Make yourself more inviting

The rules of the tendering game have changed, says Martin Davies, and prospective players must be proactive or lose out

Invitations to tender are being issued at an alarming rate, particularly as CCT takes a hold. If you are not one of the major players is it worth taking the time and trouble to put together a tender? If so how do you go about it to maximise your chances of getting on to the shortlist?

Perhaps the first word of advice is that tenders come in many shapes and sizes, from potential clients and by way of general advertisement, often issued by public bodies.

If possible try and foresee the likelihood of a tender arising then pre-empt it. In the public sector this may not be possible, but many companies are now going out to tender for all or part of their legal services every three to five years. You need to keep your eyes peeled and your ears pinned back for possible openings. Try and arrange to see the person or people who will be involved in the decision before they go out to tender. You may be able to convince them you are the right firm for their work, or at worst you will be shortlisted. Avoid allowing existing clients going out to tender by maintaining a close relationship and being proactive rather than reactive.

Consider any invitations carefully. It is best if you have one person co-ordinating all the firm's tenders, pulling together the right individuals for information and presentations. This avoids duplication of effort for routine information.

Most tender invitations will be in writing, either by letter or an advertisement. Look at the areas of work that need to be covered and the expertise required. Be realistic about your firm's abilities and expertise. Also consider the geography. For some types of work – bulk conveyancing or debt collection – this may not be relevant but for others it will mean a local firm is almost certain to be appointed. If possible try and find out more about the business putting the work out to tender and the type of work likely to be required.

This can often be done via a simple telephone call and through some basic company research. You need to pitch your tender documentation and presentation at the right level. Showing that you already know something about the tenderers' business and the work you will be expected to do will help you stand out.

Prepare your tender documentation carefully. For some tenders you will be required to complete standard questionnaires. If so, have the answers typed rather than handwritten. If this means having the whole document retyped make sure that you follow the original layout and numbering, so that the reader does not have to hunt for your answers.

If you are putting together your own tender documents keep them short and to the point. Address the points raised in the invitation to tender and avoid flowery descriptions of your firm's prowess in all areas of work. You must, of course, answer any specific questions raised, such as how you would propose charging for services and you need to give the reader something which picks your firm out as one to put on the shortlist. This will not be waffle about a long and distinguished history in the law, but will be details of relevant expertise, profiles of similar clients and work done on their behalf and profiles of those who will actually do the work and their relevant experience. A testimonial from a similar client, or unbiased editorial about the firm's expertise in the relevant area may also add some weight. Above all, do not overstate your expertise or quality standards; you will be found out and will have wasted everyone's time and effort.

Quality marks, such as IIP and BS5750, can also give you the edge, particularly where tendering for work from public bodies. Adherence to the as-yet unmonitored Law Society's Practice Management Standards and the award of a legal aid franchise are worth mentioning, but probably carry relatively little weight.

Pricing is always a key issue, both for the firm and for the potential client. Avoid the temptation to price low simply to get the work, as you will be unlikely to be able to justify any increases during the contract. Be realistic and be flexible.

Offer the possibility of fixed fees, or retainers where this is a viable option and look at adding value to your service by offering additional elements to the standard legal service, such as employee benefit packages, free audits, legal helplines, direct line assistance, email links to speed up communication and ongoing information for the client's staff in relevant areas of law and procedures.

In some of the smaller cases your documentation will be enough, but in most it is simply a way of getting down to a shortlist of a few firms who will then be asked to make a presentation. Before making the presentation do some more homework. Were there particular features of the tender documentation that were of particular interest, areas that were not addressed or needed expansion? Who will you be making the presentation to, and how long will you have? You should now have a contact name from whom such information can be gleaned.

As with documentation keep the presentation short and to the point. It should be given by those who will do the work and not the firm's marketing men, or senior partner. If you can spare the time, and if you really want the work you will find the time, have a rehearsal, in front of two or three critics, including your marketing person. Be prepared for questions and to give examples of the work that you currently do. Do not bore the panel with your firm's history, but tackle the issues: how you will handle the work; who will do what; what services can you offer that no-one else can; how will you charge; what expertise do you have?

If you fail, and a success rate of one in ten is pretty good, then find out why you failed. Ask for the real reasons and learn from the experience, so you do it better next time. And if you made the shortlist and the contract was for a fixed period, follow up as the fixed period ends, to make sure you get another chance.

Martin Davies is a solicitor and legal marketing consultant.