I really shouldn’t have to talk about the importance of face to face contact on tenders – I thought it was perfectly obvious. But I was so shocked by a recent event that I simply had to put pen to paper (well, fingers to keyboard).

A lot of my time is spent running training sessions and coaching lawyers, accountants, surveyors and their marketing and business development folk on how to increase their chances of winning a pitch or competitive tender. A decade ago I wrote a book on the subject. Now whilst markets, clients and techniques change with the times there are some absolute fundamentals that don’t.

One of the key lessons is to establish a relationship at the earliest possible opportunity on a targeted, proactive basis. This way you have an advantage – both in terms of shaping the requirements and having a good insight into the people, the organisation and their needs – when the client gets around to putting their work out to tender.

However, in many situations this isn’t possible for one reason or another. The first you know about a potential client is when their tender plops onto your desk or pings into your inbox. So what do you do first? Yes, after reading the tender and checking out whether it looks like a sensible client and doing a basic bit of preparatory research. You get on the ‘phone. This is to show that you have received the tender, to express your enthusiasm for the project and to start to establish rapport with the person running the tendering process. This person may only be the gatekeeper, but sometimes they are the decision maker. More often than not they will be a key influencer in the decision. (Watch a video on the decision-making unit).

Now unless the brief or invitation to tender explicitly says “no contact” or “no meetings” (as it does in some public sector scenarios) your first priority should be to get an appointment with the client. Then you can get face to face with them – start work on building rapport and trust and creating a relationship and to learn more about their organisation and their needs so that you can ensure your submission really hits the spot and, most importantly, is sufficiently differentiated from your competitors.

On at least a monthly basis, my clients ask me for help with tendering their marketing and sales related projects. It could be for a new PR agency, a new web developer, a new CRM system, a new lawyer or accountant or HR adviser or a management specialist to help in some other way. I help them shape the brief and to compile a list of suitable people to invite to tender.

Mostly it is the marketing or business development people who take the lead on these tenders. And by and large these are gregarious folk who like to meet people face to face, no matter how sophisticated they are in the use of electronic communications and social media. And behind these marketers are usually anxious (or over-controlling partners) who want to keep their fingers in every pie and watch over any appointments or spend like a proverbial hawk. These partners often know little about the services being tendered and therefore need lots of careful explanations and even more reassurance – and by and large, face to face contact is best.

So you can imagine my surprise when recently the business development manager of a client of mine put a project (over £25,000 of work) out to tender and only one of the seven companies invited requested a meeting with him and his partners. Needless to say, the frontrunners in the tender are the ones that came into a meeting – they created a great impression with the marketers and partners and technical staff, asked insightful questions that reassured the client that they knew what they were doing and, most importantly, demonstrated in a real way that they were keen to win the work.

Maybe the others were too busy. Fair enough. Maybe the others assumed (wrongly) that the client would be too busy to meet although they could have at least asked. But the most worrying scenario is that they underestimated the importance of face to face contact in the buying and selling process.