Developing an effective bid strategy is key to the success of any legal business development function, yet the process often goes into a black box and isn’t fully leveraged by firm leaders.
On this episode of the CMO Series Podcast, Will Eke is joined by Deborah Fleming, Marketing & Business Development Director at Walker Morris, to discuss the critical role of a winning bid strategy and its impact on marketing and BD.
Deborah and Will explore:
- Deborah’s career journey to her current role at Walker Morris
- How bid experience can set you up for success in legal BD and the transferable skills it can offer
- What the bid process looks like end-to-end
- What success looks like when working on a winning bid strategy
- How to get lawyers and other firm members on board with the approach
- Walker Morris’s newly launched website for GCs, and how it came about
- What the landscape looks like for bids and where Deborah sees it going in the future
- Advice for marketing leaders looking to create a winning bid strategy and advice for those considering a move into bids
Will: Welcome to the Passle CMO Series Podcast where we discuss all things marketing and business development. You've heard my dulcet tones before I say that quite a lot. My name is Will Eke. Today we’ve got a brilliant topic that I don't think we've covered before. So hopefully an interesting one for everyone listening. We're gonna be talking about a winning bid strategy that you can bring to legal firms and BD. Developing an effective bid strategy is often quite key to the success of any legal business development function. Yet, the process often goes into a sort of black box and isn't fully leveraged by firm leaders or they don't know how to go about it. Today on the podcast, we're really lucky to be joined by Deborah Fleming. She's the Marketing and Business Development Director at Walker Morris, and we're gonna be discussing this critical role of winning the bid strategy and how it can impact and work in tandem, I suppose with marketing and business development. So, Deborah, how are you and welcome to the podcast?
Deborah: Thank you very much. I'm very well, thanks.
Will: Good stuff. I suppose to kick us off, can you, Deborah, tell us a bit about your own journey? You know, how you've got to your current role at Walker Morris and where did you start out?
Deborah: So I did do a law degree, but I ended up in law firms more by luck than judgment really. I happened to get a job at Pinsent Curtis Biddle, as it was at the time as a BD assistant. And it just so happened that I was in the Leeds office and they happened to do a lot of public sector work, which meant they were doing a lot of bids. And so I kind of just got thrown in the deep end with bids there. So, I then moved on to Eversheds. They'd created a new role for someone to do all their public sector bids, which again was a bit of a baptism of fire. Did a number of bid and BD roles there. And then I was approached by, again Beechcroft as they were then, to come up and sort of head their bid team. I loved my time at the DAC B. I was lucky enough to take a sort of a number of much broader roles while I was there, sort of lots of sort of operational stuff, got involved in marketing for the first time. And I sort of then dipped in and out of other law firms and then came back to Leeds in 2018, initially as BD director for Walker Morris, but then took over the marketing team as well. So, yeah, I'm now a Marketing BD Director here.
Will: And you mentioned, you know, your bid experience and you were sort of thrown into it. It's obviously held you in good stead in your current role. Why do you sort of think that those skills are really important when moving into a marketing and BD role in a law firm? And what would you say are the key skills it's given you? Cos we often hear, you know, from marketers, oh, I've been given this other role. Some firms silo it off the others. They sort of, you add on the BD skills as a marketer or you add on your bid skills it seems. What key skills would you say it's given you in that role, do you know?
Deborah: I always always encourage junior marks and BD people to, to do a stint in bids, even if it's not a permanent thing. And I know people, some people kind of steer clear of it. They think it's a bit scary, but it's such a broad skill set and it's such a sought after skill set as well. If you've got some good experience frankly, you're never gonna be out of a job. But technically, you need to understand clients, you need to understand research, you need to understand proposition, development, pricing, writing, editing, design, presentation, coaching, analysis. If you start sort of managing a big team and you need to do big reporting, big analysis. But it's great for developing soft skills as well. There's a huge amount of stakeholder management to do in bids. I know a lot of younger people in marketing like to get in front of partners being in bids is a great way to do that. And you're often dealing with partners who have a lot to lose. You know, you might be retendering for something that's bringing that particular partner in their biggest client. And so they're often quite stressed and you have to be the calmest person in the room. You develop really strong people management and influencing skills and you develop lots of relationships around the business because you need to be able to call on lots of people; so HR, IT, Finance quickly and in a way that doesn't annoy them often as a big person, you're often the best known person in the firm because you work with everyone. And so I think generally with bids, you get a really good feel for the actual business. The work that you're bidding for has to work for the firm and you get really adept at figuring out whether this is work we want and if so how we make it work for us as a business. And I think in bids you're at the sharper pointier end of that than you are in other disciplines.
Will: Yeah, when you put it like that, it makes absolute sense. But I was on with a BD Director recently and she was sort of saying it is marketing and BD's function to bring all these different often silos in law firms together. It sounds like, you know, from your example there, it's all encompassing and that's exactly what you're doing if you've got the exposure to the bids. I'm wary that we're talking about bids. But for our listeners, maybe if we take a step back those that haven't worked in it or have, you know, it's come up on their plate or agenda, but they don't actually know too much about it. Can you briefly talk us through a process, sort of end to end? I know you talked about retendering but I imagine bids covers, new business as well. How does it sort of work and look, what does it look like?
Deborah: Yeah. So it's actually closer to the marketing process than a lot of people think. I mean, essentially you're working through a marketing plan, but you're just aiming it at one business rather than a whole segment. Ideally, the process would land would start before the bid lands. If you're looking, for instance, at getting on a panel, I'd suggest that you should be starting that pursuit at least 12 months before the invitation is gonna land ideally longer. Where that pursuit sits in firms differs, sometimes it's the BD person's job, but more often these days, I think we're finding that big people are managing the pursuit end to end. Once the invitation actually lands, first thing to do is get the business to consider two things. Can we win? And as importantly, do we want to win? Is this a strategic priority? Are there risks? Is the team who would advise on this already busy? Is the amount of work worth the prize on offer? You know, we often get ITTs in and it's for not massive amounts of money, but the requirements in the invitation to tender are huge and you kind of have to weigh up. Is this worth it? If the answer to both those questions is yes. Next question is, what else do we need to know? It might be that the clients ask for questions to be submitted in writing, it might be that there's a conversation open to us, but in whatever way you need to again be having that conversation with the partner to say, how do we get a really, really clear picture of what the client's objectives? Are for this tender exercise, then we move on to how we're gonna win. And I know you, you mentioned this in your introduction, what's our win strategy? And that's likely gonna bring the pricing guys in because often what happens is the win strategy and the pricing are discussed separately and you end up with a win strategy, for instance, that's about our amazing cutting edge experience. But then the pricing is really low or vice versa. The win strategy is about efficiency, but the pricing is really high and the, the two don't, the two don't match. And only then, and this is where most people sort of jump straight in only then should we be putting pen to paper and starting to communicate the offer in the big document? And if there is one, the presentation, sometimes there might be a negotiation stage, clients might come back and say, can you not, you know, you're 10% more expensive, we really like you. But can you knock something off your price? And the other end of the thing again, that the big manager should be really pushing themselves to get involved is that post result process, the debrief handing over to the business if necessary. So it's a big matter that involves tech teams making sure that they, you know, we've won. I know that sounds really obvious, but people don't often pass the result around the business. And ideally a big promises document. So what did we actually say we would do? And at regular intervals, checking in with the partners is make sure we're doing it. So I think the process is as broad or as narrow as you want it to be, but I'm always err more on the side of a bid manager get involved right from the start and right at the end because I think again, that's that they're really good commercial experiences.
Will: There's a few things that, I mean, it's really interesting, Deborah, especially from coming from my angle as a tech vendor. There's a lot of similarities, you know, you talk about a sort of 12 month cycle sometimes longer for us, but it sounds like, you know, it's a proper end to end as you say and surely CRM comes into play, lots of marketing folk are always trying to get their lawyers using it. But you know, that account-based marketing type thing all the way through the CRM definitely lends itself to that. I would have thought.
Deborah: Absolutely. We're using our CRM to track a number of things. So yeah, I mean, things like, again, really simply what panels do we know about and when are they due, you know, we can do that in our CRM system, we can make sure that, you know, we're addressing people at the right time. But then moving into that pursuit process of doing the sort of - it's the complex sales piece. It's, you know, who, where you've got multiple parties at a client who are gonna be making the decision, who do we know? Who don't we know? What state of mind are they in? How are we dress addressing it? Where are our strengths? Where are the red flags? All that stuff. Which again, I think is a really valuable thing for bid people to push themselves into.
Will: And I suppose my next question leads on to this as well. Because it is difficult as we know in law firms, professional service firms, to try and validate ROI things like that with a bid strategy and a successful winning strategy. What does success look like? And I imagine it's gonna be a few different bits of that that you're gonna cover and a few different answers because there's different views within the firm. But what's the main crux of success when you've had a good strategy?
Deborah: Winning. I think again, why, I mean, I love doing bids and I think part of why it's so satisfying is that there is a very, very clear result at the end of it, you either win or you don't. If you're doing other, if you're specializing in other marketing or BD channels, if you're organizing events or there is more of a subjective success. You know, measuring ROI might be more difficult with bids. It's quite clear, you know, there's really, you know, it's so satisfying when you've been involved in a bid and you win it. I think people can lose sight of that. You know, too often. The goal that people are working to within the firm is getting the document to the client by the deadline. And yes, of course, as deadline day grows closer, that's gonna come into focus. But the first thing often I told big teams is let's get a first draft going. Let's put pen to paper and the process I talked through earlier actually, you should be way down the line before you start putting pen to paper. But it's because people get into that. We've got a deadline, we've got a deadline, we've got a deadline, we've got to meet it. Forgetting that that actually isn't the goal. That's not what success looks like. Success is winning the bid.
Will: And I'm guessing working backwards from that and the process that you discuss, you mentioned sort of internalizing, you know, internal comms around, we've won this bit of work now, you know, and celebrating that, I imagine you have to use things like that to then get some of the fee earners, other firm members on board earlier in that process. Is that how you would go about it or do you, have you got any other tricks that you use to get people involved earlier in the stage?
Deborah: Absolutely. I mean, it has to be that combination of push and pull the push. Yes, you're gonna introduce processes, you're gonna train people, you're gonna sort of say this is the expectation and this is how we're gonna do it. But yeah, the danger with doing that in isolation is that you tend to find that bids then go underground. Partners don't necessarily tell you what they're doing. So you do need that pull bit as well. You do need the relationships. You do need to get people to give it a go and once people have a good experience and they win a big bid, it's amazing how quickly they become advocates for what you're trying to do.
Will: I thought you might say that, yeah, they're sold there and then. We talked before about some of the challenges facing, you know, a law firm and how they approach the bid process. Can you tell us what the landscape looks like and where you sort of see it going in the future?
Deborah: I mean, bids isn't that fast-moving a discipline in terms of change though. It's quite simple. It's hard to find out what the client wants, come up with something to deliver that, and communicate it. So it's actually quite a human process if it's done well. And so I think the biggest challenge coming and I'm sorry to be predictable on this is generative AI given what I've already said that firms can place too much emphasis on getting things over the line and on efficiency in bids. I think we'll start to hear noise about how we can produce bids really quickly through generative AI and I'm sure we can, but there's a real danger that if we don't get it right, what you actually end up producing is a brochure, not a proposal, you're gonna end up with something that either just sets out what the firm does because it's pulling from the firm's website or it's an approximation of what generative AI thinks a law firm bid looks like and sounds like. So I think we, we are gonna, I've no doubt that we can use it, but I don't think it's as easy as saying, you know, scrape our website, scrape our experience database and produce a bid because I think you're gonna end up with something quite bland.
Will: I'm guessing in terms of the whole bid process and talking about that whole long tail if you like right from the start all the way through to the bit that everyone loves, which is winning. There's education that goes with that. I noticed that you've got part of your website now, Illuminate, is aimed just at GCs. I'm guessing that's not by accident. And you know, how did that project come about? It must have been heavily influenced with the stuff that we're talking about today.
Deborah: Absolutely. I mean, we're a full-service firm and one of our biggest kind of strengths of the business is the balance of our client base. We've got incredible transactional teams and as like all law firms over the last few years, they've been really busy. The relationship type where though that panel work, the stuff that I really have been involved in throughout my big career is of equal importance and we know through market research that we're perhaps not as well known by GCs as we'd like to be. And so, yeah, we've developed to Illuminate to try and address that and for people inside the firm who want some support in building those GC relationships, we're not a big firm, we're not sort of someone, we're not a firm that has that kind of, almost this is the Walker Morris way of doing things. We're still of a size that we can give our partners and our lawyers the freedom to work with clients in the way that they want. And I think that's our sell to GC. We're not gonna put you through the Walker Morris sausage machine. But that can be quite daunting for our lawyers as well. So we've tried to kind of develop something that gives both clients and our own people, importantly, a breadth of resource and offer so that there's always gonna be something there for them that of evergreen resources guides, libraries rather than focusing just on legal news because we already have a website that does, that we didn't want to just duplicate that.
Will: Yeah, that makes sense. And it's also sort of a place that you can lead specific GCs to. Right? It's your shop window. So, I'm gonna kick off with the quick-fire round. Nice and easy. So we're gonna go straight into that. What are you listening or reading to at the moment?
Deborah: So I tend to read more than I listen. I'm just about to pick up Ross Atkins' Art of Explanation. Coincidentally given this topic because I think it'll have loads of great tips on clear communication. He’s the BBC guy that does the explainer videos. And he's written that book about the communication. I've just finished Demon Copperhead, which I absolutely loved and I'm gutted I've finished.
Will: Good stuff. Your first job. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Deborah: My very first job, I was a waitress at Pizza Hut and I was terrible at it. Even now sort of more than 30 years after I did that. I'm still absolutely in awe of people who are good at wait waiting tables, if that's the right phrase. Yeah, I was terrible at it.
Will: I mean, it’s self-service as well, normally in Pizza Hut. So, if you're bad at that…
Deborah: I was terrible. Yeah, I seem to remember as well at one point they had me watering plastic plants.
Will: Have you been back since to Pizza Hut? Is it a regular haunt?
Deborah: No, no, no. I did about three months and I spent the entire three months with my hair smelling of pizza and I've never really got over it.
Will: Yeah, fair enough. I did a similar stint in Burger King. I know what it's like. Personally and professionally, what is one piece of technology that you feel like you can't live without?
Deborah: My Uber app, I can't live without my Uber app. My New Year's resolution actually is to use it less.
Will: Is that for food or taxi or both taxis?
Deborah: Yeah, I use Ubers way too much. My New Year's resolution of 2024 is actually to both personally and professionally stop using Ubers.
Will: Okay. There we go. Heard it first here. What's a small habit that you have, probably not the Uber one from what you said, that you think could help others?
Deborah: So I only ever have three things on my to do list. I read this as a tip in a book called 4000 Weeks, which is great. And I have to do those three things before I go, allow myself to go back and look at my long list and choose three more. It stops me dithering, looking at my very long list and wondering what I'm gonna do next. And it means that I don't do that thing of spending sort of the first half of the day picking off a load of easy stuff.
Will: Yeah, I've read that book. It's brilliant. That is one of his great tips at the start, isn't it?
Deborah: It really works well. It works for me anyway.
Will: Yeah, cos otherwise you just, you never get any of those 20 things properly done, but just concentrate on the top three and then it's a smaller list and you can get them done. Good bit of advice. Where's your favourite place to visit and why?
Deborah: I love the seaside, but not the gentrified seaside, I like copper slots, fish and chips, donkeys seaside. I just find there's something very nostalgic and joyful about it.
Will: Good stuff. And the winter and summer you go both?
Deborah: Yeah. I don't mind, in fact, I quite like the wintery seaside as well. Yeah. The sort of the grey sea and the steamy windows on the greasy spoon. I like all that as well. Proper British seaside.
Will: Right. Thank you for that. Can't believe it. But we're on the last question that I'm gonna ask you and it is actually a two-pronged one. Deborah, you've talked a lot about this bid process. I imagine there are lots of firms and people listening that still don't know where to start. What would your one piece of advice be for those looking to create a winning bid strategy?
Deborah: Take the time to understand what the client is hoping to achieve. It's really, really easy when you're in the midst of a big process. Everyone gets a bit panicky, everyone starts running around. You've got to have the courage to say, just let's stop a minute. Let's really think about this. And let's really think about what the client's job to be done is again, it's no different to marketing. You're just trying to figure out what is the job to be done here? What product, what proposition are we developing to deliver that? Because if you know that and you genuinely try to put something together to deliver on that. It will absolutely transform your bids from being something that's maybe a bit generic, maybe more brochure-like into something that's genuinely a proposal and on a more granular level for your peers, for junior people coming through.
Will: I know you've already mentioned it and I think I know what you're gonna say, but what advice would you give to a professional considering a move into bids or at least bringing it under their remit?
Deborah: Do it. I think people, people steer clear of bid roles. They think it's stressful. They think it's long hours. They think it's potentially that you're kind of just glorified document production, but if you do it right, and you really push yourself forward. It's the easiest place in the marketing BD team. I think having worked in all bits of the marketing and BD teams in law firms, it's the easiest bit of the team to develop a really broad range of skills and build relationships with partners and understand how the business that you're working in operates.
Will: Deborah. Thank you so much for all of that, really valuable information. Me personally, I've learned a lot from just listening to your answers. So I'm sure our audience has as well. Thank you so much for your time and talking us through your angle on bids and how you've done it brilliantly well at Walker Morris.
Deborah: My pleasure. Thank you.