Win Without Pitching®: Thinking

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When discussing specific new client opportunities with agency business development personnel I often offer some qualifying questions for them to put to their prospects. One VP of business development recently responded to these questions in exasperation, ‘It sounds like you want me to look for reasons not to do business with this person!'

‘Exactly,' was my response. ‘Now you're getting it.'

The gatekeeper is the person whose job it is to keep you, the salesperson, away from his boss, the decision maker. He will let you past only once he is convinced of a fit – assured that you might be able to help his boss and are not likely to waste his time. To help him in deciding whether or not to let you through he will ask some pointed questions, and he will ask them early in the very first conversation. The agency gatekeeper – the business development person – would do well to apply the same principles to qualifying prospects in order to ensure that the bad clients do not make it past him into the agency where they will drain valuable resources.


Price is the final objection only because discussion on it is left too late. Overcoming the big objections early in the buying cycle helps to prevent you from wasting too much time and too many resources on a prospect that is a poor fit. If you have ever over-invested in a prospect only to find after presentation of your proposal that he does not have the budget to sufficiently address his marketing challenge, or to even be of interest to the agency, then you know the value of receiving bad news early. Just like in the investment world, bad news late is expensive. The job of the agency gatekeeper is to ask the tough questions early and quickly look for any possible reason why the relationship might not work. Budget is a good place to start. Having the money conversation early – as soon as a need is identified – is as simple as stating, ‘I should tell you right now that our minimum level of engagement is $50,000 in fees.' Remember the Win Without Pitching rule of money? Those who can't talk about money don't make it. If the prospect cannot afford you, you are better off to learn that before agency resources are applied to the opportunity. Further, your direct qualification of the prospect sets the tone that you are interested in his business only if you are certain that you can be of assistance. A signal quite contrary to that sent out by the more common over-eager agency.

Keep in mind that people want what they cannot have. If you break off the relationship early because of a lack of fit, you part with your integrity intact. If things change in the future and the objection (the reason you could not do business together) disappears, you are far more likely to hear from that prospect than if you were to have otherwise wasted everybody's time trying to force a fit where none existed. I have seen this proven repeatedly: prospects turned away early, often come back at a later date.


Other points to be made by the agency gatekeeper early in the relationship, as soon as the subject is broached, include the agency's policies on developing proposals, and on speculative creative. If you do not have a new client policy, consider adopting one. You will find that such a policy will help to increase your business development efficiency as you concentrate on opportunities that are better fits. A document as short as one page, your new client policy can be circulated to staff, used to guide business development personnel, and it can be sent in response to RFPs and other unsolicited requests.

An unexpected RFP shows up over the fax machine? Simply fax back your new client policy with a letter stating, ‘Thanks for your interest, if your agency selection process can accommodate our new client policy as described here, please let us know.'

Your new client policy should state your expertise, your client profile, your minimum level of engagement, and your policy on solving the problems of prospects before you are engaged. It should also state the conditions under which you would be willing to present a proposal. Some examples of new client policy statements include:

  • The agency's clients benefit from, and compensate the agency for, the strategic counsel of the agency’s senior marketing and creative personnel. This fee-for-service arrangement applies to companies interested in retaining but not yet engaged with the agency
  • The agency does not engage in unpaid speculative work of any kind (creative, strategy, or other) that would see valuable resources diverted from paying clients
  • The agency's minimum level of engagement is…
  • If your organization would like a proposal from the agency on how we might help your organization, the agency would be pleased to prepare and present one in exchange for…


In most agencies there is usually at least one person who gets excited by every business development opportunity, no matter how questionable the fit. It is the role of the business development person, the agency gatekeeper, to apply a healthy level of skepticism to new client opportunities and keep the poor fits away from the eternal optimists. (This is just one reason why, in the previous issue of the Win Without Pitching Newsletter, I argue against a commission-weighted compensation plan for business development staff. Commissioned employees, out of financial necessity, are far too optimistic about marginal opportunities.)

Early objections are your friends, while late objections can kill the deal and demoralize staff that worked so hard on a pitch built on faulty assumptions, all because someone couldn't bring himself to ask a few questions early in the relationship. Encourage your business development personnel to seek out reasons not to do business with prospects early. Once uncovered, many of these objections can be addressed. But some cannot, and are therefore a sound basis to decide not to do business together. Remind your business development personnel that together with the responsibility of bringing clients in, they are obliged to keep the bad ones out. The tools for doing this are simple, direct qualifying questions and the same gatekeeper mentality that your assistant or receptionist uses to keep those annoying, overzealous sales people away from you.

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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