Win Without Pitching®: Thinking

When to Hold and When to Fold

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Some of the core WWP principles include delivering a minimum level of engagement (MLOE) or otherwise talking money early, asking the client to overcome the obstacles to doing business together (rather than having him ask you), politely pushing back on a flawed buying process and pursuing various other forms of behavioural concessions.

The direct conversations around money reduce the likelihood that you’ll be scuppered later in the deal by financial objections that could have been uncovered early, and behavioural concessions extracted from the client are indicators of your likelihood of winning the business. Navigating the sale confidently enough to do all of the above says volumes about your self-worth and the value you see yourself and your firm bringing to the engagement. It is how any expert would be expected to approach a sale.

I get little argument against this in a classroom setting. On the ground however, things change. The salesperson encounters “special circumstances” that allow or even cause him to abandon a logical, if counterintuitive, approach. Most such special circumstances however aren’t all that special, and few are valid excuses for abandoning proper technique.

Here are the two sets of excuses I hear most often, followed by a recent example of when the excuses are valid.

This is the big one. The economy, dwindling cashflow, the size of the client (small or large), even the threat of not making payroll next week – we offer all these as a rationale for why we didn’t deliver the MLOE, ask about budget or in myriad other ways talk about money when we should have.

“But, we really need the money.”

An implication of this excuse would be that we only talk about money when we don’t need it. Obviously that’s not the least bit logical. What’s really going on is the financial context raises the stakes. With increased pressure, we revert to safe, old ways.

We don’t regress because we believe that being direct about money is riskier than avoiding the subject. (In moments of calm we know the opposite is true.) No, we buckle under pressure and revert to what is easier. Afterwards we rationalize that it was less risky.

The very best salespeople have the ability to ignore the context and do what needs to be done, whether the proposal has four zeros in it, five or even six. Higher stakes don’t change their behaviour.

In simple terms, every successful salesperson learns to pretend, like an actor, that the stakes aren’t high when they are, while the millions who haven’t learned this basic skill continue to use money, in all its sizes and forms, as an excuse for poor sales technique.

The Desirability of the Client
The second most common excuse for jettisoning proper sales technique is how badly we want the engagement. It might be a big client, a famous brand, exciting work that would add to the portfolio, or an opportunity to expand our expertise into something we haven’t done before – these are the excuses we summon when we find ourselves acquiescing to a request for a written proposal, hopping on a plane for a meeting that’s missing decision makers or an agenda, or presenting free ideas when otherwise we would not.

Like money, the desirability of the client simply adds more pressure to the situation and outs us for the professionals we are. Or, are not.

Here again it’s not the risk inherent in the Win Without Pitching approach that causes us to abandon it. When executed properly, requesting a behavioural concession from the client never lowers the likelihood of getting the deal. The worst that can happen is the client says no. From there, we can still decide to proceed on her terms, for now. To not ask is to not know how much power we have to affect the buying process. To not ask is to imply that we’re okay having process imposed on us, in the sale and in the engagement afterward. To not ask is to admit we are not the expert.

When to Fold
I had a Clarity call with an agency principal last week who had a chance to close a significant piece of business with a client his firm had worked on and off with for a couple of years. He pushed and cajoled and did everything right to fight some harsh terms that were being imposed on him by the client, but the client wouldn’t budge. In the polite battle for control, she was claiming all the points. The agency principal called me for advice on how to gain some higher ground. My counsel was to give in, take the ludicrous terms on offer and to do so with an air of gracious servitude.

My reasons were that theirs was a young firm, still trying to build credibility in their niche. The assignment was a breakthrough engagement that would bring visibility and credibility to the firm in a new discipline within their existing market.

Ahhh, I can hear you exclaim, aren’t these the excuses – the desirability of the client – I just said are not valid reasons to not do the right thing?

But he did do the right thing. He tried to affect the buying process. He refused the terms on offer and suggested others. He pushed back, as he should, and learned exactly how much power he had in the relationship: none. The client was giving him nothing. If he wanted the deal it had to be on her terms.

Further, this was an existing client that had always seen him as a vendor. He was annoying her by inexplicably demanding things above his station. That’s why I suggested that he be extra gracious in accepting her terms – to let the client know that he had rediscovered his lowly place in the relationship. You inevitably slide from practitioner to vendor in your relationships with your clients – never the opposite.

“You did your best,” I said. “You got all you were ever going to get. Now smile through gritted teeth, take the job, add this valuable assignment to your portfolio and apply these techniques to the next new client that comes along.”

It’s through your new clients, one at a time, that you reinvent your firm.

Blair Enns
Blair Enns is the Win Without Pitching founder and CEO and the author of The Win Without Pitching Manifesto and Pricing Creativity: A guide to Profit Beyond the Billable Hour.

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