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The Polite Battle for Control

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In simple terms, agency business development can be described as the polite battle for control. In this brief 20-point thesis on modern day business development philosophy for marketing communication agencies, Blair Enns makes the argument for control as the goal.

1. For you to deliver the best possible results for your client you must be allowed to control the engagement. The best clients will contribute valuable direction and insight, but the highest certainty of a positive outcome comes from those engagements you are allowed to lead.

2. The question of whether it will be you or your client that controls the engagement is answered within the buying cycle. It is here, before you are hired, that roles are assigned.

3. To control the engagement therefore, you must carve out the leadership role early, within the buying cycle. It is difficult to switch from playing the good soldier before you are hired (diligently following the orders of the RFP and doing as you’re asked by the procurement folks and the gatekeepers) to playing commander once hired. Roles are not easily changed once established. Control is won or lost early.

4. You cannot take control unilaterally. The prospect must let you. He must ultimately decide that it is in his best interest to follow your lead.

5. For you to be allowed to lead, you must possess credibility.

6. You may have credibility in the eyes of the prospect before he reaches out to you, or you may be starting from a position of zero credibility when you reach out to him. Regardless, you must build credibility quickly and maintain it vigilantly once built.

7. Credibility begins with the word no. If you do not say no, your yes has no value. Getting the prospect to say yes is more likely when you begin with no. As early as possible, look for the reasons why an engagement with your prospect might not make sense.

8. Many of the accepted protocols of selling do not apply to you. In places where others say advance, you must retreat and demonstrate selectivity. You must sell leadership differently than your neighbor sells widgets. Unlike a transactional sale, for you the close is just the beginning. How you sell will ultimately shape what it is you are able to deliver.

9. The unqualified pursuit of a meeting (calling or emailing the prospect with a request for a meeting without first endeavoring to determine a fit) impairs credibility – almost irreparably. The idea that two busy parties should invest in a face-to-face meeting without first having a probing discussion of one’s need and the other’s expertise is ludicrous. To request this is absurd.

10. Meetings obtained in such a manner are auditions, with significant sales resistance built in and little credibility for you, the seller.

11. Stars never audition.

12. It is never the objective of your telephone introduction to obtain a meeting (your objective is to introduce and determine a fit), but a meeting is sometimes a logical outcome. When the prospect feels like a meeting hunter’s prey, credibility is lost.

13. The thirteenth point never made sense and was deleted. Or, perhaps I am just superstitious and, like the thirteenth floor of a building, it’s here – it’s just called fourteen. Even I am not certain.

14. It may seem counterintuitive, but it is easier to sell the services of your firm when you quit selling altogether, start selectively looking for someone to help, then look for reasons why an engagement might not work. Selectivity builds credibility, which allows for control.

15. The prospect that values your enthusiasm more than your expertise or your credibility makes the worst type of client. Leave them as your gift to your competition. You do not need every client. Replace quantity with quality and pursue a small number of high-quality new clients every year. Be careful about who you let in.

16. The above fifteen points can be summarized as The Polite Battle for Control. Not control for control’s sake. Not control for reasons of pride, malice or fear; just the control that you need to deliver the highest certainty of a high quality outcome for your client.

17. Control does not mean unilateral decision-making, ultimate authority or superiority of place. The consequences of gaining control should never include the sacrifice of collaboration or mutual respect. Winning the polite battle for control simply means earning the place of practitioner in the patient-practitioner relationship.

18. You were never meant to win every battle. You will lose more, perhaps far more, than you will win. But, again, the polite battle for control is won or lost early. Losing early is inexpensive and manageable, while losing late can be financially and motivationally debilitating. Your willingness to fight and lose many polite battles early will leave you with only the clients for whom you can do your best work.

19. There is no rainmaker. If you learn to deprogram yourself from the historical ways and you learn to win this polite battle for control then you will no longer want for a mythological creature to help build or save your firm.

20. Remember that the battle must always be a polite one. Be respectful. It is also okay to have fun.


Blair Enns

@ WWP World HQ in Kaslo
July 20th, 2009

San Diego: September 24/25

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