“As a next step, I’d like you to come back with some concepts on what this campaign might look like.”
The client was politely but firmly taking charge, proposing what he clearly saw as a logical next step. Even though he was still a prospect at this point and not a paying client, he seemed to be conditioned to believe that our firm doing work for free made sense for all. I didn’t see it that way. Matching both his politeness and assuredness, I replied without skipping a beat, “We never pitch.” It was a lie. We pitched all the time but I was getting tired of it. I’d seen this film before and I knew how it ended. I wanted to try to change the ending, even if I didn’t know what should come after my small act of defiance. What made this particular exchange interesting though was that my boss, the president of the firm, was seated next to me and he replied to the client at exactly the same moment I did. “That sounds good,” he said. Cue the awkward silence.
It’s so long ago now that I don’t recall what happened next. I think I remember the three of us exchanging glances, Mexican standoff-like, but I don’t remember what language my boss or I spun to extricate ourselves with minimal embarrassment before we retreated to work on the pitch. I do know the client never hired us. I don’t think he hired anybody. It was the classic example of an overeager salesperson (me) mistaking interest for intent, and then an agency CEO, who had flown in for a meeting that never should have been, wanting to salvage something from the trip. Neither do I remember the details of the conversation with my boss that followed. I vaguely recall there was no real friction between us. I think he appreciated my alternative approach but would have liked to have known in advance what the play was going to be. The problem was that I myself didn’t know. I just sensed another client who was about to put us to work, for free, and not hire us.
If we list the things that went wrong on this opportunity, we find:
- The client had not yet formed any intent to solve his problem, therefore, in all likelihood, the meeting never should have happened. At the very least it was poorly qualified beforehand. Wasting your boss’s time and money by having him fly in for a poorly-qualified meeting is a major no-no. In all likelihood, he was probably coming to town anyway and asked me to line up some new business meetings. (Again, the details elude me.) Such a request is perfectly legitimate but also enough pressure to cause a salesperson to set up meetings that shouldn’t be. I don’t remember anything about the dialogue that led to the meeting, but I’ll bet it was me pushing for it and not the client. In such a context the dynamics become clear, with the client thinking, “these people really want my business. Of course, they’ll bring me some free ideas!”
- We let the client lead in the meeting and then we agreed to follow even though the place he was leading us to wasn’t in our best interest, or at least I didn’t see it as such.
- We, my boss and I, were not operating from the same playbook. I had contradicted him in front of the client. If I had told him in advance how I wanted to handle such a request, I think he would have agreed to play it my way. He was a great that way. But it wasn’t part of any predetermined plan of mine either.
All the errors seem silly to me now, but back then I just didn’t know. I was a new business person. It’s not like there was anything that resembled training for this role. You copied what was done by those around you and those that went before you, based on the stories and the decks. And you improvised.
In the many years since this incident I’ve seen that this lack of cohesion on business development topics is common–perhaps even the norm–even if most examples don’t manifest themselves in a subordinate putting his boss in an awkward position the way I did. Just today I heard from an executive at a medium-to-large independent firm frustrated at the firm’s leadership team’s inability to get on the same page. “We have rules we’ve agreed to about when we will pitch and when we won’t but we break those rules all the time, and we always lose.”
There are so many different challenges that can affect a firm’s new business success, but not having everyone agree on some basic policies and procedures has got to be one of the most common and most significant.
If you’re trying to extricate your firm from a new business rut, a good place to start would be to get all the key players together (I mean ALL. Don’t let the chief transgressors skip this.) and agree on some basic new business rules, such as:
- What do we require from the client before we will incur any expense?
- What information do we need before we agree to a meeting?
- Under what conditions will we respond to an RFP?
- What is the smallest engagement it makes sense to take on?
Of course, agreeing on the rules and enforcing them are two different things. I suggest that once you lay out the rules, commit to a brief postmortem on each late-stage opportunity (any opportunity that proceeds to a win or a loss) and, rule by rule, ask yourselves how you did. After a few such reviews, the patterns of transgressing and enabling will become clear. Then you need to decide what to do about that. You can cross that bridge when you come to it. For now, commit to getting everybody on the same page by setting up the rules and reviewing every won or lost opportunity against them.