A proper approach to selling should be energy positive. It should be sustainable. And it should be fun – even when you lose. And that, to me, is the test: how do you feel after you don’t win an opportunity? Are you depleted or are you charged by the interchange and the progress you’ve made? Are you left mourning the loss and regretting the expense or are you left thinking you’re one step closer to being hired by this client in the future? If the engagement was a disaster waiting to happen did you walk away calmly and take some joy in the carnage about to be caused to your less discerning, over-eager competitor, or did you ride it out right to the messy end, all the way hoping the warning signs weren't real?
Early in my agency career, when I was young, stupid(er) and full of energy, I loved the buzz of the chase and the thrill of the pitch. At least I loved it for a short period of time. In truth it was emotionally and physically taxing but the occasional win bought back some of the spent energy and allowed me to keep going for awhile longer. In moments immediately following those wins I would probably even claim that I was energized by the process. String together a few losses however or fast forward a few years and it’s hard to deny that the late nights, spent psychic energy and emotional roller-coaster of the pitch is ultimately energy-depleting and difficult to sustain.
As I think about it today I draw parallels to gambling. We’ve all met someone who regularly plays cards, slots or maybe the lottery and claims to be winning. They are winning, on occasion, and it’s that occasional win that keeps them going back to bet again. We know intuitively however that in the big picture and over the long haul they are almost certainly not winning – the system is rigged toward the house and the longer someone plays the more likely their results will revert to the mean, which depending on the game and the house correlates to a loss of between 2% and 20% of everything they bet, over the long term. (Yes, a small number of people have figured out how to beat the system but we both know your crazy Aunt Betty is spending way more grocery money on lottery tickets than she’s letting on.) Some of these ‘winning' gamblers are addicted, in denial and approaching catastrophic failure. But I digress.
Just as hitting the occasional jackpot at the slots almost never equates to building wealth, the energy gained from winning a pitch only briefly masks the truth that over time a pitch-based approach to new business is expensive by any measure, including joy.
Selling should be fun – it can be fun – and I mean over the long haul, not in fits and starts that coincide with your occasional wins. If it’s not fun you’re not doing it right, and if you’re not doing it right, you’re not likely to last.
How to Do It Right
Here are three pieces of advice to help keep selling fun, and therefore sustainable, the next time you engage with a prospective client.
1. Remember: It’s a Game
As I’ve said many times, business development is but a game and the game goes by the name The Polite Battle for Control. The name describes the easy, polite jostling that you undertake at the very beginning of the interaction and as long as necessary afterward to claim the high ground in the relationship – the point at which you go from being seen as a vendor to being seen as a professional practitioner. (The moment you achieve this high ground is known as The Flip, which I wrote about last week.)
Games are meant to be fun. The Polite Battle for Control is fun because your game is trying to get the client to change the rules to their game. By affecting the buying process thusly you dramatically increase your odds of winning. If you can impact the process then you proceed; if you cannot you politely walk away in search of another game where you can get the rules changed. Walking away in this manner should enhance your desirability or at least mystery and preserve or even improve future opportunities with that client.
Focus On the Mission. Your mission, in each and every sales interaction, is to position yourself and your firm as the expert practitioner. You don’t sacrifice your mission for anything, ever. Not money. Not glory. Nothing.
While your objective in these interactions is usually to determine if there’s a fit suitable enough to move forward, it’s never achieved at the sacrifice of your mission.
A very successful agency principal once told me a story of her dream client that she had long coveted but had never closed. One day she got a call from them. “I’m calling from the marketing commodity purchasing department,” said the voice on the phone. Seeing the writing on the wall, the agency principal sighed, said, “Well then you’re calling the wrong firm,” said a polite goodbye and hung up.
Her focus was on the long view – being sure her firm, if hired, was able to bring their expertise to bear to create meaningful value for the client. She couldn’t possibly do this by beginning a relationship with her dream client by going in though the commodity purchasing door.
Let your mission guide you and you will be better off in the long run. Focusing on the mission gives you more freedom to play the game.
3. Don’t Over Invest
More than anything else, the energy drain you experience when losing a deal is born in your over-allocation of resources of all types. A pitch-based approach to selling is built around such over allocation, even when no spec creative is being presented. Doing unpaid research on the client’s situation, building decks, travelling to meetings, presenting, thinking too far ahead to how transformative the client would be for your firm – these are some of the ways we over invest in the sale, communicate to the client our lowly position of vendor, and set ourselves up for a crash.
All these forms of over investment can feel energizing and dangerously addictive in the moment and so the temptation to rationalize them as necessary is significant, but it only takes a few successive losses for us to see the waste they represent.
Playing the game begins with saying no to such investments (which are not investments at all but speculations) and offering alternative paths forward. The act of gaining such a concession is the act of improving your odds of winning. It is the beginning of The Flip.
In the end the games you end up playing are the ones where you are able to change the rules, where you value your mission over any tactical objective and where you don’t over invest in the deal. Use those criteria and you’ll win more opportunities and still have fun on the few you don’t win.
New Toys Equals a New Type of Fun
A few days before my oldest son’s tenth birthday we found him in tears. He was dreading turning ten, he finally said through the sobs, because he believed that getting older meant leaving toys behind. I smiled and agreed that as he aged his toys would change but I also promised him that the toys just got better and better. (He didn't believe me then, but now, ten years later, I’m sure he wouldn't trade his bikes, skis and electronics for his old Lego.)
When you’re young and trading on personality or your ability to command a room, the pitch can be a lot of fun, but the price you pay for each one catches up to you in the end. The good news is there are other ways to have fun – there are other toys. They are a whole lot more sustainable and even more fun than the pitch.