“Let’s see what kind of client you’ll make.”

The Questions to Ask When Considering a High-Risk Client Relationship

On my parents’ wedding day, family legend goes, my maternal grandfather turned to my father and menacingly said “We’ll see what kind of a son-in-law you make.” By all accounts my grandfather’s concerns were quickly assuaged and he and my father became very close.

Let’s try on the idea of you being as ruthlessly discerning with your prospective clients, if a little kinder in your language. What are the questions you would like to know in advance of working with a client to determine if this relationship is going to work? Employing the Win Without Pitching principle of Say What You’re Thinking (aka Kind Ruthlessness) let’s list the questions to which you would like answers and the direct-but-kind language you might use to get those answers.

Decision Makers

The most frustrating clients are often those with too many cooks in the kitchen. In any sale you need to identify the decision makers, but often, people other than those with a say in hiring you will have a say in the work you do—or they will feel that they have a say. You want to find out who on the client team has the ability to say no, to make or request changes, to delay the project or to just offer input; and if the number is high enough to concern you, you want to speak up.

“Once we’re working together, whose input or feedback on our work will be invited or welcome? How many people will have the ability to slow things down or degrade the quality of the work?”

If still concerned by the number, you might share that “In our experience—with creative work in particular—the organizations that limit the number of people having input tend to make braver decisions.” Groupthink, as we know, leads to lowest common denominator work.

Another danger of too many meddlers is your work being “circulated for comments.” If you’re worried about this, head it off before the engagement even begins by invoking policy. “It’s our policy that when the work we do is presented in your organization, we do the presenting. That way we can communicate all the subtlety and rationale that we don’t typically put into writing. I assume you’re okay with that?”

Alignment on Relationship Length

You might be set up to turn over clients and project work quickly, or you might be pursuing the slightly delusional idea of “clients for life.” Wherever you are on the relationship length spectrum, you want to make sure your clients are in roughly the same place. So go ahead and ask.

“What length of relationship are you looking for and why?” You might also ask “Is it the policy of your organization to review the account at defined intervals?”

I imagine my father clearing my grandfather’s first hurdle and then being told, just before their second wedding anniversary, that “As a matter of policy, I’m reviewing my daughter’s marriage every two years. I’d like you to complete this questionnaire, this financial forecast and prepare for the interview.”

“Why,” I can see my bewildered father asking?

“Well, people get complacent and we owe it to the family to make sure there’s not somebody better out there—more caring or with greater earning potential.”

If that’s your client’s policy, then they’re likely to be a shitty, price-buyer client and you’ll want to know it before you decide to work together. If you do decide to take them on at least you’ll know what you signed up for.

Another way to pose the question might be, “What do those in your organization see as the proper length of a relationship like this?”

Past Relationships

There may be questions you want answered about the client’s past. Just ask. “How long was your last relationship? Was that the right length or did you feel it ended too soon or went on too long? How did it end and why? What would you do differently if you had that relationship to do over again?”

If you’re particularly concerned—and feeling especially brave!—you might ask, “Would you mind if I had a conversation with the CEO or managing director of that firm?”


You want to know, in advance, if your client has any ideas on what your profit margin should be. The only acceptable answer is a variation of “we want you to make a lot of money by making us a lot of money.” Any client that wants to control your profit margin is not a good client.

“What are your thoughts on how profitable your account should be for us? Do others in your organization have the same view?”

You might even state, “I hope that our clients respect our right to earn extraordinary reward for ourselves by creating extraordinary value for them. What do you think about that?”


If procurement is going to be involved, you want to find out when they will appear and what their role will be. Again, direct questions are best. “What, if any, is the role of procurement in hiring a firm like ours? Do they share your view on our right to make money or are they solely focused on cost reduction?”

If you suspect procurement might be a problem, say so. “You seem to have a point of view that aligns with ours, but it hasn’t been uncommon for me to have reasonable conversations with people like you, only to be met with unsavory tactics from procurement later on.” Pause here and see if the client fills the silence. You might then ask, “If we get that far and I find myself in that situation, what’s your advice to me?”

Conversations Instead of Presentations

The Second Proclamation of The Win Without Pitching Manifesto is We Will Replace Presentations with Conversations. All of the language I have modeled above is just straightforward; questions to which you deserve straightforward answers. This is common sense but not common practice because we tend to think of the sale as a series of one-way communications: the client briefs you, you go away and do the work, then you present. The client listens then goes away and makes a decision. They then present that decision to you. There’s very little real proper dialogue in such a model and that’s what you want to change.

By learning to say what you’re thinking you create a real dialogue between professionals and an environment where everyone can speak frankly. You’ll also find that moving from presentation mode to conversation mode, in which you ask direct questions like the ones above, shifts the power balance toward you and you communicate that, like the client, you too are discerning of the fit.

I’ll ask my father how he replied to my grandfather, but I suspect he did the proper thing, said something polite and worked hard to gain his trust. I also suspect he was thinking to himself, “It’s a two-way street, old man. Let’s see how you shake out, too.” If he were looking for kinder words to speak, he might have said, “I’m sure we’ll both work hard to prove that we’re worthy of being in each other’s lives.”

Say what you’re thinking. Be kind, for sure, but be direct. Good clients will welcome a proper conversation.

The Most Valuable Skill in Business

There’s that person in your life. The friend or family member you only see occasionally and briefly but when you do, you really connect. You leave every interaction with her with a sense of fondness or love that is wholly disproportionate to the amount of time invested in the relationship.

A little while after your conversations, while still basking in the glow of this special relationship, you realize that you learned almost nothing new about her. You are slightly embarrassed to recall that you spent the entire conversation talking about you—not because that was your intent but because she lasered in on you, asked how you were, what you were up to. And the more you talked, the more interested she seemed to become. She made you feel that there was nowhere else she would rather be, nobody else she would rather be speaking to.

Now take that skill your friend has and transpose it into a business context. What do you have? You have what I believe is the most valuable skill in all of business. The business equivalent of what your friend or family member so effortlessly and beautifully does is called the value conversation, and it is at the heart of value-based pricing and any form of respectful selling.

The goal of value-based pricing is not to charge more—that’s merely a beneficial consequence. The goal of value-based pricing is to create an organization that is intently focused on creating extraordinary customer value. That means developing in your frontline people that same skill that your friend has: the ability to have a conversation with a client and have the entire focus of the conversation be on her. What does she want? What is valuable to her? What is she willing to pay for?

At no point in your conversation with your friend did she interject her stories to mesh with, build on, or refute yours. She didn’t bend the conversation to a topic that’s been on her mind. She didn’t try to communicate anything to you, other than the message that in that moment, you were the only thing that mattered.

What does it mean to do new business in your firm? How close or far are you from the ideal that your friend represents?

The Only New Business Indicator That Matters

RSW-US has just released the results of their 2015 Business Development Thought Leader Survey Report to which I contributed two core questions. The results are impressive and constitute what I believe to be the first real proof of the importance of affecting the buying process in winning the deal.

If you want to predict your likelihood of success in any given new business opportunity simply ask yourself, to what extent did we affect the buying process?

Key Highlights

I’ll get into the survey details and implications below but without any further ado here are the three key highlights of the tabulated responses to my questions:

  • Winning firms are almost ten times more likely to have significantly affected the buying process than losing firms. You read that correctly: Ten. Times.
  • Firms that do not affect the buying process at all have only a one-in-eight chance of winning
  • Even moderately affecting the buying process cuts a firm’s odds of winning to almost one-in-two

The bottom line is that if you do not affect the buying process in some way, shape or form you’re not likely to win the business. If you can moderately affect the buying process your odds are about 50-50. If you can significantly affect the process then your odds are ten times greater than if you had not affected it at all.

Play The Game, Play The Odds

I’ll repeat here what I have written and said many times: Business development is but a game and the game goes by the name The Polite Battle for Control. In this game you endeavour to lead in the sales cycle from the practitioner (rather than vendor) position and try to get concessions granted to you such as changes to the buying process, the sharing of confidential information or access to decision makers when you’re told access is not allowed.

Your ability to take control or affect the process in any of these ways is a valuable indicator of how different you are seen to be by the client and how much power you have in the relationship. Your likelihood of winning goes way up with these positive leading indicators. If you cannot take control or affect the process then you’re better off leaving this game (opportunity) and going in pursuit of one that you can affect.

This is the Win Without Pitching Way. Let your competitors waste their time and money with the one-in-eight long shots while you play the short odds. Invest resources only against opportunities in which you are able to affect or alter the client’s buying process.

Remember to follow our 4P’s hierarchy when pursuing new business:

  1. Win Without Pitching
  2. Derail the pitch
  3. Gain the inside track
  4. Walk away

One (Win Without Pitching before it gets to a competitive situation) is the ideal that we’re all pursuing but if it cannot be obtained then two and three require pushing back on the sales process and the obtaining of concessions. If you cannot derail the pitch or get behavioural concessions within a mandated pitch format then walk. Again, your odds of winning without these concessions are just one in eight.

The Survey Questions & Answers

Our two core questions were these:

1) Thinking of the most recent new business opportunity that you won, to what extent did you affect the buying process?

2) Thinking of the most recent new business opportunity that you lost, to what extent did you affect the buying process?

The answer options were A) Did Not Affect, B) Moderately Affected and C) Significantly Affected.

The results show that when a firm won an opportunity, 88% of the time they were able to affect the buying process (moderately 47% of the time and significantly 41%). Only 12% of the time did a firm win the business without affecting the buying process at all. Without knowing for sure, my bet is this 12% minority could have affected the buying process, learned of their likelihood of winning and lowered their cost of sale, if only they had tried.

Conversely, in 63% of lost opportunities the firm did not affect the buying process at all and only 4% of the time did a firm claim to have significantly affected the process and not won.

I’m not surprised by these numbers but I am very, very pleased to finally see them laid out so compellingly.

Read the full survey results here (PDF).

Seven Universal Truths About Money

Money, money, money. Most of us, I believe, have poor relationships with money. Another belief of mine is that some of us have warped or skewed views on the topic that we think are universally shared by others when they are not.

In this article I’ve tried to sift through these ideas and hold up the truths that I think are universal across time and cultures, and in so curating them maybe I’ll be able to help you improve your relationship with money and earn more.

1. It’s Impolite to Discuss Money in Personal Relationships
If your momma raised you right then you know it’s rude to ask someone you just met how much they paid for their house or to ask anyone other than your closest friends how much money they made last year or to volunteer your own information to such audiences.

In my own circle of friends I have some with whom we’ve agreed we’re going to have open, ongoing discussions about our financial situations and aspirations, and others with whom I’m just as close but do not have these conversations. Unless you come to an understanding with that friend or family member that these issues are on the table in your relationship, they’re not.

2. It’s Unprofessional to Not Discuss Money in Business
The corollary of the first truth is that it does not apply in a business context. The opposite is true: an inability to talk about money is transmitted as a sign of poor business acumen. Our professional troubles with money begin here by confusing these first two truths.

I accept that in some cultures it is agreed that the topic of money will come a little later in the conversation but etiquette is too often the stated reason for a discomfort in discussing what needs to be discussed when the time is right. In most of the Western world the time is right as early as the second sentence or soon thereafter.

A consulting client of mine years ago once asked me in exasperation how early he should be talking about money. (He was getting tired of me prodding him to broach the subject earlier and earlier.) Exaggerating just a little to make my point I said, “I want you to answer the phone, ‘Hello, ABC Agency – If you don’t have $50,000, please hang up!’”

3. Not Talking About Money Causes Stress
This was revolutionary to me when I was taught it: most stress in our lives is caused by the things we don’t do. Money conversations are stressful because we’re not having them.

If you want to relieve your stress around the topic simply program yourself to talk money early and often. A minimum level of engagement (MLOE) is a great way to begin to do this. (Follow this link to see ten more articles in which I discuss MLOE.)

4. Avoiding Money Discussions Causes Over-Investment, Leading You to “Cut Your Losses” by Accepting Less
The idea that a high cost of sale will cause you to take less money sounds absurd, even backwards, but this happens all the time.

How many times have you been in a presentation, dragging things out as long as you can until you finally arrive at the last page of your deck only to hear the client say, “We don’t have that kind of money!”

You cut your losses properly by having money conversations early and thus avoiding going down the long road with someone who does not have the resources to work with your firm. The opposite however is more common. In these situations where we have over-invested in the sale only to find that the client cannot afford us we’re more desperate to get something for our efforts and therefore we’re likely to take less.

With apologies to my first bosses, I proved this to be true for my first ten years in the agency business. You have more courage early than you do late. Use it to be discerning and ruthless where you have to be.

5. Budget Discussions and Ranges Change as You Move Up the Decision Maker Ladder
This truth is an important one to keep in mind to balance some of the earlier truths around talking about money early. You will hear objections and encounter limitations lower in the organization that do not exist higher up. Executives have the ability to get money and expand budgets, so don’t confuse the need to discuss money early with the idea that every budget or objection you hear is insurmountable.

Talking money early actually flies in the face of some principles of value-based pricing where the prevailing guidance is to speak about money last. This is true in conversation with executives who have the ability to bring more resources to bear. Lower on the totem pole you want to be talking money early. Once you get in front of the executive sponsor you can then put options on the table that are far beyond what their underlings think the company will spend.

The following conversation is just one variation that’s been relayed to me dozens of times over the years:

Agency principal to client: “Our fees for this would be $150k.”

VP of marketing: “We don’t have $150k for this.”

CEO, correcting his VP: “We have as much as we need to do this properly.”

Talk about money early unless you’re already dealing at the highest levels of the organization; leave it late for the big boys and girls.

6. Money Is a Tie-Breaker
Price is like chemistry in that it’s often seen as the reason a buying decision was made in situations where the ability or quality of the firms under consideration was seen by the client to be equal.

Almost everybody leaves out the last part that I put in italics. You win or lose on price when your perceived ability to solve the client’s problem is no greater than that of other firms under consideration.

The exceptions are the “price buyer” clients who want lowest price no matter what, but these are not the clients you build a business on. At worst you would sell excess capacity to these folks with all the value-added services stripped out. At best you wouldn’t do business with them at all.

To sell on price is to transmit to the client the very clear message that you do not believe your firm is a better option than the others. All this begs the question, why would anyone build such a firm? And, how do these people muster the inspiration to go to work in the morning?

So, if you’re losing business on price it’s not because you’re not cheap enough, it’s because you’re not good enough.

7. The Money You Command is Directly Proportional to Your Self-Esteem
Ahhh, now we come to The Truth. To correct my last statement in the previous truth, you cut price not because you’re not good enough but because you believe you’re not good enough.

Profit margin in a consultative sale of ideas and advice is a direct measure of the self-esteem of the salesperson. Period.

I’ll make a pretty good bet that your pricing has increased over the years. You probably charge considerably more today for the same thing you did five years earlier and the only thing that’s really changed in those five years is your confidence. Your confidence has grown the way most people grow their confidence: by feeling competent and then taking a small step. Once you get to the new pricing level you feel exhilarated and maybe even a little lucky to be charging what you charge. Then you get used to it and ask for a little bit more in the next step up. In this way you grow your confidence slowly.

We both know this is the cycle so why don’t we just make a little pact right now: you’re going to skip the next three price increments and go right to the fourth or the fifth with your next price on the next new client.

In this way you’ll hack the confidence cycle and reinvent your pricing and profit margin one new client at a time. This new pricing will soon become routine, just as all the increases have, and then you’ll hack it again, but you’re going to start with the next new opportunity.


Deal. Now do it.