There is a joke among old salespeople in which a prospect, trapped in a cold call, asks the salesperson what their competitive advantage is. The question is about the product but the answer salespeople gleefully share with each other is “my competitive advantage is I have you on the phone right now!”
While the joke is reminiscent of some of the sales cliches of yesteryear, it speaks to why there is no substitute for a proper conversation. Everything can change in a moment and you want to be there, in a free and active two-way conversation, when it does.
Let’s explore some of the more common things that can change quickly in one conversation.
Your Standing With The Client
The Flip is our name for the moment in the conversation between you and a prospective client when you move, in their eyes, from the position of lowly vendor to the more lofty one of expert practitioner.
This moment isn’t created through the force of your persuasion and it doesn’t happen with you in presentation mode, walking through a deck. It happens when you share an observation or ask a question.
As memorable moments go, this is a small, quiet one. A distracted observer might miss it entirely. But in this moment it suddenly dawns on the client that you know a lot more than they thought you knew, a lot more than the others under consideration.
You have esteem and power now that you did not minutes earlier. Your next step is to seek to leverage that power throughout the sale, including affecting many of the variables listed below.
The Client’s Understanding of Their Problem
When I lecture on the need to challenge the client’s self-diagnosis I often hear from people that they do that in the proposal or the pitch. But a pitch isn’t a conversation. It’s one half of the bifurcated brief-and-present dynamic that pervades throughout client/agency relationships where only one party communicates at a time.
You might be the most perspicacious person on the planet, but in a pitch you won’t really know how well your insights landed until after the client talks amongst themselves, after you’ve left the room. You’ve lost the ability in that moment to take the conversation in a new direction, to direct the next steps. Instead, you go back to the office and hope. (That sound you hear is the old school salespeople we just mocked having the last laugh. “Amateurs.”)
It is this fundamental rethinking of the problem that often causes The Flip. When the client’s idea of their problem or solution changes in a conversation, you are now in control. It flows logically that the next step is yours to suggest.
There is an exercise we do in our workshop where we pair participants up and have one play the role of client and the other play the consultant. Among other objectives, the consultant has to find out what the client’s problem is.
When we debrief on it afterward we ask the consultants “How many of your clients stated their problem as a solution?” Well over half (60%-75%) raise their hands.
Clients usually come to you self-diagnosed and self-prescribed. After you’ve allowed them to describe the solution they’re looking for, place that solution aside and try to uncover their desired future state (DFS) by asking them to describe what success looks like a few years out.
You will see the initial stated solution is one of many possible paths to that DFS, or perhaps just a small component of a larger, more complex path, or you may discover that their stated solution is not what they need at all.
When you put the client into their DFS the scope shifts from a specific solution to value creation by innumerable means.
The value conversation is the part of the sale where you endeavor to determine how much value you might help the client to create and what share of the value you might command in fees. I think value conversation mastery is the most valuable skill in all of business. (Here’s a podcast where I teach you how to do it.)
When the scope shifts from buying a solution to creating quantified value the budget can change dramatically. People who have never priced on value, who have only ever sold time & materials or deliverables can’t even comprehend how much some firms get paid for value creation. (They divide the astronomical fee by hours and naively decide it’s unethical to charge so much. Meanwhile the client is thrilled to have hired someone focused on results instead of billing hours.)
Budgets can also change without a value conversation.
One agency principal client of ours had a sales conversation with the vice president of marketing at a prospective client company and the VP’s boss, the president. Shortly into the discussion The Flip happened.
When the discussion turned to budget the VP was adamant the budget was $X. But the president immediately overrode his subordinate and said “The budget is whatever it takes to do this properly.” That is a shift that can only be facilitated, and learned of, in a conversation.
One of the six rules of Pricing Creativity is the client should never see a price before they hear it. You are free to deliver a three-option proposal with the anchor option at multiples of the client’s stated budget as long as you follow this rule of telling the client you are going to do so. You do that in the value conversation when you’ve uncovered the value to be created is far in excess of the client’s initial budget.
An important corollary to this freedom to present options in excess of the client’s budget is the requirement to show the client what you can do (profitably!) for their stated budget. In this way you offer the client an out if your more elaborate and expensive proposal doesn’t feel right to them.
Access to Senior Decision Makers
All of the variables listed above that can change in a conversation can create a problem with the client if you are not dealing at the highest levels of the organization. The problem is that even a willing manager is often limited in budget, scope and the definition of the problem itself because one or all of these variables has been defined by others higher up in the organization.
When you get that lower level decision maker to think differently about any of these considerations they will have two possible courses of action. The first is to ignore the insights and to execute on the job as it was given to them.
The second option is to get approval for the revision in scope or budget. That approval has to come from a missing senior decision maker and you want to get to that missing DM.
In the meeting itself ask to have the meeting over again with the missing DM so everyone can get on the same page about the change in variables.
If you are denied because your contact does not want to risk any political capital with such a request, a compromise is to put forward a multi-option proposal showing what you can do for the client’s stated budget, with the inexpensive option aligned to the solution as initially stated at the client’s budget (e.g. “You wanted a website for $50k, here is what we can do for $50k”) and some more elaborate, expensive options that exceed the client’s stated budget and scope.
Before you end the meeting to prepare the proposal, however, see if you can get the client to agree that if any of the more elaborate, expensive options that you might present inspire the courage to seek expanded scope and/or budget that you be invited into that conversation with the missing senior DMs. You might get your request granted or you might not, but you will never know if you do not ask.
The Next Step
The last variable that can change in a conversation I want to cover here is the ability to drive the next step.
When something substantial changes in the conversation, like your standing in the client’s eyes, their understanding of the problem, the scope of the problem or the price, the client-directed selection process is thrown off for just a moment. An opening appears where the appropriate next step might change, should change. Take the initiative and drive the next step, whatever you think it should be.
You are in control now. You are the expert and experts drive.
Presenting is Not Conversing
The second proclamation of The Win Without Pitching Manifesto is We Will Replace Presentations with Conversations.
Too often in the creative professions we accept the default dynamics of brief-and-present where we get little real time feedback and are left guessing after we’ve played our part. We comply with the client-driven selection process and do not push back, seeking conversation instead.
All of the dynamics above are far more likely to change in a conversation where you listen as much as you talk, you refuse the invitation to go into convince mode and you demonstrate the pragmatic approach of a discerning professional.
So drop the deck and have the conversation.