After fourteen years of advising independent creative businesses on business development issues I’ve seen a lot of patterns of good and bad behaviour, rooted in good and bad assumptions. Here are my top ten business development myths and the bad practices they drive.
10. Branding and Full Service Advertising are Specializations
Specialization is at the root of business development success and of beating free pitching in particular. A narrow focus builds deeper expertise and shifts power to the firm in the buy-sell relationship. A once heretical notion, the indisputable logic of specializing is widely understood now. The road to specializing however is riddled with traps, and the first one is to skip the strategy and the sacrifice and simply look for the broadest label that encompasses most of what the firm has always done.
In the design world, this first stop on the positioning journey is branding. In advertising it’s full service. Neither are real specializations.
A design firm that specializes in branding is like a fish that specializes in swimming. It’s not a specialization, it’s the cost of entry. And “full service advertising agency” has always been the language of a small generalist trying to look like a big generalist.
Sacrifice is the essence of positioning. No pain, no meaningful differentiation.
9. The More You Have to Sell the More Likely a Sale
This sentiment is true when it comes to existing clients but a broad value proposition in the sales cycle only makes you seem more generalist. It’s a far easier sell when you begin a sales call with, “There’s one thing we do and we do it better than almost anyone. If you have a need in this area, great – let’s talk. If not, I’ll go on my merry way.”
In this manner you demonstrate the selectivity of an expert. It’s a much stronger value proposition for both the client and the salesperson than the typical laundry list of services found on most firms’ websites.
8. An Increase in Meetings Leads to an Increase in Sales
This is true in more transactional businesses where the sale is far less consultative and where scalability is vital. In a customized service business where client acquisition goals almost never exceed one new client per quarter however, a focus on quantity comes at the cost of quality.
Years ago I did contract business development work for an ad agency. The owner wanted to pay me based on meetings obtained. “Get me the meetings and I’ll close.” (Oh, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that…) I did; he didn’t. And I knew he wouldn’t. I got him meetings that shouldn’t have been meetings, but that’s how he wanted to align the incentives.
The pursuit of meetings leads to more meetings and higher costs. It also leads to you operating from the vendor position instead of the practitioner. Focus on the right things: conversations with qualified prospects. The meetings will take care of themselves.
7. The Written Proposal is a Necessary Step in the Sales Process
The written proposal is neither a step nor is it necessary. It’s a tool and in it’s traditional, unpaid form, an unnecessary one.
There are two types of proposals. The first is oral: the words that come out of your mouth. A one-page pricing grid showing options is the only required supporting documentation.
The second type of proposal, a written one, is used when the engagement is more complex and needs to be scoped out. But these proposals are paid – they are the document deliverable of the diagnostic phase of a phased engagement for which you are paid well.
Unpaid written proposals, like meetings and billable hours, are easy to measure, so we measure them and delude ourselves into thinking that by virtue of the busy work of proposal writing, we are one step closer to a sale when really we're driving cost and complexity into the sale and getting further away from a meaningful value conversation.
6. Build Personal Relationships to Build Sales
Neil Rackham, author of Spin Selling and someone who’s done more research on B2B sales than anyone, says it best: “The relationship is the reward for delivering value.” So many salespeople get this wrong, thinking that by building a relationship first they will get the chance to deliver value.
A pre-existing relationship with the economic buyer is one of the two leading indicators of sales success (the other is whether or not you’ve affected the buying process) but that’s a professional working relationship, meaning you’ve previously worked with the buyer or your reputation is known to her.
I’m not trying to make a case against networking or doing business with friends. I’m saying that approaches like enquiring about a prospect's family in a sales call are such bad ideas on many levels. They’re more likely to work with junior-level decision-makers but people with high affiliation needs rarely get to the top of organizations. The top floors are dominated by people with high power needs who see an early or inappropriate attempt to build personal rapport en route to a sale as the hallmark of an amateur.
This myth is thoroughly shattered in the excellent research underpinning the book The Challenger Sale.
5. Presentation Skills Training Leads to Improved Business Development Success
Maybe. Sometimes. Over the short term, perhaps. But presentation skills training also further entrenches the bad and expensive practice of presenting. Creative professionals are addicted to the presentation. We go into presentation mode to meet the needs of our highly-skewed personality that have us craving the high-wire act of the presentation. It’s an unhealthy addiction that we develop honestly from our natural strength of being able to think on our feet in high-pressure situations. But the presentation is all about us and not the client or the challenge at hand.
You will become a better salesperson if you refuse to present at all and instead set up the dynamics of meetings so that they are conversations rather than presentations. A conversation includes listening, and not just faux listening tacked onto the end of a monologue.
When you go into presentation mode you go out of listening mode. Think of it this way: You can be present to someone or you can present to them. You can’t do both. Who would you rather do business with?
Investing in presentation skills training calcifies poor practices and bad behaviour. Go the opposite way instead and get out of the presentation business altogether.
4. Chemistry Wins New Business
Retired business development consultant Stuart Sanders made this assertion popular a couple of decades ago, but it fails on two fronts.
In the one-on-one client interviews I used to conduct in business development audits of creative firms I too found that chemistry was the most commonly-cited reason a client gave for selecting their chosen firm. But the real insight was in the varied answers to the follow-up question: “What do you mean by chemistry?”
The list of responses to this question was unending and one of the most common factors cited was expertise. “Chemistry” is a vague word (in this usage), like “intuition,” – an easy, lazy even, summary of complex variables. When a client says “the chemistry was good,” she can mean many different things, including, “I thought they were best firm for the job.” As a survey response, it’s a meaningless answer.
The second problem with this myth is that chemistry, which we might more succinctly describe as an emotional response to some sort of personal connection, does occasionally win new business, but focusing on it keeps you from building real expertise. Chemistry, like price, is a tie-breaker used when the important criterion of expertise, perceived ability to get to a high-quality outcome and low probability of disaster are seen as equal among firms under consideration.
To sell on chemistry is to admit that your ability to help the client is no greater than that of your competition. That is the norm in the me-too world of agency business development, but not among Win Without Pitching firms.
The real test of all your positioning work is when the client feels no personal connection, hires you anyway and pays you a premium. I’m not saying chemistry isn’t important or that you can ignore manners and common courtesy – I’m saying to lean on chemistry in the sales cycle is a mistake that will impair rather than aid you.
I know many people will disagree with this, but they’re wrong.
3. Selling is Persuading
I’m a big fan of author Dan Pink’s work but this myth is one of two flawed underlying assumptions upon which his most recent book To Sell is Human is based. He’s not alone, hence the assumption’s status as Myth #3 on this list.
Before I explain I’ll agree that I cannot prove my assertion that selling as persuasion is a myth – it’s merely my perspective on the issue. Still, I think my perspective that it’s not a salesperson’s job to talk people into things is more valuable to both the customer and the salesperson than the prevailing one that salespeople are paid to persuade.
The idea of selling-as-persuading comes, I think, from three places. First, poorly aligned incentives. Usually it’s salespeople on full commission with no base. Second, bad products or services that really shouldn’t exist, and very quickly don’t. The third is a bully of a salesperson. Add all three together and you get a nightmare sales situation.
There are many, healthier ways to look at selling. To me, buying is behaviourally close to changing, therefore selling is change management. Study any of the many decent models on change management and you’ll approach selling with more respect and more success.
2. It’s Everyone’s Job to Sell
It wasn’t my intent to pick on Dan Pink here (I really am a fan, Dan, and own all your books) but the most flawed underlying assumption in his book on selling is implied in the title, which, translated into the more common vernacular would be, “It’s in everyone’s nature to sell,” or in the organizational theatre, “It’s everyone’s job to sell.”
I believed, repeated and profited from this myth for years. Then one day I had to admit that it was futile to try to improve the sales effectiveness of those who had sales responsibility tacked onto another primary responsibility and who didn't see themselves as salespeople. In that moment of honest reflection the enormity of my own failure was staggering. As best I could estimate, my success rate was zero.
I then asked the question, how would things change if it wasn’t everyone’s job to sell?
That question, to me, was like splitting an atom. It unleashed a torrent of insight that immediately proved that it can’t possibly be everyone’s job. Some people just want to make things and some people just want to solve abstract problems in isolation and some just want to help by responding and if we admit applying resources against bettering the sales skills of people who do not see themselves as salespeople is futile then we will reorganize responsibilities so that some people never have to sell. They can just concentrate on what they’re good at – what they love to do. Duh.
It’s so simple, so obvious, but we fail to think this way because we are blinded by the oft-repeated myth that selling is everyone’s job. You will save yourself years of frustration and untold money if you just pose the question, What would you do differently if you didn’t believe that it was everyone’s job to sell?
1. You Have to Pitch (for Free) to Win a Creative Assignment
Most in the creative professions (except perhaps the young, the masochistic and those on a winning streak) agree that pitching is inefficient, less than ideal and perhaps even unfair. Most however believe there is no real way around it – the client has the money therefore calls the shots and the pitch is inextricably ingrained in our profession.
I like to begin a speech on positioning by asking two questions. First, who has the power in the buy-sell relationship – the agency or the client? The unanimous answer is the client. Correct.
The second question is, What is the source of the client’s power? The almost-universal answer is her money. Incorrect.
Firms that never win without pitching and cannot imagine ever being able to derail a pitch have never operated from a position of power in the buy-sell relationship. (Or, less frequently, they’ve had power and not fully leveraged it to push back on a flawed procurement process.)
The source of the client’s power is not money but choice – the fact that, in her eyes, your ability to create value is no greater than that of many other firms. It’s simple free-market economics: an over-supply of undifferentiated product from similar producers transfers market power to the buyer. You’re just not seen as different in any meaningful way.
If you don’t fix this first problem – that another me-too business isn’t really needed and the world wouldn’t be worse off if it were obliterated from the planet, then you’ll never see what is possible when it comes to selling your expertise. You will listen to me and think, “Nice theory Blair, but it doesn't apply to my firm, my clients, my market.”
Meanwhile, hundreds of truly differentiated firms around the world quietly derail pitches and procurement policies from all kinds of clients, with almost no cost of sale. Their differences are the power they derive from their deep expertise and their skill in wielding that power to change the way their services are bought and sold.
It’s still a small club, this group of firms that Win Without Pitching, but it’s growing steadily. We’ve always got room for one more.