BD tips and insights

How to interview subject matter experts (SMEs) at tender time

SMEs – that’s ‘subject matter experts’ (rather than ‘small-to-medium enterprises’) – can be great to work with (as can small-to-medium enterprises!) on a tender. However, sometimes in the heat of a deadline SME input to a tender can become lost in translation (or worse left out).

We’ve talked before about how specifics sell, and that’s where an interview to obtain specifics from your SMEs can really increase the persuasiveness of your tenders, bids and proposals.

This blog has some practical tips you can use to get the most out of subject matter experts at tender time. The advice in this piece applies equally to SME interviews for more general marketing communications – case studies, CVs, capability statements, flyers, presentations, website content and blogs.

First, what doesn’t work with subject matter experts.

Giving time-poor subject matter experts a blank sheet and asking them to ‘fill it in’ or ‘put together a draft’ is not going to take you too far. Both you and the SME can feel frustrated and the quality of the material generated for your tender will vary.


Help the SME help you at tender time

Ideally you will be able to meet face-to-face to conduct your SME interview, or at least Skype.

While an interview over the phone is fine, it can be harder to hear and understand all the meaning your SME is trying to covey. There’s less risk of mishearing key information in person. It also gives you an opportunity to build rapport with your different SMEs who you will no doubt need to call on again for other bids.

Before you meet, explain the context, time commitment and goal of the session so they understand they are contributing to a selling document.

Something like: ‘We need 15 minutes with you to obtain your expert input into the technical section on X and Lee is going to contribute to Y.
I’ll incorporate your input in to our first draft of the bid which is due Friday.’

Or, ‘We’re developing a matched suite of short, punchy capability statements for your target clients that will be used during next month’s roadshow. We want you to help ensure we’re zeroing in on the right appeals.’

By contextualising their  involvement, you help close any SME gaps in understanding around the purpose, timing and use of their input. Also, you can make it clear you are not asking the SME to create a patent application, detailed design, or review a piece of legislation but rather contribute to a persuasive bid or communications piece in plain English!

Better yet, to help things along, show your SME rather than just tell.

Prior to your session supply a ‘model’ tender answer or an example of a finished promo piece to give your SME a feel for the flavour and style of the final product.

Don’t feel intimidated or think you must completely understand a topic to talk to your SMEs.

You are there to learn about their area, so you can communicate it to the market. Mostly no one will expect you to know everything they’re talking about— but being interested and displaying curiosity helps!

Most SMEs love to talk about their area of expertise once they get going and are often very articulate.

Frequently you’ll be able to use some choice phrases verbatim from your SME in the copy you produce. After all, these SMEs have thought long and hard about their area, so they’ll have developed some meaningful short hand explanations for the lay-person, or other pithy insights that can add power to your words.

Your questions will be more effective if you go in with a general understanding of the subject matter.

Perhaps read up on some of the blogs/newsletters that team has put out recently. If you’ve done your homework you can better incorporate specifics into your follow up questions, for example:

‘You mentioned X and Y were big issues – how would that affect this specific client in this context?

… And what else should clients watch out for when contending with X?

Are there any famous examples of X?’

…and so on to draw out more specifics on a topic or theme.

Try not to settle for one-word or yes/no answers.

Further open-ended question prompts you can try are:

  • Can you tell me a bit more about that?
  • What else should I be aware of?
  • And why do you think that is?
  • How has that come about?
  • What was the background to your involvement on that one?
  • What have you noticed about the impact of X on clients?
  • So, if you done an XX, does that mean you’ve also done an XY in the past?
  • Can you tell me about a time that happened with a client?
  • What would the consequences of doing nothing be?
  • If there’s one thing we should convey, what is it?
  • Is there anything else you think is relevant to XX sector?
  • Is there anything else you think is relevant to this tender?

Even if you have studied up ahead of your session, don’t be afraid to ask your SME for clarification.

Especially if the SME is ‘assuming’ a lot of prior knowledge on your part or slipping into industry shorthand or other jargon.

Sometimes it can be helpful to say:

‘Explain it to me as if I was 12 years old’

‘Can you give me the story in a sentence?’ 

‘In a nutshell what would your approach be?’

Generally, most of your professional services audiences will be sophisticated consumers of your services but perhaps not quite at the technical complexity level of your SME. Also, your ultimate audience will be time-poor, so they will tend to skim. The more ‘nutshells’ you can obtain to develop your draft the better.

Translating the technical into clear, simple language is always better.

As is spelling out acronyms and avoiding more obscure industry jargon.

You may find through years of habit many SMEs will fall back on more academic, technical, legalistic or complex language, which might sound ‘fancier’ but also makes you sound more pompous. If your meaning is difficult to understand you may also inadvertently come across to your audiences as difficult to deal with. Not the right impression to strike with a prospective client.

Translating your SMEs’ input into simple language makes your tender or communication more readable, more impactful and more likely to be acted on positively.

Another tip to help keep the conversation flowing with your SME is to record the session on your smart phone to play back later. I do this a lot AND make notes. Sometimes your SME might talk too fast to capture it all, or it can be hard to remember specifics if you are doing a lot of these sessions.

Continue to involve SMEs in the tender process by enlisting their help with reviews

Finally, once you have the input from your SME, get your draft into shape and ask for their review or approval. Again, explain what you want them to do (often they are not experienced editors so may be unclear on what you require).

Think about providing some guidance before asking them to review:

  • Do you need them to proof read it? Or will that be done later by others?
  • What do you want them to focus on? Overall messages? Ideas? Facts? Or, all of it?
  • Are you just checking facts and figures are correct?
  • Are there still gaps you need them to fill?
  • Are their inaccuracies or clarifications?
  • Is there jargon that needs to be re-expressed?

Without some guidance on a review you and your SME may descend into the ‘land of diminishing returns’. This is a land (usually the night before a tender hands in) where they ‘fight’ you on grammar, want to wordsmith or quibble over formatting of bulleted lists without improving or changing the overall meaning of the text, key ideas or your tender.

For tips on guiding your SMEs input into reviews check out JMA’s blog on the power of three drafts and reviews.

So, with some of these tips in mind you’ll be able to approach your SME interviews with confidence and direct your SME’s expert energies where they can add the most value to your tenders and marketing documents.

Approached correctly, you can efficiently maximise your SMEs’ input in to your next tender or marketing communications piece and get the results you want – positive action by your ultimate audience – be it the award of a tender or stimulating new business enquiries.

If you need help gathering evidence from your SMEs at tender time to produce winning submissions, or for other communications please get in touch with JMA.


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