To cover letter, or not to cover letter … that is the question

David Lunn, CP APMP, MCIPS. 

When helping a client on a recent tender, a number of staff had a spirited debate about whether to include a cover letter in the submission. The reason for the debate was that the buyer stipulated that any information other than responses to specific schedules would not be read. So at worst, would including a cover letter constitute a compliance breach? And even if it was ‘accepted’, would its ‘uninvited’ presence help or hinder the evaluation?

Noting our debate, this post addresses four often-asked questions:

1)         Should you include a cover letter in your submissions?

2)         Do evaluators read them?

3)         Where should you locate the cover letter in the submission?

4)         What should a cover letter include?


1) Should you include a cover letter in your submission?

Short answer – yes, always. There may be an occasion when a cover letter is expressly not asked for. Or it may be a tender submission into an online procurement platform that provides no means by which to attach/include one. Apart from such specific cases, our view is that a cover letter is an essential part of a tender submission.

Not including one is like turning up to a black-tie event without a jacket. Yes, you can get away with it, but you won’t make the best possible first impression. We also believe that prefacing business correspondence with a letter is considered standard practice and a mark of professional courtesy.   

The key benefits of a cover letter are that it helps you personalise your submission, while also providing an opportunity to include persuasive and administrative elements that may not naturally sit elsewhere.  


2) Do evaluators read them?

In our experience many tenderers make such a ham-fisted job of cover letters that evaluators tend to skim them rather than read them in any detail. And therein lies your opportunity. Avoid boilerplate. Be recognised as ‘the one that bothered’ to take the time to personalise the letter to suit. And use persuasive techniques. They are as effective in a cover letter as they are in the main body of the tender response.


3) Where should you locate the cover letter in the submission?

Locate your cover letter at the front of the submission – but where exactly? Our practice is to locate the letter immediately after the cover page, but before the table of contents.  Your cover letter should be a separately formatted and severable part of the submission.  Herein lie a couple of twists. What if you are making multiple submissions (e.g. priced and unpriced versions of the tender)? Does the letter go in one, both, or neither? And what about alternative tenders? Do they get a letter too?  Whether we include multiple letters or one depends on the circumstance.  Ideally there is just one and it covers the main submission. But if, for example, there are priced and non-priced offers, a tailored version of the letter can be included in each, mainly because it provides valuable persuasive and administrative context, as noted below.


4) What should a cover letter include?

The key objective of a cover letter is to whet the reader’s appetite for what’s to follow. An entrée if you will.

Ideally a cover letter should be visually distinct from the main submission and one page in length, or two at the most, unless you are combining a cover letter and executive summary (an approach suitable for shorter submissions). Address it specifically to the contact person listed in the RFT documentation, cc-ing a figurehead position (e.g. CEO) if their name is used as a signatory in the tender documents inviting you to submit a response.  Your cover letter should be signed by a person in your organisation who holds an equivalent professional position to the addressee.

In addition to standard letter inclusions (date, address etc), an effective cover letter should contain up to five elements, only two of which should be considered mandatory. These are:

Mandatory

  • A short introduction thanking the buyer for the opportunity to tender.
  • A simple, specific and unique ‘win theme’ explaining why you should be awarded the contract. This could stretch to a few bullet points at most, but in essence needs to reinforce the key themes referenced in your executive summary and woven throughout the remainder of your submission.     

Optional

  • An administrative note summarising the high-level structure of your submission (e.g. two volumes), and if applicable a reference to the type and format of any other submitted items that could be missed  –  video files submitted on a storage device, for example.
  • A personal commitment statement from the signatory demonstrating their commitment to making the contract a success. Any offer demonstrating this commitment can be included, such as opening up your offices for a meet and greet with key management and/or personnel.
  • Providing key contact details for the most appropriate person in your organisation for any further queries (if that person is different from the one signing the letter).   


Let’s finish where we started …

For the record, our cover letter debate was so spirited that we put it to the vote at the next full staff meeting, landing 60/40 in favour of including one. But the 60/40 split was never questioning the persuasive merits of a cover letter. We were unanimous on that. In the end we relied on 14 years of bidding experience and thousands of tenders, during which we have never heard of a case where a bid has been deemed non-compliant because it included a cover letter. Ultimately, we concluded that the worst that could happen was that it wouldn’t be read.

Hopefully this covers all you need to know about writing effective cover letters. They are one item that can deliver maximum results for minimal effort and we strongly counsel their use, unless you have a very good reason not to.

At BidWrite, we consider the cover letter and executive summary to be part of what we call ‘the pyramid of persuasion’, a topic we’ll come to another day. And on the subject of tendering letters, we’ll also dedicate a future blog instalment to exploring another very powerful but underused letter type – the no-bid letter.    

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