Some agencies have policies about not doing business with law firms. Some refuse to work with not-for-profits. Others steer clear of government and government agencies. The reason for all is usually the same: committees. Committees can be difficult to deal with in the buying cycle and even more difficult once the account is won. But selling to committees can easily be mastered and this new skill can become a competitive advantage.
Some of the worst agency work in the world is done for committees, but these outcomes are easily avoided by the agency that understands a few basic rules. In addition to helping to improve the quality of the work, the Four Rules for Selling to Committees below will help to secure the engagement.
1. Conspire to Help
Your introduction to the committee begins with one person. In a not-for-profit organization the committee is often the board, and the contact person an employee. In a law firm the committee is comprised of partners, and the contact usually a coordinator or manager who is not a partner or even a lawyer. In either of these situations the individual is likely as frustrated as you might be by committee-based decision making. Once you know how to deal with committees one of your first jobs is to explain to your contact that one of your strengths is helping people like him get alignment and approval from the committee. He’s not alone; you’re here to help. To do this you must drill down not just on the organization’s need, but on the individual’s. Dealing with their committee is usually at or near the top of their list of challenges and help is usually appreciated.
2. Avoid Intermediation
Included in conspiring to help (above) is getting the contact person to understand and agree to your company policy of always presenting to the committee directly. Within the buying cycle this includes presenting credentials (whenever possible) and proposals (always). In the engagement period this would include the presentation of recommendations of any kind.
Selling 101 dictates that you must assemble and address all the decision makers to ensure a high likelihood of closing. For numerous reasons you will always do a better job of communicating your message than the employee contact person. For one, there can be untold baggage connected to the employee in the eyes of the committee, and sometimes troubling dynamics within the committee itself that the employee is not able to rectify or subdue. For another, the employee is subordinate to the committee and his recommendations are weighted accordingly. Further, it is difficult to address objections that you do not hear directly. The medium always distorts the message, so remove it. Some employees will be hesitant to allow the agency to present directly to the committee but by conspiring to help you have positioned yourself as an ally to the employee. Further conspiracy might require that the employee gets a dry run of anything you propose to put before the committee so he becomes as comfortable with your actions as he is with your intentions. Remember to use the words “company policy” when explaining your need to present to the committee directly. You’ll be surprised how often resistance melts away.
3. Take Control
I have mentioned in this space many times that the first rule of first aid is also the first rule of marketing aid: take control. Early in your first interaction with the committee you will establish the relationship as one of patient (client) and practitioner (agency), or one of customer and order-taker. You will be viewed as a doctor or a waiter, depending on the degree to which you take control of the situation. Begin by stating the purpose of the meeting, which is almost always “to determine if there is a fit between our two organizations.” Follow with an agenda: “I’m going to take three or four minutes to offer an overview of our firm, then I’ll show you three case studies of how we have helped organizations such as yours. After that I have some questions for you about your situation. At the end we should know enough about each other to agree on whether or not there’s a fit suitable enough to merit a next step. Agreed?”
Taking control is just as important once the engagement is secured and you are presenting recommendations. Presenting creative in particular is often seen by committee members as an invitation to participate in the design or writing. In these situations make sure you state the rules. Be forceful, but smile. Imagine a kindergarten teacher: “Alright.” (Smile) “I’m going to show you some creative concepts, but first let’s talk about what you are allowed to do, and what you are not allowed to do.” (Big smile.) “First, understand that what I need from you is strategic input and executional freedom. That means you can tell me if you think the creative is not meeting our agreed-upon strategy, but you cannot tell me how to fix it. That’s our job. You can say, ‘I think that blue is too weak for an organization trying to present an image of strength’. You cannot say, ‘make that blue darker.’” (Still smiling.)
“Second, know that your personal likes and dislikes regarding this creative are meaningless to me.” (Grin) “You are not allowed to say, ‘I don’t like that type face.’ You may say, ‘I think that type face is too old-fashioned for our contemporary messaging.’ You may not say, ‘why don’t you try Arugula Modern.’”
Part of taking control includes zero tolerance. “Ladies and gentlemen, Mark here just broke one of the rules.” (Smile) “Can anyone tell him what he did wrong?” You will dominate them; they will love it and they will pay you for it. Sometimes you end up saving the client from themselves. Many committees are overly influenced by one strong personality, creating awkward dynamics and undesirable outcomes. As an outsider merely enforcing protocol you have the ability to bring balance back to the committee where insiders could not. Do not underestimate the value of this outside facilitation! Take control and hold your ground.
4. Keep the Committee Involved
Keep your friends close and your enemies closer, the saying goes. Whether you consider them friend or foe you can help to close the deal with the committee by explaining their role in the client-agency relationship, specifically the points at which they will be allowed input. It’s highly reassuring to any buyer of agency services to know where they get to get their hands dirty. Most agencies do not adequately address the prospectSe’s questions about ‘how this is going to work.’ The committee will be far easier to work with when they are included in development rather than apprised of it afterward, especially on the strategic issues that characterize the early part of the relationship.
Your goal is to get consensus at each meeting and build on that agreement. When reviewing final creative you do not want to hear concerns about the underlying strategy. You should have reached agreement with the committee on the strategy early on, and anybody who tries to revisit the strategy after it has been agreed upon gets to stay after school and write lines.
As always, I’m happy to hear your feedback on this article.