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PitchPerfect: talk the talk... walk the walk

Enable recently hosted a breakfast roundtable in the Sky Garden on the top of 20 Fenchurch St in the City of London: a building commonly known as the Walkie Talkie.

A cross-section of business development professionals at top 100 UK law firms gathered to discuss the pain points which they are facing in relation to the pitch process. It was an opportunity to feed insight into Enable’s product strategy and development.

The attendees comprised:

• Geraint Evans, head of new business, CMS

• Giles Daubeney, head of client development, RPC

• Liz Carter, bids manager, Fieldfisher

• Mark Summerside, senior bid and new business manager, Shoosmiths

• Daryl Atkinson, business development and marketing director, Howard Kennedy

Between them, they have more than 70 years’ collective experience of producing and managing pitches in multiple law firms including two of the magic circle, as well as in two of the Big Four accountancy firms.

So, what are the greatest challenges in the pitch process and the production of pitch documents? ‘There are two themes,’ according to Evans. ‘The involvement of procurement, working with them and seeing their important role in the procurement of legal services and how to work best with them, how to engage in the same way that you would engage with the client as you would decision makers, they are part of a decision-making unit. That influences how you produce and position key messages within a proposal, and prepare teams to present.

‘The second is client expectations and the way in which they have changed.’ Specifically, he adds, these apply in client engagement, client management, application of technology for improvement in efficiencies and, more generally, the application of legal project management. ‘There is an expectation that lawyers will either be better project managers themselves, or will have the support potentially of professional legal project managers,’ he says.

Drawing on his background at one of the Big Four, Daubeney says: ‘They understand that there’s so much more to winning than just writing a really effective piece of sales collateral. The sales cycle starts much earlier than when the RFP lands on the partner's desk. They get it in a way that many law firms don’t: they still see the sales process as beginning and ending with the document.’ He suggests that lawyers are much better than they were at understanding that bids are part of the business development flow. The mindset, he argues, is changing, spurred by ‘an understanding of the complexity and investment required in winning bids in an incredibly competitive environment.’

Bidding activity in the legal sector is behind most other professional services, agrees Carter. 'I never see a bid as being something that wins the deal for you,’ she says. ‘But it can ruin it for you at the end when you’ve done all the hard work. You need to get that reflected in the bid and sometimes it can be lost in procurement if we don’t answer those questions and link to the rest of the BD cycle.'

Atkinson says: ‘The document needs to be completed, so having processes in place that enable that to happen quickly is really important. The sooner we get to the proper discussion around what is our position, our pricing element - that’s the real meat of the discussion where the bid is won or lost.’

Confidence matters, according to Summerside. ‘In a competitive situation there can be reluctance to ask questions of the client,’ he says. ‘But for clarity of the brief the instinct should be: Why don’t we go back, they’re asking us the price for this job, we don’t know which price structure they prefer, what’s important to them here, etc. So why don’t we ask them? That can be uncomfortable for those working on a bid but is key.’

The resourcing of bids is critical, adds Daubeney. ‘Quite often, law firms will delegate responsibility for drafting a pitch (either out of necessity or design) to more junior resource: the trainee or associate – often with minimal supervision or input from a partner or the business development team,’ he says. ‘In the Big Four, the way bids are managed and resourced, drawing on the expertise of the client relationship team, subject matter experts and sales professionals is far more rigorous and robust than any law firm I’ve ever worked in,’ he explains.

‘They’re refining that proposition from the get go – using their relationships to engage with key stakeholders to ask the right questions and test and validating the proposition. It’s an iterative process. You’ve got to have the right people involved, who really understand the client's business, who are actually out there in the market, listening, and engaging with decision makers. If you don’t have that, whatever you come up with will more often than not to be way off beam.’

Carter argues that lawyers can start to develop a relationship with clients to ‘demonstrate that we can become their professional advisors and be there even earlier, adding value and not always coming up with just the legal solution as the first point of call.’ Lawyers, she says ‘can increasingly show the value of what they bring beyond the law to build that professional advisor status with their clients.’

Effective time management and understanding the client are two objectives pulling against each other, suggests Carter. ‘On time management, we’re categorising boilerplate materials so that we can call it up quickly and considering software databases,’ she says. ‘On client management, you are tailoring, getting to know either an existing client more deeply or a new prospect which you are trying to uncover some of their drivers. Sometimes, you have not got quite through that process when an RFP comes in.’ There is, she adds ‘a bit of reticence in talking about some of the key points around cost and value early on. That’s where we can influence our lawyers to help them draft the message we want to get across and get to the point more quickly on the client understanding.'

Daubeney says: “In accountancy and consultancy, I certainly felt that the way we would manage and resource a bid was far more methodical than any law firm I’ve ever worked in - because there was a clear pitch team, led by sales savvy partners who set the overall bid strategy and supervised the whole process. This meant that the proposition was being developed from the get go. So, it wasn’t something you did right at the very end of the bid writing process. We would start by identifying the proposition and the key sales messages before we even thought about preparing the document.’

He explains the process: ‘It’s: we’ll work on the draft, submit it to the client, get their input, refine the proposition based on their feedback, and then go through the process again to check our understanding. We did that all the time in my previous role: it was perfectly legitimate. Clients loved the fact that we were co-creating a solution with them. In legal, you don’t do that. We think that somehow we have failed if we haven’t been able to discern the client need without asking them what they really want.’

And where pitches fail, how good is the follow-up to find out why? Atkinson says: ‘This is not rocket science, everyone knows what we have got to do. Any feedback that we can achieve around the process is hugely valuable. Does it happen every time? No. People get busy, distracted, and we miss opportunities. But in an ideal world, we’d do it every time.’ Evans adds: ‘There’s no point in getting feedback if you’re not going to use it and change either the way you are approaching things or, if you need to, change personnel. Sometimes, that’s a difficult message and it is better being given to an independent person. But then you have to be seen to be acting on it.’

In terms of getting feedback, Carter says that ‘sometimes clients just won’t give it. Public sector procurement mostly provides written feedback with a bit of weighting. Commercial clients generally want to build the relationship as much as we do, so we get good conversations out of it.’ She adds: ‘That’s the best bit: getting the feedback and feeding it back into the process.’ An irritation for Daubeney is that some partners ‘can be very reluctant to let non-fee earners go and have a conversation with the client. ‘I get resistance,’ he says. ‘That’s hugely frustrating because we know that the quality of the conversation (and quite often the amount of intelligence uncovered) is completely different when you have an objective third party in the room.’

Win rates are seen as a key bench mark of success. ‘They are important,’ confirms Evans. ‘A good metric in gauging whether you’re getting the client proposition right, whether you really understand what your clients are asking for. But the win rate should not be the only thing that’s measured, he cautions. ‘The feedback and where you can develop trends and themes also matter,’ he says. ‘If you can get a bank of feedback that allows you to cut through the anecdotes, then alongside your win rate, that can give you a much richer analysis.’ Carter contributes: ‘The win rate has been quite useful for supporting bid qualification conversations. Lawyers who come to BD and say: can we do this bid? That is where the win rate has helped because the lawyer will respond well to evidence that is presented to them.’

On the issue of customising each proposition, Enable’s own research shows that 80% of pitch documents produced by law firms are not unique. A prominent GC says: ‘Sometimes, what is unique is not the proposition, but the relationship that we have with the firm in question.’

So how does that unique relationship transfer into the proposal document? The relationship piece can be difficult to articulate. Atkinson points to case studies and credentials as one way of quantifying the proposition. ‘What you are seeking to do is provide evidence that we have done this before,’ he says. ‘Therefore, we can do it for you - gathering all the good stuff during the course of the relationship to then provide evidence.’

Evans identifies writing techniques ‘using tone and approach to personalise the tender for the client. In a proposal document, there are ways in which you can embed a tone that reflects the relationship that might exist between the two key individuals: general counsel and the client relationship partner, or group of partners that work with that client.’

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