Persuasion is a funny thing.
On the one hand, we buy from people we like. Often, “liking” comes from the perception that we share points of view. What I like, you like. So we like each other.
Agencies and professional services firms often use their pitches to create liking and comfort. That translates into perspectives and recommendations that are designed to show the prospect shared points of view. It can also lead to solutions that promise the prospect exactly what the prospect expected. Maybe effective, often boring.
But there’s another way to go. It’s quite different. And it ought to lead to more wins.
Politicians call it “The Burning Platform.” In this HBR article, Josh Bersin calls it “cognitive dissonance.” Whatever it’s called, it’s a high-risk approach that can have very big rewards. Let’s look at the political application.
Challengers to incumbents almost always make the burning platform their core communication mechanism. It’s simple. Tell the electorate that the current situation under the incumbent is dreadful. If it doesn’t change any number of disasters will befall us. That is, we’re standing on a burning platform which is about to consume us if we don’t get off it. So, get off the platform by voting out the incumbent and voting in the challenger.
The same approach can work well in pitching, with a variation. Rather than tell the prospect what the prospect wants to hear, tell them the situation is much worse than the prospect thinks. Use sound research, diagnostics, and category insights to justify your claim. This version of the burning platform goes on to suggest that if the prospect doesn’t make a significant change things will get worse.
By emphasizing the enormity of the problem facing the prospect, you have the chance of accomplishing three important objectives that improve your chances of winning.
The bigger the problem, the more the prospect will value your solution over others.
If you’re persuasive about the reality of the problem, you demonstrate a better understanding of the challenge, giving you a huge advantage regardless of the solution you put forward.
Your pitch is better differentiated and more memorable. Other presentations that give the prospect what they’re expecting have to sound a lot alike. Yours will be different, and probably in a compelling way.
As I said, it’s risky. If you think your odds aren’t favorable using an expected approach, go for it.
- Bob Wiesner
In most agencies and professional services firms, pitching for new business exists as an addition to most teams’ daily responsibilities. So there’s going to be a potential issue of effort and energy to address.
Pitching is – or has to be – an intense activity. No shortcuts. No back burner prioritization. Go big or go home.
(That’s why I continually recommend “pitch less to win more.” That’s another matter.)
The immense energy needed by a team has to be available at the beginning, middle and, especially, at the end of the process. Where does it come from?
It’s apparent that one source of energy resides within each team member. If you’re loving what you’re doing and, importantly, using your strengths to do it, you’ll find ways to replenish your energy.
This article in HBR cites another important source of energy: one’s fellow team members. The authors call it “relational energy.” It’s how other people can energize us. And the inverse is true: team members can just as easily drain each other of energy. Consider how these factors may impact the energy and performance of your pitch teams:
High quality connections. The authors found that such connections increase relational energy. Are your teams constructed of people who work well together? Or are you constantly dropping in team members from across the organization, even from other offices? Connections may be weaker. Relational energy won’t be as high.
Create energizing events. Pitch team meetings should be active, productive, as short as possible, and even fun, at least occasionally. People should feel like contributions are valuable. They should feel like progress is made, and they’re learning. Are your pitch team meetings like this, or are they marathon talk (or argue) fests, with team members needlessly sitting around accomplishing nothing?
Use tools that promote a “giver” culture. Team members, even across disciplines, should be helping each other. Contributing in ways that are above and beyond. Are your pitch teams made up of people who are protective of their functions and contributions? Have boundaries been set up that limit collaboration? Do people feel the need to put their stamp on the pitch to the exclusion of that collaboration?
It’s easy to lose sight of these factors in the heat of battle. Effective pitch team leaders ought to be monitoring their teams for energy, doing what’s needed to keep it at a high level.
- Bob Wiesner
Growth and profitability have become increasingly challenging for the advertising agency world – and all of marketing communications for that matter. That’s not news.
Agencies have been trying countless ways to change this. New offerings, new talent, new fee structures, mergers, start-ups, alliances, you name it.
Yet I still hear complaints from my agency clients about the inability to retain and grow key or new accounts at acceptably profitable levels while doing the kind of work that energizes and engages clients and employees.
There are unique aspects to every situation. Yet there are also common elements which I think both explain the prevalence of the problem and provide clues to its solution.
McKinsey recently published an article called “How to Unlock Growth in the Largest Accounts.” It listed four best practices. I want to emphasize two of them:
Quantify the full customer experience
Build “value selling” muscle
Make it easy
Prepare for negotiations the way customers do
Numbers 2 and 3 seem to offer tremendous upside to agencies.
The cry for a greater emphasis on value has been heard for years in the agency community. Yet few have attempted to place value ahead of price. As long as it’s a pricing/fees game, the value argument stays on the sideline. That is until the bold agency is willing to bring it forward.
Agencies absolutely must start to press the value issue. Only then can fees become more equitable and relationships more enduring. This takes strategy and skill. You need to plan how and when to raise the issue, then sharpen your persuasion, negotiation, and objection-handling skills.
As for “make it easy,” here’s another of my bigger concerns. Ask any senior client about the relative strengths of their agencies, and I’ll bet you’ll often see fingers pointed at account management as an area of weakness. Not to indict account execs alone. Cross-functionally, agencies lack the client care, proactivity, and understanding that clients value so much in all their providers They have strong trusted advisor relationships with their management consultants, law firms, auditors, and other providers/partners. “Trusted advisor” is a term much less frequently heard regarding marcomm agencies.
In the absence of strong relationships, the account will always be at risk. Growth will be much harder.
Savvy agencies must strengthen client relationship skills. I would suggest that stronger account management might even lead to more fruitful fee discussions.
- Bob Wiesner
In a perfect world, everyone in your agency or professional services firm would be dying to get involved in new business. It’s ought to be a chance to work on high-energy, high-stakes project that will stretch capabilities, providing tons of opportunities to learn and to strut your stuff. Sounds cool.
Sometimes it works out this way. Sometimes it starts this way and ends as an emotional and physical slog. And sometimes when people are given the chance to work on new business they run for the hills. It’s a bad scene from the start.
New business is stressful. Always will be. But stress can be good. I’ve written about that before. So why does the stress associated with pursuit and pitch teams often turn out to be bad?
I have a theory, which came about from this article in HBR called “Managing the Hidden Stress of Emotional Labor.”
The author, Susan David, points out one source of bad stress that she says comes from “surface acting.” I think many new business teams create this without realizing it. Consider the following from the perspective of team members, as cited in the article:
a mismatch between [team member’s] personality (for example, level of introversion or extroversion) and what is expected from you in your role
a misalignment of values, when what you’re being asked to do doesn’t accord with what you believe in
a workplace culture in which particular ways of expressing emotion (what psychologists call “display rules”) are endorsed — or not
Agencies and professional services firms often assign people to new business teams because they’re subject matter experts. Sometimes it’s also because they’re available. Often that creates the mismatch described in the first bullet.
We’d expect values to be mostly aligned. Everyone in the firm should be in it to win it. They want to do good work, drive results, and have strong relationships. Yet new business pursuits sometimes require approaches, strategies and solutions that can be at odds with the rest of the organization (even for the better).
And new business is, without doubt, a high-stress, high-emotion series of activities. People really care, or should. Perhaps these teams are expressing these emotions in culturally unacceptable ways, or even failing to express emotions when they’d be better off if they did.
When assembling and leading new business teams, consider whether you’re pushing your people into “surface acting.” If so, here are solutions adapted from the article:
Remind team members how new business activities connect with their reasons for working at your firm.
Make sure they’re exposed to opportunities to do meaningful things, and do them in a way that embraces risk and learning.
Do some “job crafting.” Tweak roles and responsibilities on the team to better fit the strengths of team members.
- Bob Wiesner
In the lean organization – which describes most agencies and professional services firms – pitch teams are made up of top performers. And those performers have full-time jobs outside of the pitch team.
It’s reality. But it might be a big reason why your win rate isn’t what you want it to be.
This article in HBR offers perspective. It says:
[Leaders] create an environment that undermines focus. The products of knowledge work are creativity, ideas, decisions, information, and communication. All of these require extended periods of sustained focus. However, many offices have a culture in which all communication, regardless of the subject or source, carries the same level of presumed urgency and is expected to produce an immediate response.
Too often we ask our best people to work on new business pitches that have very short timelines. That’s creating urgency. At the same time, they have to provide excellent service and thinking to their current clients. That’s also urgent. Equally so, it will seem.
When we can’t satisfy every simultaneous urgent need, we’re forced to make choices. The right choice has to be, most often, to meet the objectives of our current clients. The new business pitch has to be lower priority. And that means the pitch gets less attention. It’ll showed up in the quality of the solution or the quality of the pitch. Either one makes it harder to win.
Successful pitching requires enough bench strength to turn these pitch or current client urgencies over to others without taking away focus from either.
Or, choose to pitch less. Pitching requires you to meet deadlines and provide deliverables you don’t control. You have other more proactive – and more controllable – activities that can grow your revenue. Putting emphasis on those will allow you to get more productivity from your strongest people, even when they are required to provide excellence for your current clients.
You’ll pitch less, win more, and grow business.
- Bob Wiesner
Too many organizations are caught in a dangerous loop. They are continually chasing quarterly results. In some cases, even more short-term than that. This is especially frustrating for those in business development. Pressure to close is always strong, especially as you near the end of the quarter.
And if you’re an agency that finds new revenue primarily through inbound RFPs and pitch opportunities, the lack of predictability and control makes meeting these short-term targets even tougher.
This article in HBR has four excellent suggestions for breaking the narrow-focused, short-term approach. The first really resonates: “Tell a story that is bigger than quarterly earnings.”
One of the reasons that agencies and other firms chase every available new business RFP and pitch is because they have no other beliefs around growing business. If you want new revenue, they believe, you gotta pitch. And pitch just about whatever comes along, because you don’t know what’s coming next or what you’re more likely to win.
It’s hard to break the circuit. That’s where storytelling is key. Consider:
Can every employee in your agency tell the story of the agency?
Can they tell the story of how you solve client problems?
Of your signature successes?
Of how you grow?
When these stories are fully socialized within the organization, it’s a whole lot easier to get out of the perpetual turmoil of chasing numbers and pitching everything that comes along. These stories clearly communicate your core values. They give you and your teams significant confidence that:
You know where revenue will come from.
You know how to capture that revenue.
That revenue will lead to healthy growth.
If your people can’t tell these stories, maybe it’s because no one has written them yet. But they probably exist, and they’re undoubtedly true. The effort required to uncover and disseminate such stories will pay off in the not-very-long term.
- Bob Wiesner
Winning is a habit. And so is losing.
New business pursuit teams that are stuck in losing streaks are desperate for a way to reverse their fortunes. Unfortunately, the methods they try often don’t work. Here are some frequently futile “solutions”:
Pursue more and more new business – if you pitch often enough eventually you’ll win.
Keep doing what you’re doing – the problem isn’t us, it’s the prospects.
Work longer and harder on solutions – maybe the ideas just aren’t good enough.
Change our capabilities – we can compete more effectively if we can offer a broader range of solutions.
Sometimes these changes lead to a win or two. But many times they don’t. If you’ve been in that situation – you’ve instituted different approaches but you’re not getting different results – then maybe you’re not seeing the real problem.
I’ve been amazed at how many new business pursuit teams suffer from a real lack of self-awareness. They don’t realize that it’s their own behaviors and attitudes – their individual Mindsets – that are holding them back. The change they need isn’t a new strategy or longer hours. They need adjustments to how they interact with the prospect and, subsequently, put the pitch together.
The connection between self-awareness and behavior is explored in this article in HBR. Though it looks at “mindfulness” (which I think is actually something of a fad), there’s some very relevant and valid research described about the connection between self-awareness – as a key element in Emotional Intelligence – and behavior change.
EQ and Winning – Perfect Together
I have no doubt that the most successful pitch teams are also the most emotionally intelligent. That’s because their high EQ allows them to see exactly how they need to interact with each other and with their prospects. They are more honest about what it will take to win. And they’re more willing to make adjustments.
Here are potential symptoms of low self-awareness, of people who don’t realize the impact they are having on others, both internal and external to the pitch team:
Sticking with the same pitch process and storyline no matter who the prospect is or what the need is.
Not showing up to every pitch team meeting.
Digging in their heels without really listening to others.
Sabotaging collaboration, with team members and maybe even with prospects.
Bringing the same content to every pitch (“I’ve got these stories I like to tell – they’ll be great!”).
Giving off bad vibrations that deflate other pitch team members.
Not seeing the need to rehearse.
Reversing a losing streak means making real changes to the pursuit process. And that won’t happen without first being willing to take a long and hard look at the attitudes or Mindset of the pitch team itself. First change those as necessary. The other needed changes will more easily follow.
- Bob Wiesner
Credibility is at the core of trust. Maister & Green in “The Trusted Advisor” made that clear.
Credibility is also crucial to new business pursuits. Prospect decision-makers, especially at the C-Level, won’t consider your agency or firm if you don’t have experience and success in markets or segments that they view as comparable to theirs.
So why do so many organizations pursue business where that experience is lacking? And when invited to pitch, or decide to pursue despite a lack of experience, how in the world can these teams create decent odds of winning?
The best answer, of course, is one I’ve always advocated: When your credibility is low to a potential prospect, that’s an opportunity not worth pursuing. You’ll be competing against others with stronger credibility. You’ll be the biggest longshot in the pack.
But if you’re going to go after it anyway, there’s a lot you can learn about increasing credibility from an unlikely source: Job seekers.
Credibility Lessons from Job Seekers
Lots of people in the job market are new to it or trying to change the trajectory of their careers. They constantly wrestle with credibility issues. Many have learned to overcome them through several concurrent steps. This excellent HBR article lays out those steps. Take a look at how advice to job seekers can apply to new business. (The italics are in the language of the job seeker, followed by my advice for new business pursuits.)
Leverage your research skills. When pursuing a prospect in a category that’s new to you, put your research capabilities to work to gain a unique, intriguing perspective on that category. You won’t know as much about it as the prospect. But you can know something about the category that the prospect might not know. These insights can be extremely valuable during the pursuit.
Identify (and embrace) your specific contribution. Know the measurable outcomes that you deliver. For example, when you discuss your case studies, you need to confidently present the results that are traced to your solution. It’s amazing how many providers don’t get this information, either directly through their processes or from their clients.
Volunteer willingly. Don’t give away your services. But you can offer low-cost solutions that will demonstrate value and allow you to build credibility. When pursuing prospects where your credibility is low, this is an easier way of gaining a foothold. Pitching for a small, relevant, initial assignment is often a better way to go. BTW, I’m NOT advocating spec work. I’m strongly opposed to it. I’m talking about a real, not made-up, paid assignment that lets you strut your stuff.
Work to build a network of close relationships. Those in your close-in network will be less concerned with your lack of relevant experience. They will judge your credibility in ways that are more favorable than how it’ll be judged by the stranger who ships you an RFP. It’s the same old story. It’s who you know that’s important.
A lot of opportunities are attractive. Be honest in judging your credibility. And, if you must pursue when credibility is low, take all the necessary steps to overcome this obstacle.
- Bob Wiesner
Some new business pursuit leaders are delusional. I’m sorry to say it. But some kid themselves into thinking they – and their teams – are better at pursuits and pitches than they really are.
In most cases, these leaders were, at one time, completely justified in feeling confident. They had scored one or even a few wins. From there, they figured they were doing it right. So when subsequent pursuits came up empty, they resisted taking a deeper look at what went wrong.
According to this McKinsey article on the pitfalls of transforming into a lean management team, success can lead to failure. It’s true for lean management teams. And it’s true for pursuit teams.
Some Honest Assessment is Needed
If your team started well, but is now converting at a much lower rate, take a look at these possible causes, as cited by the authors:
Losing business purpose. The objective behind new business pursuit has to be quality growth. That means growth that fits with the firm’s business strategy. Yet many new business directors and team leaders get seduced by the Dark Side. They start pitching whatever comes their way. Maybe the opportunity really doesn’t pass vetting criteria. Maybe it’s too much of a long shot. Maybe the timing sucks. Maybe the team’s burned out. A few early wins and suddenly these team leaders feel they can win ANYTHING at ANYTIME. Uh-uh.
Focusing on tools, not ideas. Winning can lead to this conclusion: “We’ve got this pitch thing figured out.” So every subsequent pitch unfolds in exactly the same way. The same research process, the same solution, the same pitch development process. One pitch leader, now frustrated, told me, “the team always brings the same ideas to every pitch, the same stories, the same lack of rehearsal.” Every prospect is at least a little different. Every pursuit requires fresh thinking. Maybe even a fresh team.
Changing behavior but not mindsets. After a few losses, the team could be ready for some new approaches. Cool. But if they don’t buy into it, it won’t have much effectiveness. And certainly very little stickiness. Teams have to approach change with a real growth mindset. To reverse losses, and make long-lasting changes, teams need the willingness to listen, to learn, and to admit problems. And they need to take ownership of changes. When I look at teams on losing streaks, mindset is turning into the first place to explore.
Building without balance. Winning requires a strong balance of attributes. Strategic thinking. Analytics. Storytelling. Solution development. Product and segment depth. Presence in the room. Listening skills. Etc. Your agency won a couple of pitches because you had strong creative ideas (said the prospect). You lost the next few. So you think the problem is your creative ideas weren’t good enough. Maybe. But too much emphasis on improving the creative solution might mask potential problems with strategy, storytelling, presenting. Or it might just be the completely wrong answer. I mean, did you really get honest feedback from the prospect?
When you’re in a losing streak that follows a winning streak, don’t stick your head in the sand. Don’t blame it on the law of averages, or dumb prospects. Ask yourself real diagnostic questions. And be prepared to make real adjustments.
- Bob Wiesner
Prevailing sales wisdom is clear. Organic growth is the best way to add to the top and bottom lines. McKinsey makes a simple, compelling case right here.
Yet too many agencies and firms invest way more resources in new business pursuits.
I get it. New business is sexy, exciting. It’s where innovation can occur. It attracts new hires. It’s a tangible metric of success.
It’s also necessary where you know the lifecycle of a current client relationship has an expiration date. An agency leader once told me the life expectancy of any new client at his shop is five years. So he needs a constant emphasis on the new business pipeline to ensure he hits targets every year.
I get this too. Churn is normal. Often healthy. Lop off the unprofitable accounts that put a drag on the organization. Replace them with better clients. Spot on.
Maybe You Have the Wrong Clients
If you feel you don’t have enough organic growth opportunities, I’ll bet you’ve taken on clients you never should’ve.
Some agencies and firms are too focused on new business pursuits. They might be pursuing short-term projects that don’t really present long-term, quality growth opportunities.
Does your new business strategy leave you with these sort of clients?
A great brand or corporate name, but a crappy project that doesn’t really prove your long-term value to the client, or show the true of expanse of what you can do.
A great project with great outcomes but with a client who’s too small, too wacky, or too in bed with other providers to give you a real shot at growth.
Both situations could’ve been avoided if you had done a better job of vetting the original opportunity. You didn’t, so now you’re stuck with ungrowable clients and the need to invest more heavily in new business.
Maybe You’re Going About Growth All Wrong
The other thing I see too often are agencies and firms with very growable clients, but without the skills and insights needed to grow them. And, man, that’s sad.
Relationships that started at a high level can easily deteriorate over time if care isn’t given. Here’s a problem that is way too common: Assigned personnel are too focused on getting projects done and not focused on building the relationship. Many causes:
Lack of business acumen or focus
Poor questioning and listening skills
Reactivity favored over proactivity
Lack of strategic insights
No real plan to sustain and grow
Bad ideas and bad solutions, of course, will kill any chances for organic growth with any client. But I don’t think this is the reason for failure to grow all that often. In my experience, ideas are fine. Relationships suck.
And, of course, messed-up relationships will, eventually, lead to poorer solutions and deliverables.
You can guide and train every one of your account teams to avoid all of these causes for failure to grow. And you must. The evidence isn’t up for discussion. If you have the right clients (meaning you’ve avoided the pitfalls above), then you can enjoy the results of organic growth. But only if you’ve invested in that relationship.
- Bob Wiesner