Recently, SDM Magazine had the chance to speak with Tracy Larson, president of WeSuite, White Plains, N.Y., on project bidding for the SDM October cover story: “Better Than a Bull’s Eye.” During the interview, Larson touched on many aspects of project bidding and the benefits of bidding software like WeSuite. Here’s what she had to say:
SDM: Integrators say that when it comes to bidding on security integration projects, there are many more bidders involved than in previous years. Do you find this to be true? If so, what do you think is contributing to it?
LARSON: I do think this is true primarily due to the state of the economy. One of the primary factors is that the construction industry is suffering severely and there is a huge lack of new work in this market segment.  This has caused the number of projects to decrease substantially and the overall value of projects has also decreased substantially.   The result is fewer projects to bid on at much lower overall sale values with much higher competition and the introduction of parties other than traditional integrators vying for this work.
More often integrators are seeing other trades, electricians for instance, looking to pick up work that traditionally has been in the security integrator’s arena.  Electricians are suffering for a lack of work and seeing the total value of electrical packages decrease significantly so they are looking to include more in their scope.  They typically operate on completely different margins than security integrators so they will either bid the work directly and then hand out the work to an integrator, but at a price point the integrator has to meet, or they will perform the work themselves and potentially offer the warranty work to an integrator, which is a very difficult position for an integrator to be in. 
Some manufacturers are also bidding direct to customers and cutting out integrators completely from equipment sales and in some cases from equipment, installation and warranty work.  This pits the manufacturer and integrators against each other rather than putting them in a win/win position.
There are many more companies who want to be invited to bid and are making every effort to be included on bid lists.  Consultants are feeling pressure from bidders to be included.  Customers are feeling pressure within their organizations to get the best price possible by including more bidders, being less restrictive in terms of the qualifications of bidders and more open to “or other” equipment specifications, which is very different from the days where specific manufacturers and equipment items could not be substituted.
The ultimate risk is to the end user or customer.  Most customers prefer to buy from the companies who have performed for them and have built trusted relationships with them.  When they buy on price alone, they really do put themselves at risk as the work integrators perform and support is complex.  The best thing integrators can do is to build relationships and understand where their best work is coming from, how they can target customers that fit the work they can best perform and support, and find ways that still differentiate them from the competition that is selling with a “one” sale only approach.  It is hard work and requires a lot of time and I would say more resources overall but, if you can gain the sales that are best for your organization — even if you are taking a hit up front on cost but know the payoff will be a great account over the long run — it is worth that time and effort.  You just need to know how to identify those customers, those new sales and the sales people that can bring them in and keep existing customers happy and satisfied.
We all need to weather this storm and know that it will pass and things will get better.  Hopefully we all learn from it.  The biggest thing is what we learn and what we do with what we learn.
SDM: Does the lowest bid always win? Is this a myth or is it true?
LARSON: No!  I say this emphatically and with experience.  There are indeed contracts that have to be awarded to the lowest bidder but, this is not the rule, not typically the majority of what is out there AND, usually there are other qualifications bidders must meet that are in play in addition to that low price. 
SDM: If you had to point to ONE thing that would separate a successful bid from a non-successful one, what would it be?
LARSON: Strategy.  You have to have a strategy and a game plan for the entire process.  Being successful in the bid market is not easy.  You need to gain from the losses and develop a strategy that puts you in the greatest position for success.  That strategic plan includes a number of factors, practices and steps that need to be deployed every time.  Winning anything, except maybe the lottery, is not by chance.  You have to have a game plan that you work at and are dedicated to. People who have a strategy in sales are the most successful.  They are people who truly are passionate about what they do and how they do it.  They are people who recognize that their success is really based on the people standing behind them.  They are people who want to be successful and are successful because they have a larger perspective and want to do a great job for themselves, their organization and most of all, their customers. 

SDM: Overall, how can integrators become more successful project bidders to ultimately win more contracts?
LARSON: Great question!
In commercial markets, there are a number of crucial factors that come into play when bidding successfully.  Bidders first need to recognize if the bid is worth going after.  Not every bid is a good use of company time and resources.  The integrator needs to qualify the sale and determine for instance, if they have at least say a 50 percent or better chance of winning the bid at a minimum.  What are some of the other qualifying factors your sales team needs to ask when considering if they should bid a project or not?  Do they even think about qualifying the sale or are they trying to bid everything?  A good sales organization will focus its approach and good sales people know what is worth going for.
You need to know your organization, know where you are successful and what makes you successful in that sales arena.  You need statistics at your fingertips to show you where your sales have come from over the last five years, what has changed over the last two years, what has been happening in the last six months, how things are going now and how sales are projecting for the next 30-60-90 days and beyond.
You need data by sales region, office, manager and sales person.  You need to be able to see that data at any time and without having to go outside of a single system, without having to ask someone else to generate reports.  You want your own team and sales people to see their own data and to be able to use that data to better manage their success.
Data needs to include how long it takes to close a sale, your win rate overall, by market, by customer, by sales type, by sales proposal amounts, by GP percentage, the amount of RMR, success by sales person, why you lost the sale, etc.  Once you have data at your fingertips, you and your team can make more efficient and much smarter decisions in terms of the sales to go after.  This is a game changer!  The smartest and best sales people out there have many qualities — one of them is knowing what to go after and what to pass on.  Their time is extremely valuable and wasting time, effort and company resources on bidding projects you do not have a decent shot at winning is simply not effective.
Another important aspect is to identify the areas you can “win” in and win as easily as possible.  Integrators who have gone through the rigors of securing government contracts such as the GSA or a state contract will be in much better shape in terms of bids than those who do not play in these markets.  Once you have successfully gone through the qualification and submission process, which is a great effort, and secured a contract, you can then bid on projects.  The bid list is limited to those who have secured a contract.  The government is a good market to be in right now as there are a number of initiatives and program available — some through stimulus plans — others due to the nature of our current world environment — the point is that those integrators in government bid market will find work.
Some bids are strictly based on price, most however, include a number of additional bidder qualifications.  The greater number of qualifications an integrator can cover, the better chance they have of being a finalist and eventually winning the bid. 
Ultimately and typically, except in the case of government market bids, commercial or private sector customers will reserve the right “at their sole discretion” to award the bid as they see fit.  For that reason, my experience always proved that no matter the bid type, negotiated bid, bid, low price bid, etc., it is in the best interest of the integrator to develop relationships with as many parties involved with the bid award throughout the bid process.  This takes time and perseverance and sincerity — relationships need to be real.  People really prefer to buy from entities that they feel they can trust.
After you get on the bid list, the real work begins.  If you have done a good job developing relationships with those involved in the bid process, you are in a better position than a company that has no relationship and is not a known entity.  How do you get noticed? 
1) Start building the relationships.  Submit intelligent and respectful responses to request for information (RFIs).  Ask pertinent questions that respect the integrity of the bid and the entities who have put the bid out.  No one likes to be embarrassed, and embarrassing a consultant, general contractor or potential customer (at any level) is a pretty good way to ensure you will not be successful on the bid and will likely not be invited again in the future.

2)Get on the bid list!
3) Once you’re on the bid list, the real work starts.  The way you present your company is crucial.  The proposal document, pricing, exclusions and clarifications, technical project write up and any additional attachments that distinguish you or may be a part of the bid response such as: product cut sheets, how you plan to engineer the job, the project schedule, etc.

SDM: What should integrators know about bidding software in GENERAL?  Also, what should they consider when selecting a bidding software?
LARSON: Bidding software in general has typically been developed for a particular type of end user in a particular market, for instance, the construction market or the audio/visual market.  Some are more general in nature.  Others started with a particular focus for instance, accounting, and then branched out to cover specific needs customers may have suggested.  With any software package it is important to understand the core strength of the package.  Why was it first developed and what does the manufacturer consider its core market and target end user?  Software packages are also typically targeting specific end user sizes. For instance, some are made specifically for small business users, others for very large enterprises.  Features, functionality and pricing usually are along the same lines.
At WeSuite we focused on the market we know best, the security market. WeEstimate was introduced almost three years ago. It was a great product when it was first introduced. What is significant to me as I look back, see where we are today and look into the future, is how much WeEstimate has changed with new features and functionality, add-on modules and new ideas our customers have for the future. We just introduced WeOpportunity, a lead assignment and opportunity development software that, coupled with WeEstimate, enables full cycle and ongoing tracking of the sales process with statistics that show what is happening within an organization company-wide, regionally, office-to-office, by sales team and individually. This is really exciting stuff!  We are invigorated by our customers and end users. We like to say that our software is never done.  We believe in this concept as we are constantly working with our customers on new features and functionality to improve what the software is doing to improve their business process, their team performance and their profitability.
Look for software that uses a single database. How easy is it to bring information into a system? Can you do it yourself or will you need to rely on someone else?  WeEstimate has parts import tools built in, making parts databases really easy to import.  Our customers love this feature!
Look for database flexibility — our software is a SQL database.  We are able to integrate with other products.  Our best integration partnership is with SedonaOffice, an ERP solution provider to the security industry.  We are separate companies that have teamed our development resources to create a seamless integration of the sales process into accounting, job management and service management.
Find out the deployment process and be realistic about the time to deploy. You want to be able to deploy a system as quickly as possible in the most efficient manner as possible.  Time is money!
Training is key. How quickly will your end users be able to use the system? One of our goals is to make our software products intuitive to use.  This makes training easy and gets our end users up and running within hours. We also offer on site and Web-based training and have found Web-based training to be extremely effective. We are also continually editing our training manuals with updates on new features, updated screen shots and tips and tricks for ways to do things.
We have built our software products to be very flexible so that we can address the needs of our customers without customizing a solution for them.  This approach provides our customers a variety of ways to approach system configuration, flexibility in how user screens are configured and flexibility in what users can or cannot do, down to a user-by-user basis if desired.
Look at the reporting tools and information you get.  Are the reports you need available?  WeEstimate offers more than 50 reports and the Universal Report Grid at each user’s fingertips.  Accurate information is key to making decisions that keep your organization on the right track for success.
Keep your information secure!  We offer software that can be installed on our customer’s servers or on a WeSuite hosted server.  Our software and your information is not floating around on laptops but can easily be used from remote locations at any time.
Finally, look at return on investment (ROI).  How quickly will you earn back your invested dollars and what are you gaining?  We see that organizations typically loose between 5 to 8 percent on every million dollars of revenue due to mistakes made in the sales process.  Our software dramatically improves the sales process by saving 15 to 20 percent of the administrative time, enabling a much higher rate of proposals out the door and greatly improving the inclusion of the correct parts and labor at the right pricing and overall GP.  The average ROI on our systems is three months.
SDM: What do you think are the most important elements in a bid to focus on? Are there any unique approaches?
LARSON: Generally speaking, the bid market is not for the faint of heart.  It is an area of sales that requires attention to detail and is best for those who are strategic thinkers, detail oriented and persevering.  For those who want to answer quickly and move on, I would try another type of sale unless perhaps you are answering a low price only bid.
In a nut shell:
1) Thoroughly read and understand the RFP – including specs, drawings, related trades specs, contract requirements, insurance and tax requirements and even the over contract between the GC and the customer for instance.
2) Know the drawings.  Not just the security drawings, the electrical and construction drawings.  Read the notes and highlight notes that effect you and what you are doing.  Jot down questions you may need further information on.
3) Start writing the tech response as early as possible.  The technical response is perhaps the hardest part of preparing the bid response.  It takes a lot of time and needs to be detail oriented and address the requirements of the bid.  It isn’t just answering “yes” and “not”, the art is in writing a response that helps the reader to know that you are the one for the job.  Do not overlook the importance of this aspect of a bid response.
4) Create a presentation.  Create drawings that illustrate your team’s approach and understanding of the job.  Create a PowerPoint but hope that you don’t use it!  Sounds crazy but, the best meetings are those where you have an open discussion with the team – trading ideas, illustrating your approach and getting their response, engaging them and developing your relationship so that after you leave they feel like they want to work with you and your team.  You want to be the bar everyone else has to exceed.
SDM: What role does software like WeSuite play in responding to bids? What does it offer integrators who use it?
LARSON: There are a number of great things WeEstimate does to help integrators responding to bids.  The software works from centralized contact and parts databases.  This is extremely important because:
a) it allows integrators to have an automatic company record of the customer, consultant, general contract and
electricians or other subcontractors that may be involved in a bid.
b) all estimates or quotes are automatically archived by the system creating a permanent record of what was created in the system, when, for who and by whom.
c) all sales people work from one parts database, so selection of parts and pricing for parts is consistent, is managed and is accurate.
d) the software enables the break out of different systems (i.e. access control, CCTV, visitor management, etc.) for a bid on a folder level basis — sales people include parts and labor within each folder so it is very easy to see what is included in each system for pricing and profitability purposes.
e) cost and sell pricing for parts, labor, chargeable items, recurring revenue items, burden items, freight, warranty, etc., are visible at all times when working on an estimate.
f) the creation of bid alternates is easy.  A sales person creates a folder for each alternate and the items in that folder are then presented on the bid form as an alternate for the customer to decide upon.
g) the proposal response documents are generated from WeEstimate, keeping presentation of pricing easy.  The system also allows for different types of pricing summaries at the push of a button (i.e. line item versus lump sum pricing).
h) It is also really easy to create revisions to proposals.  The system automatically keeps record of each previous proposal and allows as many additional proposals to be sent as needed.
i)  Getting a proposal out quickly often has influence and can mean the difference between winning the job or not.
WeEstimate is unique in that it provides integrators the ability to enable sales people to “play” with pricing within parameters or “thresholds” settable by individual.  So, a sales person can create an estimate and will see the cost and sell pricing for labor, parts, chargeable items (i.e. additional insurance items, bonding, travel and construction items, etc.), recurring revenue, etc. and be given the ability to change the markup or discounts on those items to see the resulting pricing and overall project GP.
WeSuite offers products of extreme value to the sales process that easily apply to all aspects of bidding.
As mentioned, one of the first determinations is whether or not you should participate in a bid.  Many sales people want to go after every bid they can. Seasoned sales people know that this isn’t always the best approach.  Instead, the lead first needs to be developed and qualified. If the opportunity is determined to be viable, then the sales person needs the best tools they can have to help them get the opportunity over the finish line.
Some of the critical information WeSuite products provide in working in bid and the sales environment are:
• With WeOpportunity you can follow a project from lead inception to opportunity development to the request for proposal.
• WeOpportunity records customer information, the lead source, market, potential value of the sale, type of sale, approximate installation date and the tasks performed by the sales person to move the opportunity into a proposal stage.
• With WeEstimate, a project is transferred seamlessly from WeOpportunity to complete development of the estimate and quotation and record additional sales statistics.
• Company performance statistics in winning and losing past bids and projects are included.
• The percentage of past wins in each market, sales type, bid type, etc.
• Gross profit margins needed to win bids.
• Success in winning bids with specific consultants, general contractors and customers.
• On the fly “tweaking” of pricing — equipment, labor, subcontractors and markups and seeing what happens to the GP.
• Breaking out each system type within a bid or project and seeing the equipment, equipment pricing, labor types, hours and pricing and the GP for each system.
• Generating quotations and proposal documents from within the application, making changes and re-generating documents in seconds.
• Statistics by sales person helping the integrator to decide who should be selling in the bid market versus small business or negotiated work for instance.
WeSuite offers WeOpportunity, our lead tracking and opportunity management software. With WeOpportunity, organizations can record all incoming leads, pass leads to offices, groups, and individual sales people. They can set up and schedule appointments, set and manage tasks, manage contacts, manage products per account, see statistics on opportunities by lead source, markets, customers, sales people, value, estimated installation dates, regions, office, etc. and move seamlessly into WeEstimate to provide a quotation and proposal for a job.
1) Price the job well.  Know that unless you are participating in a low bid one shot price presentation job, you will likely be going through several pricing exercises and you will be giving up dollars.  Make sure you know where your GP is and where your red line is.  Understand the total value of the account – not just this sale but, future sales as well.  Can you deliver to a GC and have the account with the customer for 10 years to come?
2) Prepare a great presentation! Present written documents, pricing and equipment schedules as if the customer will never meet you. Ask for a presentation in front of the team determining who will win the job.  Prepare a real presentation that shows you and your team really understand the job.  Bring only the right people to the presentation. It isn’t quantity, it’s quality.
3) Be interested. Ask for the job and be sure you deliver what you promise. Every project is your reputation.
4) Finally, develop solid relationships. People buy again and again from people they trust.
Another good practice is to ask at the start of the bid process what the customer is really looking for. Be thoughtful and prepare your questions respectfully. In other words, know the job. Talk to the consultant, talk to the GC and project managers. They can provide insight into job requirements, goals and concerns the customer may have that you can tackle as part of your bid response. Being able to answer a bid in a very targeted fashion for a customer shows them that you really care about their project.
Whether you win or lose, ask for feedback from the team making decisions. Ask what you can do better next time, ask how your response was viewed — what you did well and what needs to be improved. Ask about your presentation techniques and what your competition did that made the customer more comfortable. Ask about your numbers — how did they compare to others? It is sometimes surprising the amount of detail people will share and it can be very helpful in improving for the next time.