Too many new business efforts are built around the organization’s capabilities. Sure, prospects want to know what services you offer. It’s a necessary part of the business development process.
But I think agencies and professional services firms put way too much emphasis on capabilities.
While prospects want to know what you do, you can bet they’re even more interested in what you know and how you think.
So you have to give very serious thought to the content you’re putting in front of prospects. And that means both what you’re saying and how you’re saying it.
Three minutes to make a first impression
Much of the content I see from agencies and other firms lack relevance. Or it’s not as provocative as it could be. It’s either too self-centered, too generic or safe, or too long. Or all three.
I’ll address the first two weaknesses in a later post. Right now, let’s look at the more fixable issue – the quantity or length of content.
This HBR article makes a strong case for short, punchy content in your new business outreach efforts.
It’s no secret that buyers are bombarded with messages and the web has exacerbated the situation. That likely explains why the average viewing time for content is 2 minutes and 27 seconds.
Do you really think your blog, email blasts, LinkedIn posts, website pages, thought leadership, brochures, and so on are so special that a prospect will spend an above average amount of time with it? Your content could be marvelous. But prospects won’t spend as much time with it as you think.
In fact, once they get an idea of the length of your post, they might not bother to read at all.
And don’t get me started on pitches and other key presentations. Ten pounds of content stuffed into two-pound bags.
If content is king, simplicity is prime minister
Clients want to work with experts who can simplify things for them. Doesn’t matter what the business is or how technically well-versed the clients are.
Here’s what matters: Your ability to take a complex issue and communicate your point of view and solution simply and clearly, in few words and with everyday language. Shorter pieces with clear, powerful insights and messages will attract more readers and make you look more effective.
We want to work with people who make things clearer without wasting our time. Apply these criteria to all your communications.
- Bob Wiesner
Organic growth is the indisputably easiest way to increase revenue. The exceptions are few and far between.
While nearly every agency and professional services firm gets this, agencies seem to have particular struggles with organic growth. It’s much harder than it ought to be.
I’ve got a theory I’ve been pushing for years. It’s this: account management in agencies is the most important area to drive organic growth. So in agencies that struggle with organic growth, it’s probably because your account people just aren’t good enough at it.
I’m not talking about good at it from a sales perspective. Though based on requests that I get for training and consulting services, that weakness is apparent to lots of agency leaders.
Instead, I’m talking about the ability of account teams to create terrific day-to-day experiences with their clients. It’s not where it needs to be. Yet it’s vital to growth.
Find The Emotional Layer
This article in HBR drove the point home for me. Consider this:
…transactions alone don’t create sustainable engagement. What is critical is the emotional layer, the features of a product or service that tap into the fundamental, and under-the-surface, motivations and emotions of customers.
No area of your agency is in a better position to know about and work with that emotional layer than your account people. When doing their jobs well, they should be building relationships that allow these motivations to surface. Then they should be doing all it takes to surprise and delight their clients, based on these motivations, every single day. Even every single touchpoint.
Sadly, we don’t see that enough.
I think account management just doesn’t have either the talent or the time to do it right or at least do it enough. In many agencies, account people focus most of their efforts on project management. Or at least that’s how they’re perceived by clients. They’re often younger and less experienced than their client counterparts. They often don’t have enough deep and meaningful business discussions with those clients. And, worst case, their relationship with the client is that of an order-taker. In other words, very transactional and not very relational.
You Gotta Fix It
If organic growth is a priority for you, start with your account managers. You can train them in selling skills, for sure. Might be a priority.
Even more important, though, is training them to build stronger and deeper client relationships. There are specific skills and strategies that create those kind of relationships. Your account teams have to know what they are and know how to use them.
These are short-term solutions. Long-term, think about your structure. I’ve been doing it for years. I firmly believe that project management is best handled by professional project managers. Account management is the responsibility of people who can build strong business relationships and get down to that emotional layer.
With these changes, organic growth is now a realistic goal.
- Bob Wiesner
Insights sell. They’re the key to penetrating new clients. To getting into the C-Suite. To winning new business pitches.
Have I made it clear I think insights matter?
My clients might not agree at first, but all of them come around. Once an agency or team decides that it needs to put insights at the center of their client relationships and biz dev efforts, the next two questions are almost inevitable:
Insights are all around you
There are a few different ways to define “insight.” I like this one for its practicality:
An insight is a truth about the consumer, brand, product or company that hasn’t yet been used to sell it.
Like many truths in our current politically turbulent times, insights are all around us. But that doesn’t make them easy to find.
I’ve advised my clients that they probably already have the understanding of their target markets to uncover insights through knowledge sharing, open discussions and brainstorming. I also think a team can use qualitative or quantitative research to gather new data to lead to new insights.
Both avenues can be effective, yet some agencies and teams still struggle. It’s made me wonder why.
I wonder no more.
Mindset is the key.
I think I know what holds some people or teams back. it’s not what they’re doing to find insights. It’s how they’re thinking about what they’re doing.
This HBR article lays it out beautifully. Simply said, the most insightful strategies, or scenario planning, came about when people were open to seeing things around themselves differently.
Groups of executives are often prevented by their mental frames of reality from perceiving what’s really happening.
Speaking of one famous case study in innovative strategic thinking, the authors said this about the head of group planning:
The oft-missing piece of the story is where Wack got the insights. From taxi drivers in the Middle East to garden designers in Japan, Wack sought ideas from a huge range of sources — including many people who had no ostensible link to oil industry data. For Wack, this approach was inextricably linked to mindfulness practice: “Quieting the mind” made it possible and natural to open up to new and unexpected sources of information. He trained his mind to hone intuition, take in diverse sources of information and emerging patterns, and, in turn, do the serious work of illuminating alternative futures.
Knowers vs. Learners
In Mindset terms, we’re talking about the importance of being a Learner – which is an expression of what Carol Dweck calls the Growth Mindset. Learners are willing to admit that, no matter their level of expertise, there’s more that can be learned. And that the learning can come from any source. Even just looking around, asking questions, talking to people OUTSIDE the usual group of experts.
That leads to this hypothesis. When you have a hard time finding the insight, you might be operating not as a Learner but as the opposite, called Knower. That’s an expression of the Fixed Mindset. It’s not surprising that a team of Knowers, or a team with predominantly a Fixed Mindset, will have more difficulty uncovering insights. They might be unwilling to look beyond the already available research and conclusions. They might not realize the value of broader opinions, or even of rejecting current assumptions.
Since insights matter, mindset also matters. To find insights, make sure your heads are in the right place.
- Bob Wiesner
In a competitive new business pitch, you need to know who you’re up against. If the prospect won’t tell you, don’t bother participating. After all, how can you help them when you’re hired if they’re going to withhold critical info from you?
But what if they tell you who’s being considered, and you find out you’re the one that doesn’t fit?
In many pitches, the prospect puts together a list of potential providers based mainly on qualifications (or relationships). It most cases, the winner will turn out to be the provider with qualities that are expected. Category experience, size, geographic location, capabilities, etc.
So you see the list, you know who the others are. And then there’s you.
Your firm has an obvious shortfall (or two or three) in comparison to the others. You realize you don’t fit. And might also realize you don’t have that compelling relationship with the decision-maker.
Why were you invited?
You’re probably in it because some prospects like to throw in one or two longshots to see “a range of options.” Or they’ve seen your work or heard about your reputation. None of these alone are winning hands.
What are you going to do?
Option 1: Just Say No
If you think the odds of you winning are really long, you’re probably right. Are you gonna invest money, time, energy and emotion anyway? I’ll bet in the clear light of day you’ll realize there are way better opportunities out there for you to pursue. My default choice for you – bow out.
And, anyway, if you say no – and the prospect has some unspoken reason for wanting you to compete – let ’em come begging. You might be able to change the rules of the pitch or the prospect’s expectations to put yourself in a more favorable position. Or at least go from underdog to evendog. It’s the Cialdini “Scarcity” principle of influence: People want what they can’t have.
It takes guts to say no. And a belief that there are better prospects out there that are more worth your resources.
But what if you lack the courage to say no, or don’t have any other viable options? Or you’ve gotta stay in for political reasons? Or your firm’s owner refuses to back down?
Option 2: Leverage Your Oddness
Here’s an interesting perspective from an HBR article on networking. And we know it’s true from our best experiences in collaborative teams.
Great ideas and great solutions are more likely from teams comprising diverse thinking. When everyone thinks alike, you get very narrow, expected ideas. When team members bring different perspectives, creativity and innovation ensue.
That’s your play.
You leverage your different experience, capabilities, location, size, culture, approach, etc.
Tell ’em that if they want a solution that looks like every other solution in the category, go with a provider that has the same experience in the category that the prospect has. The prospect will get a solution that’s pretty much what they expected. And could’ve been provided by about any firm in the pitch.
You, on the other hand, will have no problem busting category conventions. Swimming outside your lane. Coloring outside the lines. Going beyond the guardrails.
As the underdog, if you’re gonna pitch, you might as well be the biggest, most different underdog they’ve ever seen. Provocative. Maybe a little scary. The badass alternative.
I’m not saying this takes you from underdog to overdog. But it could be your best and only play.
- Bob Wiesner
When you’re not winning a ton of new business, you’ll naturally take a look at your final pitch presentations. And many of you will be stumped. “Our pitch was fine,” you’ll conclude. “I can’t understand why we lost.”
Well, what did you think was so fine about it?
Here are answers I often get:
To me there’s one glaring omissions. And it might’ve cost you the business:
You didn’t show a whole lot of empathy for the prospect’s decision-makers.
Empathy is the secret sauce of a winning pitch.
Looking internally, nothing is more important to motivating a team than empathy. Why in the world would a team member or direct report give you their best thinking and incremental effort if they didn’t feel that you understood what’s important to them? Effort, creativity, innovations, going the extra mile, accuracy, accountability: These are all limited resources. So we offer them only to bosses who we feel legitimately understand what’s important to us, and will help us achieve it.
Nothing is more true in new business pursuits.
Your prospects have a limited supply of critical resources to disperse to providers. Not just business, brands, money. But the time, effort, energy that’ll be required to work with a new firm or team. So, of course a critical decision-making factor will be this:
I’ll go with the team that did the best job of showing that they REALLY understand us.
Start with empathy. End with empathy.
You have got to establish your empathy for their situation at the very start. And empathy isn’t established by parroting back the RFP objectives or requirements. It comes from showing that you know as well as they do – or even better – what the challenges are that they face, the downsides of failure, the upsides of success.
And close the loop at the end of the pitch. A compelling story or case or fact that reminds them that you really get what’s important to them.
I’m a strong believer in the value of pitch tactics. Something memorable that differentiates the pitching firm apart from the solution. And, without exception, the best ones are those with the purpose of building empathy.
- Bob Wiesner