Although I think I do a good job of masking it, I remain scarred by the dozen years I spent working in advertising agencies and design firms before I began advising them. The scar that marks me, and perhaps you, is the service scar.
I was taught that ours was a service business, that clients got what they wanted, that the keys to winning business were to promise responsiveness and demonstrate enthusiasm.
I haven’t swung so far in the opposite direction to now see responsiveness and enthusiasm as bad traits but it’s eminently clear that to lean on them in the sales cycle is to send the wrong message.
Compliance vs. Disruption
So many of the “best practices” of new business development among the creative professions are practices of compliance – of conforming to a client-driven selection process, but most client-driven selections processes are arduous, ineffective and often outright ridiculous. (If procurement is involved the likelihood of all of this goes up.)
The good news is that compliance, like crime, doesn’t pay. The number one predictor of your likelihood of winning a large, complex B2B deal is whether or not you affected the buying process – did you change the way the client thinks about the problem and procures a solution? Disruption is the key to winning, not compliance.
Where would you place service, responsiveness and enthusiasm on the compliance-disruption continuum? Waaaaay out on the far left.
Additionally, best practices and benchmarks are about getting below-average firms to the average.
So, if you’re aiming for average in a context of ridiculousness and want to impair your ability to win the deal then lean on service, invest in presentation skills training, stay up later producing longer, shinier decks and give away even more free thinking through forced smiles in bleary-eyed presentations.
Or, say fuck it for once and actually be disruptive.
Turn That Smile Upside Down
Get out of the out-of-the-box-thinking box, burn all the damn boxes, quit smiling at things that deserve frowns and focus on building deep expertise and then just be your grumpy authentic expert self. Push back on anything that doesn’t make sense. Don’t be an ass about it, just don’t smile and nod when you shouldn’t – it won’t get you anywhere.
You lose business because of a lack of service in the implementation or re-application phases of the engagement when you’re working with junior client-side personnel. You rarely lose business because of poor service when you’re working with the client’s senior people in the important diagnostic or strategy phase and you almost never win new business (with the same senior people at the table) because of service.
What little business you do win this way is the wrong business. I learned this lesson in spades working for a multinational ad agency whose pitch to a national retailer was an embarrassing, emotional appeal full of over-the-top service promises. It worked – we won The Client From Hell. In hindsight, it was pretty easy to see what was going through their minds: “You want our business that bad? Okay, you’ve got it. And now we own you.”
We leaned heavily on service because we had no competitive advantage and the account was far too important to the senior person leading the pitch.
The effect of selling on service is the same as selling on chemistry or price: it says you’re average, it says you’re needy. It says you’re compliant.
Sell on expertise instead. Use the confidence that comes from deep expertise to politely push back where it makes sense to do so. And wipe that smile off your face before you walk through the door. It’s okay to smile a real smile, just don’t use that one. You know which one I mean. It just might scar you for life.