On October 28, leaders from various disciplines joined a virtual Artemis panel event and shared their insights on the impact of the pandemic on business development. Panelists discussed how new business pursuit conditions have changed, needed adjustments, success factors, and future prospects. The panel was hosted by Bob Wiesner, managing partner for the Americas at The Artemis Partnership.
Andrew Bergstrom, general manager at DXC Technology, stresses the importance of situational awareness. He recounts environmental shifts following the pandemic hitting—companies first dealt with locking down and focusing on employees and customers; then they started evaluating strategic priorities; and finally, they are adopting a new normal, where they’re entertaining new initiatives and proposals. Sales cycles are now longer, and situational awareness—understanding individual buyer perspectives and priorities of decision-makers—is paramount, he says.
Beth Wade, global chief marketing officer for global ad firm VMLY&R, points out that, in today’s world, businesses are looking for ways to expand the experience they have with consumers—their digital interface and how experience translates into commerce. “We’re seeing … existing clients and prospects say, ‘How can you help lead us across these capabilities?’” she notes.
Panelists believe that account incumbency generally is an advantage. That said, Todd Lundgren, executive director and regional practice leader for the UK and Europe at CalissonRTKL, offers a warning: “If (incumbents) rest on their laurels, someone will come and beat them out. If they invest the time in really securing that relationship through this time, and becoming an even more trusted partner, then it's going to be even harder to get them out of the way….”
In today’s pandemic world, when you’re not the incumbent, he adds, “You have to ask and ask and ask. The hardest part in this, without being able to go sit across the table from someone new, is to build rapport with them through this using Zoom or Teams.”
Making new connections can be particularly challenging. “If you're going to reach out cold, it's essential to do your homework,” says Gregg Burgess, vice president, space systems technology for Sierra Nevada Corporation. In addition to learning about someone’s background, “understand what they're doing in the context of their current job, and make sure that your reach out is actually relevant.”
“If you're trying to build a connection with someone where they really trust you, the greatest way is really good listening… finding some way (to)… get them to tell you their story,” says Jonathan Bowman-Perks, a global leadership adviser to CEOs and executive teams. “I've had someone go on for an hour, and afterwards said, ‘I thought you were going to pitch to me and sell heavy. But actually, because you're interested in me, I bought from you.’”
Also important, according to Bergstrom, is authenticity. “In the past, when Amazon rang the doorbell and the dog started barking, a lot of us would cringe. But we're working from home and our clients and our partners are working from home. That's just the new reality, so don't try to pretend you're not in that environment.”
Workplace shifts also have helped change sales interaction. “Previously, when (pitch teams) were working with procurement teams, things were much more regimented,” says Wade. “Now… people are more willing to allow one-to-one follow-up sessions to have more dialogue back and forth. The process has become a little bit more flexible….”
Bowman-Perks adds, “With some of the tech companies, CEOs and their pitch teams describe the current climate as ‘having less friction.’ They're not traveling around the world to lots of global pitches, meeting face to face; it's all virtual.” He stresses the importance of mining existing clients, “because they already know and they trust you. The big (phrase) is psychological safety.”
Wade’s firm has taken the opportunity to change customer experience. “We’re trying to… put some enjoyment into what we're doing…. So, we are thinking about how we introduce the team—the videos we send out ahead of time that let them get to know us as individuals a little bit more. That has been an amazing thing with our clients; it immediately starts rapport, because they’ve never seen someone in their homes.”
It’s not just homes, though. For an architect and engineering prospect in Italy, Lundgren’s pitch team used pictures of the firm’s city as their Zoom call backgrounds. “We made it like we wished we were in Ventimiglia,” he explains. “We were told, ultimately, that we won because we were the ‘most human’ group that they interviewed….”
Engagement modes also have changed. Pre-pandemic, says Burgess, “We all traveled incessantly. Most of our customers we're on airplanes every week … and very difficult to get ahold of them.” Not anymore “We've moved to scheduling a lot of phone calls and have found our government partners very open to that.
“Since we're not on airplanes and a lot of us aren't commuting to work every day, we have more hours in the day to actually communicate, so we've been maintaining those relationships,” he adds. “Everybody has a shared miserable experience with all of this, and that's lowered people's guards.”
Remote work also has changed sales team resourcing. “While we may have thought about the location where we sat previously,” Wade explains, “now we have broken down those walls. (If) we have a pitch, who's the right resource? How can we all get online? It's very easy to… have that collaboration.”
Collaboration comes into play post-sale, too. “Our whole business is about collaboration,” says Lundgren. “We're starting to use tools like (whiteboard platform) Miro in Microsoft, where we can start a conversation… and everyone can go back in on their own time and start to put in ideas and pop… you start to build this dialogue back and forth, and then get that engagement with a broader group.”
Recognizing the potential long-term changes brought on by the pandemic, Bowman-Perks pulls advice from his past military experience: “They talk about the OODA loop: you observe, you orientate, you decide, and then you act. And then you observe again,” he says.
“Things are happening so quickly,” he adds, “and having that advantage of thinking quickly on your feet and keeping long-term relationships where people trust you will pay off.”
To view the panel event, click here.
To read more business development insights from The Artemis Partnership, click here.
- Bob Wiesner, Managing Partner, The Americas
Company leaders and their business development teams are in an unenviable position. Based on The Artemis Partnership’s recent survey, most are expecting opportunities for new projects to return to near pre-pandemic levels. But they also expect the value of each new opportunity to be significantly lower.
Simply put, to match their pre-pandemic revenue targets and keep up with competitors, they are now forced to win more pursuits.
That makes sense. And it could be doable for companies that are willing to change how they pursue new business.
You’d think that most companies in this position would be eager to make those changes, even if they require some investment. But that’s not what we’re finding.
Too many companies we speak with, or read about, have not changed how they pursue new business. Nor have they changed how they invest in new business (other than to decrease investment – which defeats the purpose).
Feast or Folly
We think it’s clear. Some companies can thrive during an economic downturn, at least as measured by new business win rates and revenue growth. Many – perhaps most – won’t. The difference is this: The companies that thrive will make smart changes, supported by smart investments. The companies that don’t succeed in business development will be the ones that won’t make the necessary adjustments.
In our survey, one of the interesting findings was that most respondents who are responsible for business development told us they don’t expect to see improvements in their win rates between now and the next year or so. At least they realize that if they don’t make changes, they won’t see better outcomes.
The Harvard Business Review (HBR) offered compelling observations and strong recommendations in this article published in early September. The closing quote from H.G. Wells neatly summed it up: “Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.” In a financial and health crisis as we’re now experiencing, companies and their new business teams that adapt can succeed. It’s especially true when their competitors are choosing not to address business development challenges.
So, let’s say you’re one of the enlightened. You want to make the necessary changes to win more new business, supported by reasonable investment. (And, per the HBR article, that doesn’t mean spending more than you did before. But more likely reallocating your spend from another budget item to your business development line.)
Where do you start?
Artemis has five suggestions for launching an improved business development program:
Remove your blind spots. Do you really know why you win? Why you lose? In fact, do you really know what your current clients and prospects think of you? Every client-centric organization cares about this, and everyone still has significant blind spots which can make improvement really hard. Make the investment to know what they are.
Take a more strategic approach. There will be a temptation during these tough times to pursue every opportunity that comes your way. Although understandable,not all will be winnable. And not all of the winnable will be worth winning. With some smart thinking, you can pitch less, pitch the right ones and win more.
Start early. Winning more often means getting in front of the RFP. Start building your relationships with strategic targets now, even if an RFP isn’t on the horizon. Think about the resources you will need as well and start building that team. By the time the RFP drops, you want to be considered in the top two contenders.
It’s all about trust. Your credentials mean less than you think. Artemis research tells us that decision-makers during this pandemic are putting a much higher premium on the trustworthiness of the pursuit team. Know what you must do to demonstrate that you’re trustworthy.
Be present. A decision-maker at a billion-dollar institution told me this very recently when I asked about their perception of a company who was pursuing their business. “They can’t just show up once a year when an RFP is about to be issued and expect that we’re going to think highly of them.” Strategic business development – and higher win rates – require the long game. Establish relationships early and nurture them deeply and frequently.
You can adapt all of these changes, or just one. Either way, we can help.
- Bob Wiesner, Managing Partner, The Americas
There’s one thing we encounter in almost every new business pursuit we work on at Artemis that has both frustrated and amazed us.
It is, of course, “The Cone of Silence.”
We’ve all seen it. Most of us shrug our shoulders and just follow the rules. The result – pursuits that are more challenging than they should be. And, in our opinion, decision-making by prospects that fails to recognize what’s really important. Which then leads to bad decisions.
Here’s what we mean.
The Loud Sounds of Silence
In case you haven’t encountered “The Cone of Silence,” here is a quick tutorial:
When RFPs are issued in a highly regimented environment, pursuing teams are immediately restricted from contacting anyone on the prospect side who might be involved in decision-making. This is what The Cone of Silence refers to.
There are some legitimate reasons for this. The issuing firm wants to give all competitors an equal chance. The content of the RFP is meant to communicate all pertinent information about the opportunity.
Also, they want to manage their own time. The 20 or so firms that receive the RFP, if given the chance to ask questions of the decision-makers or otherwise interact with them, would chew up most of the hours of the day.
Both sound reasonable. So, what’s the problem?
Silence is Golden…Or Is It?
If I’m operating in a highly competitive market, I want to win. The firms I hire, whether architects, agencies, auditors, or just about anyone else, are supposed to help me win. And I want to do all I can – consistent with my purpose and within the boundaries of integrity, ethics and law – to win.
In selecting those providers, I need to be looking at each with great depth. Which of them will truly be the best to work with? Who will give me the best possible advantage in my market?
When I issue an RFP and then impose The Cone of Silence, I’m asking the competing firms to vie for my business in a way that doesn’t at all replicate what I’ll be asking of them once I hire them. I won’t be able to get to know them with sufficient depth. They won’t be able to get to know me. The likely objective criteria I’ll use to choose a winner won’t reflect what I really want from them when they start working on my behalf. The Cone of Silence creates artificial conditions that don’t reflect what will be real.
Time Management vs. Silence Management
I understand the argument that, with 20 or more firms receiving RFPs, there’s no time for interactions with all of them. So, answer me this:
Unless your stakeholders or governing body require an open competition, why are you sending an RFP to 20 or more firms? If you have the option, send it to fewer, so each competing firm can spend time with you. You won’t have to bar interactions. You can see what the competitors can really do.
You’ll probably learn as much or more from these interactions than you will from the RFP response. Because you’ll see how they authentically work. What they’re really capable of and how they’ll fit with your culture.
When You’re Outside ‘The Cone of Silence’
If you’re a firm competing for business via RFP, and you know The Cone of Silence is inevitable, we think you have just one real option – get ahead of the RFP. You must maximize your competitive position before the RFP by having as many meaningful interactions with decision-makers and influencers during the weeks, months, even years prior to the RFP.
You’ll need an intensive campaign, strategically planned and executed by a team with urgency.
If you haven’t done this before The Cone descends, you need to recognize that your odds of winning are likely to be unfavorable.
The Artemis Partnership is an international team of experienced business development professionals. We have one mission - to help you win more new business at higher margins. We help our clients maintain focus and intensity on their best new business opportunities. They develop closer relationships with their highest-value prospects. And they win more of those critical opportunities.
- Bob Wiesner, Managing Partner, The Americas
As we adjust to the new world, some pursuit teams have seen the potential value of offering prospects lower fees. This may seem like the best way to go since so many companies are wrestling with the financials of their businesses and many prefer to pay less for just about everything in this economic climate.
However, does it makes sense for you, as a competitor to win a project, to offer the lowest price compared to other RFP respondents? Especially if this hasn’t been your pursuit strategy up until now?
You might win the business, yes. But that could turn out to be a worse outcome for you than losing the opportunity.
Here are four compelling considerations that argue against this “lowest fee” approach.
Impact on your bottom line
Your organization may have been structured to provide exceptional service, innovative solutions, rapid response, and category leadership. It might be how you’ve built your business to date.
A change to a low-price strategy, while it might buy you a new project, will put tremendous strain on your operating model, as well as on your bottom line. You’re not structured to deliver the same caliber of solutions at lower margins.
We know a marketing communications firm not long ago that won so many new accounts using this approach that it went out of business. It had built its brand on the capability to deliver cutting edge solutions with top-notch talent, but management wanted rapid growth. So, they pursued new business with the intent of being the low-price option. They won most of those pursuits. A couple of years later, they had to close their doors. Turns out, there wasn’t enough income to generate the required profit and still deliver the level of service their new clients were promised.
Where do you go from here?
This is a painful truth that most organizations eventually learn. It’s hard to raise your prices for subsequent projects once a client views you as the low-priced option. And that’s even more true if you’ve been able to deliver superior processes and outcomes despite the low prices (and low margins). By trying to raise your fees for subsequent projects, or in a renewal negotiation of a contract, you’ve changed your positioning, and your competitive set. You might create resentment. You might reduce your trustworthiness. You’ve also trained your client to expect low prices. It will be the same for any referrals that may come your way from those clients.
Yes, you can begin the relationship by offering a “special, limited time promotional price.” Sometimes that can work if your client is completely on board, and already expects the next project to come at your regular, higher fee.
We prefer a different approach. If you feel you need to offer a lower price in order to get in the door, then associate that with a smaller project. In other words, reduce the scope of work to justify the lower fee.
Don’t bury the lede
Something interesting about players who compete in the low-price segment of the category. Some of your buyers will see that as the dominant benefit of working with you. (In the worst case, perhaps as the only benefit of working with you.) Even when you’re offering legitimately competitive services and results of higher-priced firms, you’ve pigeon-holed yourself into a very specific category. Your prospects won’t see – or acknowledge – the other benefits you offer. You’ve made those aspects of your business less prominent in exchange for the low-price positioning.
It’s hard to communicate and sustain the positioning of both a lower-cost provider and premium outcome provider. If you’ve been occupying the premium end of the spectrum, stay there.
Race to the bottom
Once a client is trained to buy on price, that client will continue to buy on price. If you’ve been successful in winning the business once, the next time the contract comes up for bid, or the next time a project from that client becomes available, you can expect they’ll look at price first.
Remember, there’s always another competitor who wants your piece of the business and will be willing to offer an even lower price. What do you do? Lower yours to meet or beat theirs? Well, there you go, forever lowering price and, in all likelihood, either lowering your margins or lowering your level of service. Chances are those low-price competitors are structured to make money at those fee levels. You’re not, unless you’re willing to make major changes to your business strategy.
Even during these challenging times, there are clear risks to taking on a low-price strategy in order to win new business. Consider them carefully.
Do you have an opinion about the role of price in your new business pursuits? Join the conversation by participating in The Artemis Partnership’s 2020 Survey on Business Development. By participating in this brief survey, you can receive a pre-publication report and an hour of free consulting. The link is here.
- Bob Wiesner, Managing Partner, The Americas
It’s been clear to us during the last four months that RFP decision making continues to shift. In this new pandemic climate, the impact of a wrong selection is just too great. So, you have to step it up plain and simple. You won’t get a shot at winning a pursuit unless you meet minimum qualifications for experience and technical expertise. It also means you don’t differentiate yourself well enough based on experience and technical expertise.
So, at the point where a prospect is reviewing multiple RFP responses, it’s almost certain they are seeing a number of equivalent options -firms with similar solutions, capabilities, and teams. That means that decision making will now move to another level and another set of criteria and you have to be prepared.
Messaging in the RFP Response
Your pre-RFP activities are meant to best position you to win before the RFP drops. But how about the RFP submission itself? What will reviewers be looking for, especially now?
Artemis has long believed that the technical aspects of your submission are the Price of Entry. That means your team and its submission must emphasize more than the “solution.” There are many ways of planning this. Here’s an interesting, valuable construct to consider.
In their March 16, 2020 post, McKinsey & Company said that companies that focus on both “Performance and Health” outperform their peers “on almost every financial indicator we’ve seen.”
What does this mean for RFP submissions?
Take a look at this chart from the McKinsey post:
Ask yourself this: Do our proposals emphasize Performance? Or do they provide a balance of Performance and Health? Here’s what we mean.
PERFORMANCE: The submission provides the technical aspects of the solution and the qualifications of the team.
HEALTH: The submission provides evidence of how the competing firm will work with the client, and what deliverables will be provided by each team member.
What are the focal points of your RFP responses?
The default for most proposals is Performance. Firms feel they can make a strong case for their solution and their experience. In our view, this is necessary, but squarely falls into the category of Price of Entry. Importantly, it might not be as differentiating as the pursuit team thinks it is.
The Health factors might very well be where winning and losing is determined.
Then there is the Culture and Behavior elements that communicate to the prospect that you are a company they want to work with - that share their values and vision. And that you understand what’s really important to them and will collaborate and, when needed, lead. Lastly, that you conduct business, and build relationships, that are truly client-centric.
Even in the most tightly controlled opportunities, firms can still advocate for their Health. For example, use the cover letter for the submission to discuss these areas.
The factors of Culture and Behavior are likely to be recognized by decision makers as contributors to real differentiation. They predict overall “fit” with the client organization. This differentiation will get you much closer to the big win you’re after.
For more information click Home.
- Bob Wiesner, Manging Partner, The Americas
The Artemis Partnership is conducting research into the impact of the global pandemic on business development activities and decision-maker expectations. We’ll be able to report on what changes there have been in new business pursuit activities. Importantly, we’ll see how the pandemic has driven buyers to change how they select providers.
The survey should take about 15 minutes to complete. The results will help you see if you’re keeping up with your competitors - and your prospects - or if you’re lagging behind. You’ll also be able to anticipate the changes you’ll need to make for the rest of 2020 and into 2021.
Buyers will gain insights into how pursuits and decision-making are changing. You’ll see whether adjustments to your RFP process might be indicated.
We are grateful for your participation. And we’d like to express our appreciation with two special offers.
1. You can request a pre-publication copy of the results with all collected data. (The published copy will have topline data only.)
2. You can also receive a free one-hour consulting session with Artemis to support your business development efforts. (One per business unit.)
Our data is being collected anonymously, regardless of whether a respondent requests either of the offers.
The research will explore high-value B2B opportunities, such as those that are important to firms in professional services, architecture and engineering, management consulting and advisory, marketing communications, construction, IT, defense and aerospace, etc. We will be able to segment data by profession/industry, by global region, by RFP frequency and value, and by company size.
Here’s the link to access the survey. If there’s anyone else in your organization who’s qualified to participate as either a “seller” or “buyer,” feel free to forward.
- Bob Wiesner, Managing Partner, The Americas
- Ian Forbes, Managing Partner, Europe
- Graham Kean, Managing Partner, Asia - Pacific
Think back to your failed pursuits. What did your main contact offer as the reason the winner wasn’t you? Maybe something like:
It was really close.
You came in second.
The other guys were a little less expensive.
Their solution was a little bit better.
You don’t have as much experience as the winners.
Though you’re disappointed, these comments might make you feel encouraged. But are they the truth? We’ve seen tons of winning pursuits. And the reasons given to the winners stand in sharp contrast:
We were impressed by your passion for our project.
Your team was consistently smart.
We loved the commitment you showed.
You understood what we’re looking for.
You really got us.
What do you notice about this? Losing teams are given “rational” reasons. Maybe the truth. Or maybe just an easy way to let someone down.
Winning teams are given the “real” reasons. Way beyond rational. Way beyond the solution. Way beyond the specs in the RFP.
And, importantly, very indicative of the importance of trust in client decision-making.
Trust: More Important Than Ever
As organizations wrestle with decision making in the world of COVID-19, they’re going to place more importance on trust. There’s more at stake now. The process of sorting among options is harder, with less personal contact. With less money available for projects, and fewer projects being approved, the risks of a bad decision are amplified.
The authors of this HBR article make the case that decision makers should place even more emphasis on long-term, valued relationships. Here’s one of the lessons they draw from their analysis:
Long-term business relationships built on shared values—beyond simple monetary outcomes—are more resilient (emphasis added) than ones built solely around transactional efficiency.
To us, this screams to pursuit teams about the importance of trust. Charles Green, co-author of The Trusted Advisor, has strongly advocated the increased relevance of low “self-orientation” and high “intimacy” as we maneuver through the pandemic. Both can be linked to the perception of shared values. I trust you because we share values.
RFPs and “Long-Term Relationships”
It takes time for a pursuit team to demonstrate shared values. You need lots of exposure to key individuals on the buying side.
So, if you’ve had little or no such opportunities with a prospect before you receive an RFQ or RFP, you’re a true longshot to win the bid. That’s because (1) you’ll have little chance to earn trust once the inevitable “cone of silence” descends around decision-makers, and (2) there are probably other firms in the competition who have worked with the buyer before and have already demonstrated shared values.
That leads us to one of the cornerstone beliefs at The Artemis Partnership: To win a pursuit, particularly in the COVID-19 world, you better start building trust with a prospect long before an RFP drops. There are ways to do that. They require a smart, focused business development approach. And strong coordination with marketing campaigns.
These strategies can be developed and executed with proper thoughtfulness, time investment, and discipline. They’re essential if you want to grow revenue during this uncertain time.
- Bob Wiesner, Managing Partner, The Americas
Significant parts of the business world are starting to consider how they will emerge from COVID-19 circumstances. Some will recognize the need to get off to a quick start, earning the confidence of their people, their customers, and the market.If your company anticipates a relative rush of new business opportunities (perhaps not at pre-pandemic levels), you’ll want to get into as many of the right pursuits as you can and, of course, win them.
Winning won’t necessarily mean simply going back to what you did before the virus. The new math of the post-COVID-19 world (https://vimeo.com/421335106) tells us this strategy isn’t likely to work. Instead, take a very deep, hard, honest look at what you need to do differently.
Pursuits Before the Pandemic
Before the coronavirus wreaked havoc on lives and economies, many companies approached business development as a numbers game. Get into as many pursuits as possible. Receive - and respond to - as many RFPs as you can. This might have meant turning things around quickly, and leaning on materials that could be repurposed from pursuit to pursuit.
On a pure numbers basis, this was an efficient way to play. But if your win rate wasn’t what it should’ve been, this might be one of the major reasons.
The Role of Intensity in New Business Pursuits
We’ve spoken with hundreds of B2B buyers over the years. When we ask them to talk about their decisions, there’s a consistent theme that emerges. They can tell which competitor put legitimate, even extra, effort into the pursuit and which didn’t. There’s a high correlation between this observation and winning or losing.
We refer to this as “intensity.”
Intensity is more than the amount of time you put into a pitch. It’s the depth that you’re willing to explore to learn more than the other guys about the decision-makers and what really matters to them. It’s the perception you create that communicates your passion for the project and for the well-being of the prospect and their business. It’s the replacement of generic materials and decks with bespoke communications.
Ultimately, it’s how much you show that the entire pursuit was about them and not about you.
The Folly of Efficiency
Your prospect can tell the difference between the firm that had a high level of intensity and the firm that didn’t. They might not use the word, “intensity.” But it’s clear to us that that’s exactly what was meant, especially when we compare the feedback of the prospect with the activities and outputs of the pursuit itself.
“Low intensity” is usually the conclusion we can draw when we see a pursuit that’s loaded with generic materials. Where proposals and orals start with tons of information about the pursuing organization, not about the prospect. When pre-submission questions from the pursuit team are a mile wide and an inch deep. When there’s little rehearsal. And there’s plenty more.
Sure, the process was efficient. You could handle a lot of other work while still being on time with the proposal. But efficiency in new business is folly.
“High intensity” is obvious from the deep understanding the pursuit team demonstrates about the opportunity, the prospect, the issues that matter. It’s there in the discussion or document that feels like it was prepared just for that prospect. And from the well-prepared, confident, relaxed team that easy for the prospect to connect with.
Intensity might not guarantee a win. But a lack of intensity almost certainly guarantees a loss.
- Bob Wiesner, Managing Partner, The Americas
Priorities for all of us have shifted dramatically. And rightly so. Our responses to Covid-19, and our recognition of and responses to systemic racism, will point us and our businesses in very new directions.
Somewhere on the priority list for our business activities will be the recovery of lost revenue. This week, Neal Foard, one of our senior advisors, brings you a video on business development win rates. Neal’s message: Your pre-pandemic win rate might be irrelevant when you look at “the new math” of new business.