The smart thing to do during a downturn is to check out how well or badly your IT is supporting what you’re trying to achieve. Could it be done more cheaply? Could you change the way you work to be able to exploit more of the IT you already have? Could training motivate your staff and make them more effective in how they use IT? Would introducing new technology cut your costs of operation or enable you to attract more donors or help you to sell more?

Obviously IT consultants like Clearsight Consulting love to offer their services to help with such a review. Even if they then recommend that you don’t spend money on IT or training, you will have paid them for their consultancy! And it’s true that it is often beneficial to have an external and independent view of your organisation and its IT. However, there are also ways to avoid spending money on consultants…

For charities, there are IT volunteers such as those registered with Indeed during a downturn there may be rather more volunteers available! For both businesses and charities, if they are fortunate enough to employ an IT manager, it may be possible to “swop” the services of their own IT person with their counterpart in another organisation with whom they are associated, in order to gain that external view. Or you may find that consultants would be willing to do a certain amount of pro bono work, in return for a case study, testimonial or reference.

The key is not to make assumptions about cost-cutting, but to examine your IT as you would any other asset or expenditure to make sure it is paying its way and being fully exploited.

Selling the outcomes, not the features

1 08 2009

On the train back to Glasgow last week, I was writing up some notes I’d taken at the Institute of Fundraising’s Scottish Conference and was struck again by some of the similarities between “customers” and “donors”.

In marketing what a business does, customers want to know about the benefits you provide, rather than the features of what you sell or do. For example, in my case, my clients don’t usually want to know the details of the process I use for selecting IT suppliers. They want to know that they can have a great deal more confidence about the decision they are about to make about their IT.

It’s the same with donors. Donors need to know what a donation does. They need to hear about the outcomes, not the “features” of what you do. When considering charities to support, I want to hear about the difference they make to (say) wild land, rather than the fact that they employ several land rangers. I want to know about the women in Ghana who have been able to start their own businesses and how that has changed the lives around them, not about the mechanics of micro-credit. It’s not that I don’t care about how these outcomes are achieved – I do – but that’s a secondary question for me, one that comes into play after I’ve bought into the outcomes.

Net: all the donor or fundraising management systems in the world won’t help increase the level of donations to a charity if its potential donors don’t have a clear understanding of what that charity achieves with their donations.

Preparation is vital

23 07 2009

In an excellent interview with Information Age, Ministry of Justice CIO, Andrew Gay said “If you are going to deliver an IT project vaguely near budget, it would be far better to spend a huge amount of time working out exactly what you were trying to do with that programme rather than drift into it.”.

For smaller projects, that up-front preparation  time doesn’t have to be “huge”, but it deserves more attention than it often gets. The more clarity there is – about what is needed, what’s a priority and what can be deferred, what the budget is, and exactly who is going to be involved in the project – the greater the chances of the project being a success and of the IT actually delivering what is needed. And when you are buying IT, it helps the suppliers too. As one said about a fairly large project I ran in 2008, “It was the most comprehensive Invitation To Tender ever but … it meant that no significant changes have arisen, therefore no additional cost – very smooth for everybody.”.

Net: time spent on setting out your requirements, priorities and constraints up front can save time, money and disappointment later on.

Buying a website – taking the user’s perspective

9 07 2009

When I work with a client who wants a new (or redesigned) website, they often start from the perspective of what they want to achieve with the site – more sales, new product lines, growing a network, attracting donors… That’s important. Knowing what you want to get out of it means you can be clear about what are the success criteria for you. But it’s even more important to see it from the user’s perspective. What do they want to achieve when they come to your site? What will make it easier for them to do that? What will get in their way? What’s relevant to their goals? (Chances are that reading your organisation’s history is not high on their agenda…)

An exercise I regularly use with my clients is to ask them to think of 3 websites they hate to use and 3 that they love, then we talk about why they love them or hate them. Reasons for hating websites regularly include poor performance (why does the web site spend ages loading ads when all I want to do it find out when the train times are?), how hard it can be to find what you are looking for and just plain poor design. A classic was an insurance comparison site that would not allow you to change your post code because “that might change the quotations you have” – doh, yes, I’ve moved so I actually want new quotations! Reasons for loving sites include their simplicity, when they remember what you have done or read or saved (so you don’t have to do it all again) and being positively useful. All of that helps clients think about what their users will find useful, helpful, easy and so on.

Another exercise, involving a little more work, is to to ask your own clients what they like or hate about your existing website if you have one (useful responses include “I’ve never looked at it”, especially if you follow up with questions about why that is the case). Apart from anything else, asking about your website is a good reason to make contact with past clients and to remind them of your existence. If they have the time, clients are very often pleased to be asked what they would find of value on your website.

If you want to take the users’ perspective, someone well worth reading is Gerry McGovern – his newsletters are a regular reminder not to stray from what keeps users happy, productive and coming back for more.