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September 25, 2002
Winning New Business and the Art of Convincing

A few weeks ago, Joanne Davis wrote a well-articulated guest column for Talent Zoo in which she clearly laid out the dos and don'ts of contacting prospective clients. Her findings are true and her advice is priceless.

If you've ever contacted me or another search consultant or--God forbid--a client directly and opened with the phrase "We'd be perfect for", please do yourself a favor and read Joanne's column. You know who you are. We know who you are!

While there are things we can all do to increase the odds of capturing the attention of prospective clients, enough good advice has been dispensed on this topic. So, let's focus on the next step: winning.

Let's imagine for a moment that a client invites your agency to compete for their bwusiness. Now what?

Before you begin to plan out all the tactical work, step back and think about the big picture. No matter how the selection process unfolds, the ultimate goal is the same in each and every pitch: convince the client that your team will do the best job in impacting or solving their problem.

No big revelation, right? Upon careful examination, you will notice that this is a two-part challenge. Yet, most agencies focus on only one part.

The first challenge--the obvious one--lies in studying the client's issues and unearthing opportunities. The second and more subtle challenge, the challenge most closely related to winning, lies in the art of convincing.

During a pitch, most agencies feel that if they can demonstrate solid strategic thinking and present a couple of great ideas and have good "chemistry" with the client, this will be what it takes to win. Don't get me wrong. These are, in fact, the fundamentals of a good pitch. But, the difference between a good pitch and a great win lies in your ability to convince your audience that your agency is the best choice by marketing yourself throughout the pitch process.

That's worth emphasizing: market yourself throughout the pitch process. Not just during the final presentation. The sales cycle is long and slow in our business. And, so is the road to "convincing." You cannot convince a prospect to hire you by what you say in the final presentation. The important thing is how you are (or are being perceived) during the collective stages of the entire pitch process.

So, how can you control this? You've heard the answer before: do for yourself what you do for your clients: develop a marketing strategy against your audience. It's not that difficult if you organize your team and your efforts properly. While one set of people will be charged with working on the prospect's issues and developing the pitch content, another group of people should be accountable for shaping the prospects view of your agency.

To do this effectively, you need to have a thorough understanding of your prospect. Not just an understanding of their business challenges, but an understanding of the actual people who will be sitting in the presentation and of the circumstances surrounding the agency review.

Who are they? What are their backgrounds? Who are the "right brain" and who are the "left brain" folks? How will the decision be made? Do they have equal votes or will the voting be unbalanced? Who reports to whom? Who resents whom? What are the politics? Why are they leaving their old agency? Are they all "on board" with that decision? Who has issues with your agency? What are the specific issues you need to overcome? What are they hoping to find during this process? Etc.

Agencies ask themselves these (and dozens of other) questions all the time. But, most don't share these questions with the client. Unfortunately, most agencies spend (perhaps waste) a lot of time contemplating these types of questions behind closed doors in their own conference rooms. Then, worst of all, they begin believing the scenario that they've cobbled together without any input from the prospect.

The fact is, you can find out almost anything you want to know if you approach the prospect correctly. Go ahead and request some face time with them. What have you got to lose? Invite them to the agency for a work session. Allow them to join you at focus group/research sessions. Invite their CEO (or their senior-most committee member) to join your CEO for dinner. Hold conference calls. Discuss your findings with them. Bounce ideas off of them.

The more contact you have with the prospect:

  • the more feedback and guidance you'll get on your presentation
  • the more you will learn about what makes them "tick"
  • the less nervous/more confident you'll be
  • the more opportunity the prospect will have to learn about your agency and what it would be like to work with you
  • the more opportunity you'll have to pre-sell your agency
  • the better the chances of winning

Think about the pitches you've won. Think about the ones that felt really good. Chances are, those were pitches in which you had frequent contact with the prospect. They were pitches that you technically won before the date of the final presentation.

Sometimes, this state of "pitch bliss" occurs organically because either the prospect is accessible and open to communication or because it's an opportunity that you are very excited about.

Other times, however, you may have to work very hard at achieving this ideal pitch scenario either because the client is inaccessible or because you're not very excited about the opportunity and, therefore, are making little effort.

When these situations occur, my advice is this: if you're not enthusiastic, don't bother pitching. If the client, however, is unwilling to communicate during the pitch process but you really want the account, go full steam ahead. That is, continue to invite them to participate in work sessions and for meals--knowing that the answer will be "no"--and continue to ask questions and bounce ideas off of them, knowing you won't get much feedback, because you will still send a strong signal about your process, work ethic, style, culture, intelligence, and above all, enthusiasm.

In short, while your agency is hard at work figuring out how to market your prospect's products and services, work equally as hard on marketing your brand to that prospect. Start thinking this way and I guarantee that your winning average will go up.

Good luck! (Sometimes, that's the key.)

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Hasan Ramusevic has probably crafted more RFPs and read more RFP responses than any one person in North America. Having orchestrated over 400 agency reviews for big brands, Hasan's new business experience is impressive -- first as a managing partner at AAR Partners NYC, then the brains behind McKinney & Silver's slew of new business wins. Today, Hasan is president of Hasan + Co., an agency review consultancy.
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