Win Without Pitching®: Thinking

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In Good To Great, Jim Collins writes of the liability of charisma, pointing to charismatic CEOs who built what looked to be successful companies only to have them implode after the departure of the leader. His point is that, far from being an asset, charisma is a liability that masks inefficiencies – a crutch for poor business practices. Mr. Collins' perspective on the liability of charisma applies equally to selling and sales professionals, particularly those selling professional services such as yours. A focus on selling on personality or developing personal rapport is not only unbeneficial to agency business development practices, it is downright detrimental.

‘It was a great phone call. We talked for 45 minutes and she told me all about her new baby.'

When an otherwise effective business development person attempts to qualify a prospect with whom he has a personal relationship, he often finds it harder, not easier, to ask the important questions. Further, the qualification that the business development person assigns to the prospect is more likely to be incorrect, specifically too optimistic. I repeatedly see business development personnel designating friends, or long-nurtured prospects with whom they have developed close relationships, as late stage buyers when they clearly are not. What develops is a cycle of one friend not asking the proper questions, and the other friend responding with more favorable answers than are appropriate, both trying to save each other some discomfort or disappointment. This pattern usually unfolds over numerous long and costly lunches that end with the business development person returning, proclaiming, ‘They really like us. We'll get business out of them for sure.' If only professional services were really bought and sold that way.

Below are five tips to help keep you out of the rapport trap and keep you focused on winning business without pitching.


Everything begins with positioning. If you are sufficiently positioned as an expert, uniquely qualified to help the prospect with his problem, then you have the luxury of being as cold, aloof, and curt as you like. I am not recommending this, I am merely pointing out that you will be hired for your expertise – the fit between the prospect's need, and your ability to supply a solution – and not for your personality or the personal connection between you and the decision maker. When you are properly positioned as the best solution to the prospect's problem, the only personal issue on which you will be judged is integrity. Integrity is nothing more than the size of the gap between what you say and what you do. Personal rapport is worse than irrelevant – it's dangerous. Leaning on personal rapport clearly implies no differentiation in your offering, which translates to no definable expertise, and with that, no ability to affect the sales process or command a price premium.


Junior level decision makers often do care about rapport because the mandate to solve the problem at hand is not theirs. It is not their job, or their business that is on the line, so their preference might be to hire the people they like best in an effort to make their day-to-day experience more enjoyable. Bear in mind however, that these junior level decision makers are usually not decision makers at all. They are influencers and gatekeepers. They have the power to say no early on, but no authority to say yes. Avoid them if possible by selling into the organization at as high a level as possible. If you do get passed down, begin the first interaction by telling the junior decision maker that his boss suggested that you call. Then follow the guidance in the next two points below.


In every phone call, in every meeting, begin by stating the purpose. ‘I'm calling to see if there might be a fit between our two companies.' Or, ‘We're here today so that we can learn a little more about your marketing challenges, and you can learn a little more about our agency. At the end of the meeting, together let's decide if there is a suitable enough fit to take the next step together.'

Stating the purpose up front sets a business-like tone for the conversation that will help all parties stay focused and keep the personal chitchat to an appropriate level.


You need not follow a script in your telephone conversations or face-to-face meetings, but often business calls drift off into the personal realm simply because the person making the call does not know what to say next. This happens far to often in the agency world. After defining the goal of the meeting (stating the purpose), then follow your previously laid out plan to get to that objective. That usually means having a list of qualifying questions for each of the four areas in which you need information. (See The Four Keys to Qualifying) Your qualifying questions are your roadmap to getting to your objective. (To see if there is a fit.) Without a roadmap you may find yourself lost in the realm developing personal rapport, hoping that the prospect will say, ‘Bob, I like the cut of your jib. The account is yours!'


There are exceptions to every rule and I will begin this point by acknowledging that some people who posses a lengthy list of personal contacts are good at translating those friendships into business for their employer, but these people truly are exceptions. Even more people are good at turning personal relationships into business ones, when they own the business. But the danger in your business development person selling to his friends does not end once the account is secured. Hiring employees with the expectation that they will bring business with them or win business based on their personal relationships or ability to get people to like them is placing too much control into the hands of your employees. Business that your employees bring in on personal relationships, leave on personal relationships. While consulting to agencies and in my previous agency career I have repeatedly seen employees hold agency principals hostage with the power that comes from knowing that if the employee walks, so does the large account. These are the indispensable people that no firm can afford to have.


A little bit of personal rapport is helpful in breaking the ice in initial conversations so that buyer and seller can reach a comfort level about each other. This harkens back to the most basic of instincts, self-preservation. A sincere smile and respectful manner, communicated in seconds, not minutes, will help to assure the prospect that there is no threat. A deeper comfort level will develop naturally as the two parties engage in a professional, consultative process to determine whether they should work together.

In short, the real role of rapport is to make people feel comfortable with you, not to make them like you. This can be done quickly by being polite and respectful. Relax, be yourself, state your objective, and proceed orderly to that objective by asking well-conceived questions in an efficient, direct manner, using a tone commensurate with the professionalism you want associated with the 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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