When new creative firms come to Win Without Pitching, they arrive with the baggage of “industry best practices” and Blair instructs them to throw that away and replace their presentations with conversations. But does that mean you never actually talk about your firm? No. In this episode David Baker asks Blair when to talk about you and in which of the Four Conversations In the Arc of the Sale.
David C. Baker: Blair, I’m going to confess something that could possibly be used against me at some point in the future.
Blair Enns: Go on.
David: You’re excited about this. I actually enjoy our conversations, but two years into this, I’ve finally come to that point.
Blair: No, let me stop you right there. I checked the other day. Do you know when we recorded the first one?
Blair: April of 2015.
Blair: They didn’t start dropping until February of 2017. We were recording for almost two years before we decided to go live, but go on.
David: This has been three– Okay, so I look forward to these conversations because it’s like a regular thing where it forces me to think about something, especially if you’re the one that I’m interviewing versus you interviewing me. You pitch this topic and then send me some thoughts about it. This is really good. I haven’t really thought about a lot of these things in that context. That’s why I enjoy it because I’ve been very busy today, got lots of client calls and so on. I would not have taken the time to think about this, so that’s good. How do you react to my moment of weakness right here?
Blair: Oh, no, I’m with you. I’ve been on the other side of that, yes. Some of these topics, without seeing your outline or the points that you want to cover, I think, “Oh, yes. Okay, I got my head around this,” and then you send me the points and I think, “Oh, my God. Okay, now you’re really forcing me to think differently about this and realize that I haven’t properly thought.”
David: Yes. We’re going to title this, How to Talk About Your Firm, which seems like such an innocuous thing. You have developed systems that help people get their heads in the right place about the different arcs of the conversation and the different phases and understanding, “All right, where am I as this possible sale progresses so that I’m asking the right questions, looking for the right outcome and so on?” This is something that you haven’t plugged into the same place every time, so just let people understand what’s in your thinking about that.
Blair: Yes, so how to talk about your firm. Over the last few weeks, this subject came up, and then it’s come up every single day since. You know how you get a new car and you realize, “Oh, man, there’s a lot of these cars out there in the world.” It’s almost like that moment. I realized either the world’s changed or I’ve just woken up to the fact that I have not addressed this issue. The question that came up is, “Hey, Blair, we’ve gone through your training. We understand this model of there are four conversations in the sale. Each conversation has an objective and a framework that you use to navigate to the objective, but nowhere in those four conversations is there a place where we talk about us. Where do we talk about us, and how do we talk about us?”
One of the ways this came up recently, and it wasn’t the first time in the last 10 days it came up, it was like the third or the fourth, a client of mine was saying, “Hey, I had a qualifying conversation with somebody, and I was trying to get information to qualify them to see if they were a fit for us. He didn’t know anything about us, and he kept trying to interrupt me to ask questions about me, but I was following your framework, and then at some point, he just hung up.”
David: Of all the nerve, the person who wants to give me a lot of money wants to know about me.
Blair: Yes. He said, “So what did I do wrong?” I said, “Not so much about what you did wrong, but about the hole in my model.” The question is, was this an error when I originally conceived of in the times I’ve optimized this model where I’ve left this out, or have I left it out deliberately? The honest answer is both. Let me speak to leaving that out deliberately at first.
I come from this point of view. I’m assuming that when I begin working with a creative firm, that they’re bringing with them all of the baggage of what I consider to be the industry best practices on how to sell creative, which I just throw them all out, I assume that I have to deprogram them from these industry-standard ways. I need them to let go of things before they can pick up new things. One of the things that creative firms need to let go of is the need to present, and I talked about this. It’s one of the proclamations in my first book, the one with a pitching manifesto. We will replace presentations with conversations.
My assumption is that you as a new client of mine and owner of an independent agency or business development person, your tendency in the sale is you’ve got a deck, you’ve got a credentials or capabilities deck, you’ve got a bespoke new business pitch deck that you’ve crafted to this specific client, and you’re looking for the opportunity to go into presentation mode so you can talk about yourself, which is one of the favorite things of a creative person to do. I’m not trying to demean creative people here. I love them, and I’ve built my business life so that I can be surrounded by them, and I considered myself to be one of them, but there’s just something about creativity and big expansive thinkers who can see around corners. They just love standing up in front of a room and doing a presentation.
When I laid out this model initially, it was– I don’t think you should ever go into presentation mode. I don’t believe that you should have a standard credentials deck or standard presentation about your firm, maybe it might make sense at four, five slides. My assumption is that you’re bringing that behavior to the new training relationship, and I want you to let go of it completely. In my model, nowhere is there a place where you get to go, “Okay, this is the part where I get to talk about myself. Let me stand up in front of the room, plug in that laptop and go into presentation mode.” I never wanted to enable that.
David: Now, 15 years later, you’re slowly giving them permission for what?
David: 20 seconds, you may talk about yourself now.
Blair: Yes, but now I realize it is a hole. The question is, where do I talk about myself? My answer is, well, you talk about yourself in the qualifying conversation, the second conversation in the sale. It’s the typical sales conversation where you’re running this prospective client through a decision-making matrix to decide whether or not there’s a fit here for you. One of the stated objectives of one of the quadrants in this four-quadrant scorecard, the question you’re asking is, does the client see a fit between their need and our expertise suitable enough to take the next step? It’s in there and I felt for years like, “Well, I’ve given you the license to get to answer that question.”
If the client needs some more information about you, then you go ahead and provide that information. If they don’t, then you don’t provide it. Maybe they’ve got enough from the referral or from your website or from some other sources. Because I haven’t baked it in specifically, I realized that some of my clients are just– they’re losing deals because of this. It’s not the first time I’ve had a realization where a hole in my model or poor communication of something has caused people many years of small failures.
David: I need to go way back in my career when I did some resident consulting for a firm who wasn’t in this space, they were in the professional service space. This was almost 30 years ago. They were a financial planning firm and was about 30 people. I started out as the corporate pilot there, and then I moved up and began managing the department and so on. I never recognized how I kept repeating the same things, how I kept having these stories, and it was the things that I would fall back on because it was comfortable. It gave me a way to move the conversation forward. I clearly wasn’t listening like you talk about so much.
Anyway, I started to travel in the plane was this guy. He was also a pilot. I noticed when I was listening to him that he was repeating the same stories over and over again. He didn’t notice it, I don’t notice it when I do it. I would ask him after each engagement, “Why did you tell that story? It had nothing to do– It was about the start of your firm. It wasn’t interesting, it had nothing to do with what the client wanted to hire you for.” We finally got into a really much more significant conversation, it’s just it was his default way of presenting. Isn’t that what’s happening here?
Blair: Yes. That’s a great story, and it illustrates why you probably weren’t a corporate pilot for very long.
David: [laughs] Yes, that’s not what you were supposed to take from that story.
Blair: I know I’m just a pilot, but let me critique you on the presentation you just did.
David: Just to finish that story, this is also the fellow I was on the executive team. I stood up one time. We had to lay somebody off, and I suggested that we lay off his wife. He stood up with a red face and pounded the conference table and said, “Baker, damn it. You cut my legs off one inch at a time.” I’ll never forget that statement. Anyway, back to this. Your point is the client does need to qualify you at some point. Is that most typically to happen during the qualifying conversation? If so, can you put the qualifying conversation in context with the four stages?
Blair: Yes. The client does need to qualify you. You just think of the range of inbound inquiries that our listeners would get in their business. Some of them– You’re already positioned as the expert. You’re doing things properly on the positioning and marketing or lead-generation front. When you have the first human-to-human conversation, which is the qualifying conversation, you’re already positioned as the expert. They know you, they have been referred by one of your better clients, they’ve been reading your thought leadership, so they’ve already decided that there’s a fit.
At the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got somebody who just like in the old days, would’ve pulled your name out of the yellow pages just as a Google search for whatever it is that you do, you’re one of a bunch of firms that comes up and they reach out to you, so you’re in a qualifying conversation. There’s thinking, “Wait a minute, I need to qualify you.” Allowing the clients to qualify you should happen in the qualifying conversation. Here’s how I think about it. You’ve got this list of questions that you need to answer to determine if there really is an opportunity here, if there’s a good fit, and what the appropriate next steps are, and the client has some questions. You start with your framework. In the case of my client, who had somebody hang up on him last week, what I said to him, but I’ve never formally given this guidance before, it’s nowhere in our training curriculum. I said, “When a client is like interrupting you and saying, ‘Hey, I want my questions answered first,’ you should stop and switch gears and let that person get the answers to his questions,” but how you do it is so vital.
Just think of my client’s situation, if he would have had this advice and he would have said, “Okay, okay. It’s all right. I apologize. I’ve got this framework that I need to run people through to make sure that there’s a good fit on my end, but you need to do the same thing. Let me answer whatever questions you have about us.” Then turn it over to the client, “What kind of questions do you have? What information do you need?”
Here’s the language I like? What information do you need to determine whether or not we’re capable of this project? Another line I like is you need to let the client check the box that says, “Yes, this firm can do this. You are capable.” If I think of how would I say that to a client, “All right, what kind of information do you need from me to be able to check the box that says, ‘Yes, we can do this project that you’re talking about’?”
David: In a way, you’re not just leaving it open-ended where the client or the prospect, in this case, could ask anything they want. Obviously, they still have that power. You’re really directing them into this narrow section that says, “Let’s try to limit the questions to whether we are capable of doing the work that you want.” Is that a fair restatement?
Blair: I think it’s fair. I wasn’t thinking of it that way. I actually want it to be fairly open-ended. I want the person who’s asking the question, the person on the agency side of the table, to not bring any assumptions to this conversation about what that client wants to hear or see. I don’t want you to think, “Oh, here’s my chance to pull out my keynote deck and go into presentation mode.” Ask the client the question. I wonder how many of the people listening to this podcast could think back and think, “Yes, I’ve actually asked that question.” I don’t think it happens very often.
I think we assume what information they need to know? “Oh, we have these many clients. We’ve worked for these many team members. We’ve worked for these clients. We’ve won these awards. We’ve worked on these types of projects.” Again, some of the people who are unreformed would say, “Oh, I’ve got a presentation on that. Let’s schedule an hour for me to talk at you for an hour.”
I would rather you just hand it over to the client and say, “What kind of information do you need?” They might say, “Well, tell me about the history of the firm.” I might say, “Okay. Yes, happy to. Some of this information I’ll walk you through is on our website. If you want to have a look at that afterwards, a lot of what I’ll talk about, but here’s our history. Here’s the number of people, et cetera. What else do you want to know?” “Well, what about the projects you worked on?” “Well, here, let me share my desktop. Let me walk you through a few case studies.”
Just let the client lead. The mistake we make, and we make this when it comes to the proposal itself too. The mistake we make is we think, “Oh, client needs to know something about us. Let’s flick the switch,” where we tell him everything he might possibly want to know and then we go into presentation mode. As I’ve said before, you can present to people or you can be present to them. You can’t be both.
You can’t both present and be present. You go into presentation mode, the walls, I imagined this glass wall rising between the two of you, and to me, that’s a metaphor that says, “You’re presenting. You’re convincing, you really want this. You’re not really open to hearing critical feedback, or to me asking pointed questions.” The conversation diminishes or the quality of the conversation drops. They don’t share what they’re thinking about, what it is that you’re saying because you’re in presentation mode.
David: If you attempt as the new business person to raise the level of conversation with the prospective client, I think some of those prospects would know exactly how to take those cues and ask the right questions. I think some of them really have no idea. This is a perfunctory process. They don’t come into it with six-bullet points, wanting some level of comfort with each one at the end of the conversation. They might be a little bit surprised. Does that make sense? Do you see that when you work with clients?
Blair: I’m not sure that I see that, but I can imagine scenarios where that would be the case, where the client goes, “Well, I don’t know what questions to ask,” because usually the firm’s that I’m talking to have a presentation about this. Again, I always politely decline the invitation to go into presentation mode or to go into convince mode or to write a lengthier proposal.
Those are just three areas where you’ll be invited to do this and you just say, “Well I’m not really in the presentation business. I don’t have a presentation ready on why you should hire us. I do have some slides from this other thing that we did. Let me just pull them up here. Do you want me to just share these five slides. I’ve got some slides on and these are the key things that people are usually to looking for, our experience, our people, and our process.” Again, process is Canadian for process. Process is vital to closing, but it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to close a really big deal without, at some point, sharing with the client how you work.
David: Not just talking about it but showing it to them because that demonstrates that the process is not all that variable. We’ve talked about this before in another episode, part of what makes your work so effective is that you are usually following a pretty prescribed process. Can I take us back to one thing? Our friends who would interview a prospective client for the agency and say, “Tell us why your brand is cult worthy? What is it about your brand that is cult worthy?” Then they had I think four or five very specific questions around that.
If we flip that around in this same context, I don’t know what you would call that, but if the possible client is saying, “Are you possible client worthy?” Those questions are the ones that you just talked about, the process, the people, and so on. Those are the ways that they’re determining whether or not you’re worthy to work with them?
Blair: It’s a great little exercise. If I’m imagining I hand over to the clients and say, “Oh, okay, so what information do you need to check the box to say that we can do this project or we’re the right firm for you? Or just at this point, we might be the right firm for you.” Let’s say the client turns that back around on me and says, “Well, I’d rather hear from you. Why is it that you think you can help us? Why is it you think we should hire you?” Again, I always resist that invitation to convince.
I would say, “Well, it’s not my job to convince you to hire us, but let me tell you why others in your position have hired us.” They commonly want to know, what experience do we have? What type of projects do we work on? What size of clients and projects financially makes the most sense where we feel were the most competent. They often want to know, “How is this going to work? Do we have a codified methodology that I can communicate to you that shows the journey that we would go on together?” The answer to that question is, “Yes, we do. I can walk you through all of that, and then the decision on whether or not there’s a right feature, that’s up to you. Where do you want me to start?”
David: Right. I don’t want to throw you off and maybe throw a hand grenade into this conversation. If you’d rather not answer it, that’s fine, but is there a danger in letting them ask these questions too soon or too late? Assuming that you, as the new business person, are doing your best to direct this conversation so it’s helpful and you have some choice there, what’s your preferred timing? Maybe you don’t. Maybe that’s the point, is it? You need to listen to every situation and treat it very differently. Maybe that’s the point.
Blair: I think it’s gauging whether or not the client sees a fit. It’s something you want to do really early on.
David: Why? So you don’t waste time?
Blair: Yes. Because when you navigate through the arc of the sale with somebody who sees you as a vendor or who is uncertain of your abilities or capabilities, that’s a different experience than navigating through the sale with somebody who recognizes and values your expertise and treats you like the expert practitioner. It just feels different.
If you’re navigating through either the qualifying conversation or that value conversation or the closing conversation after that and it still feels like you don’t have the high ground, there’s this level of uncertainty, then you’ve glossed over something. Maybe you’ve been a little bit too focused on the Win Without Pitching framework or whatever framework that you’re using and you haven’t been tuned into the subtle signals that say, “Hey, you still haven’t checked the box that says ‘you guys can do this.'” Earlier is better, but on the subject of process, how you work, that becomes more powerful. We’re discussing this at a fairly high level, we’re not getting too granular here, so I don’t want to muddy the waters here by saying, “Hold back the conversation of process,” because you could create some problems for yourself. Generally speaking, if you haven’t had a conversation about how this is going to work in a qualifying conversation and then you get to, just before you’re about to present a proposal or before you’re invited to create a proposal, that’s a really good time to talk about process because it’s a highly reassuring. I talk about inspire early and reassured late.
It’s early in the buying cycle, not necessarily the sale. Sometimes the stages of the buying cycle correlate with the sale, but not always. Walking through a codified methodology of how you do what you do, that’s expressed visually. It’s codified not just in words, but in images that shows the map of the journey that you would take the client on. That is a really powerful tool of reassurance. We did an episode on alternative forms of reassurance where we went deeper into this and then an offshoot of this, something we call process frame case studies. Generally speaking, later is better, but if the client asks, “How’s this going to work early on?” Then you answer that question early on.
David: After they talk about process and you’d walk them through some of these visual tools that you have, I know you feel strongly about leaving certain things with a client and not leaving others. Is it okay to leave that with them so that they become your advocate in a sense and sell to somebody else outside of your presence?
Blair: That’s a great question. Different client types, different organizations, organizations of different sizes, there are going to be different conditions. Ideally, you want to navigate all the decision-makers through the sale in reality. Especially in large corporations, you’re not always able to get to all decision-makers. You just have to accept that you’re doing some work through one or two individuals and sometimes you have to arm them with materials that they can take to others in the organization.
A really good salesperson would try to do that in-person. By in-person, I don’t necessarily mean face to face, but get some face time via a web meeting or a telephone call with the missing decision-makers. If you can’t do that, it’s a good idea to let these tools, like a process map or a model map, enable these to travel into the client organization. The common mistake, and maybe you’re going to get there, but the common mistake is, take all of the information that you want to communicate to the client about the firm and the engagement to follow, you dump it all into a proposal and imagine that proposal going throughout the client organization. That’s a mistake you want to avoid.
David: All right. Well, this is really interesting. I’ve enjoyed the discussion. It keeps bringing up this thought about natural salespeople versus salespeople who think about it as a craft, a craft not to manipulate the prospect but a craft to arrive more efficiently and more accurately at the right fit. It just seems like an endless pursuit. There’s so many little nuances about this, about the whole sales process, so this has been a good discussion. Am I leaving anything off? Anything else you’d like to talk to our friends about today?
Blair: I don’t think so, but that point that you just made, it’s a really good one. When you’re fortunate enough to be in a position where you’ve gained some kind of authority status in your world– I don’t know how to say this without sounding too aloof, but you and I are fortunate enough to be in that position. In the sales conversations that we’re in, typically people are aware of our work and our point of view and they see us as expert advisors already. Although before we went live, you were telling me a story where that isn’t. You just had a sales call where that isn’t the case and–
David: How painful that is.
Blair: Yes. It’s painful and then you let them have it and I laugh because I think I would expect nothing less. We didn’t begin that way. We started out where we had to earn every conversation. In the beginning of the conversation, we had no credibility. We started from the vendor position and then did what we could to work some Judo to flip to the expert practitioner position.
Everybody goes on this arc. Once you get to a place where you’ve been selling this way for a while, you’ll feel really confident in your ability, you feel like I’m well positioned, what I think is out there in the world and much of my target market has access to that. Superconfident about your ability to create value for your clients. Then these sales conversation, you’re not talking people into things, the conversations are exactly what we’re trying to model here. There are two discerning respectful professionals trying to collectively come to a mutual decision on whether or not it makes sense to do business together.
David: Yes. You’re relieved, regardless of the decision, right?
David: Like, “I’m so glad that wasn’t a fit,” or, “I’m so glad that was a fit.” Either way, it’s fine as long as it’s the right fit.
Blair: The right ones almost always work out. The right fits almost always work out, and the poor fits usually don’t– in terms of you agreed to do business together. The poor fits, one of you decides that this isn’t going to work for me, and it’s usually the right answer. It’s not always. Sometimes some bad ones get past you and you think, “Oh, I should have spotted, the signs were there,” or maybe I’m failing the client. They’re thinking, “Oh, the signs were there.” It’s almost always when you have these two discerning professionals, nobody’s trying to talk anybody into anything. You’re both speaking freely and honestly, nobody’s going into convince mode, it almost always works out that you end up working with the people you should work with, and you don’t work with the people you shouldn’t work with.
David: Yes, this has been fascinating. How to talk about your firm or maybe how and when to talk about your firm. Thank you for your work on this, Blair, it has been really fun to talk about it.
Blair: Thanks, David.