3 common mistakes to avoid when pitching for work

Posted on: June 4, 2018


Pitching for new work is an expensive business activity. Done well (and to have a decent chance of success), it requires a lot of time, a lot of effort and can take people’s focus away from other important areas of the business for an intense and possibly prolonged period.

Of course the winnings justify that effort and expense, I hear you say. And yes that can be right – if you win.

But what if you don’t? Typically clients will invite 3 or 4 businesses to pitch, and some will invite a lot more.

And unlike the Olympics, coming second or third doesn’t bring any medals. The cold truth is that second or third place merely means you lost. All that energy and effort and time spent away from other areas of your business has been to no avail.

This may sound pessimistic but my point is, that if you really are going to go for a pitch, it needs to be one you have every chance of winning. You need to be confident that your chances of success are high.

From our work in helping teams bid in competitive pitches, there are a number of common mistakes people make. These hurdles can seriously hamper you gaining that winner’s trophy. I’ve selected three of them for this article. Ensure you avoid them at all costs to improve your chances of winning.


Mistake 1 – Being scared to say a polite ‘no’

Clients don’t just select a supplier on the lowest cost. Equally important to them, is whether they feel they can work easily with that business and its people. They also look to what additional value that business will bring them.

This additional value could be the learning curve that a supplier already has with them. It may be the supplier has systems or approaches to share, which make the client in turn more efficient, or it reduces some hassle in their working lives. It may be that they specialise in that client’s industry and can bring expert knowledge.

The temptation when an ‘invitation to pitch’ lands on the desk, is to accept it and start drafting your proposal or other such response straight away. You will however, improve your chances of winning if you are more selective in the number of pitches you go for.

Think carefully before you dive into writing. Prioritise those invitations where you already have some knowledge, or an established relationship with the prospective client. The time frame given to pitches is typically very short and it’s tough building enough rapport with the decision-makers to get them to trust and select your business for the task.

Here’s an example… In working recently with a design agency, we found they were diverting a considerable amount of ‘fee-earning’ time, to pitches where they were just another agency the client had invited to ‘make up the numbers’.

We created a ‘to bid or not to bid’ evaluation tool. It had a number of criteria to evaluate each pitch against, and in turn, assessed the agency’s chances of winning.

In time, it meant the agency politely declined more invitations but this enabled them to focus on the pitches where:

a) they knew some of the client contacts already and had more insight about the business

b) where they knew they had a chance of winning because of their sector expertise and

c) where they felt their creative output and client experience would surpass the current incumbent

Over a period of six months they found, not only had their win rate improved, their profitability and turnover was also a lot better.


Try this: Think carefully when an invitation to pitch comes in and don’t be afraid to say a polite ‘no’ if you feel your business is being invited to just ‘make up the numbers’. See if the client will let you know the competition you face and assess whether you have the strengths and approach to outshine them.

Also, if you don’t already have some relationship with the prospective client and haven’t already been in discussion with them at some point, consider whether you really can create a strong enough relationship with them during the pitch timescale. Will you really be able to convince them to say yes to your proposition?


Mistake 2 – Not getting to grips with the client’s brief and wider issues

It’s worth stressing that as soon as you decide to accept an invitation to pitch, you need to go through any brief or instructions the client has sent, again! This is particularly true if you are facing a pitch involving procurement professionals on the client side. They will have stipulated stringent rules and deadlines surrounding how your response should be submitted – ignore them and you are likely to lose the pitch.

The client’s brief or invitation to tender will only tell you so much, which is why wherever possible, you should request to meet relevant people in the client’s organisation to ask further questions. If you don’t have a pre-existing relationship with the client, this is also crucial in helping you build rapport with the decision-makers in the time you have available.

Use any opportunity you get (either in a meeting or over the phone) to find out more about the situation leading to the pitch and what the individual decision-makers are looking to gain from the pitch outcome. See how the pitch outcome fits in with other plans or business goals and what the longer term objectives are for this client. How would your involvement (if you were successful) fit into the bigger jigsaw?

Also, don’t be afraid to ask the client how they want you to present your pitch submission, if it’s not clear from the brief they’ve sent. Avoid creating a proposal document or presentation which jars with them or which is so detailed they haven’t got time to read or sit through it.


Try this: As soon as you accept an invitation to pitch, ask for a meeting with the client to undertake your fact-finding. There will be limited time available in the pitch schedule and you need to be able to ask your questions and develop your understanding sooner rather than later in the proceedings.

Try and meet or speak with as many of the decision-makers as possible in advance. Each will have their own thoughts and agenda about the pitch and its outcome. You need to ensure your proposition is aligned to as many of those personal agendas as possible.


Mistake 3 – Producing a generic pitch response

The time and other pressures people face when trying to juggle responding to a pitch with doing their daily job, mean there can be a temptation to regurgitate old pitches for speed and ease.


Don’t do this.

It’s easy to spot a generic pitch response when you receive it, and it only demonstrates to the client that you couldn’t really be bothered. It can also force you to put in lots of useless information for them to wade through (in the hope that at least some of it will resonate). This will only irritate them more.

If you’re pitching to this client, then pitch to this client. Tailor the proposal document and pitch presentation to their situation and issues. Draw on examples that show you’ve tackled projects, issues, orders etc like this before; and above all, play to the decision-makers’ preferences in the way you set out and style your document and presentation.

For example, if you know a decision-maker is particularly short of time, do a summary of your proposal with the key points for him/her.

In tailoring your pitch response, it’s important to talk more about the client and less about you. When you do talk about you, it needs to be relevant to the client’s situation. They probably won’t be interested in your organisation’s history to date, but they will want to know how you can help them and what track-record you have for this.

If you have gleaned a lot of insight in your fact-finding and rapport building, you’ll be better placed to put together a clear and attractive proposition to them. It will be one that tantalises the client, with the solution and added value they’re after, at a price which is highly competitive.

It’s not always possible to find out who you’re up against in a competitive pitch, but if you do uncover this information it can be invaluable. Use this insight to evaluate how your bid is likely to compare to your rivals – see if any of your contacts or suppliers can give you a steer on the likely strategy your rivals will adopt in this pitch.


Try this: Start your proposal and presentation on a fresh canvas. It actually will save you time in the pitch process, in comparison to trying to shoe-horn what you want into an old proposal. Spend more time carefully planning your pitch response, to save time later when writing or having to rewrite it.



Pitching for new work is tough, but the rewards can be fantastic if you are successful. It’s important though, not to underestimate the time and involvement pitches take, and to be selective about the invitations you accept. Fielding a successful pitch submission requires you to invest a lot of time in understanding the client and creating a proposition which they feel is 100% tailored to them.

Treat pitches very seriously and plan them carefully. If you haven’t got the time to do a pitch justice, think twice about bidding for it. Losing it may scupper your chances of working with this client in the long-term – not just on this particular piece of work, but with others too.

For more pitch-winning tips and support you can contact us or tel. 01483 429111.

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