Win Without Pitching®: Thinking

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‘You are never worse off walking away,' said Harvey Mackay in his book on selling and negotiating, Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive. People want what they can't have and often they need to lose or risk losing something before they fully appreciate it. That's one of the reasons why the Take-Away can be one of the more effective closing techniques in your arsenal.

Saying ‘no' allows us to be true to The Sixth Proclamation in my own book, The Win Without Pitching Manifesto: We Will Be Selective — wherein “instead of seeking clients, we will selectively and respectfully pursue perfect fits — those targeted organizations that we can best help.”

Knowing when to say ‘no' to poor fit prospects early in the buying cycle is a powerful tool in your Win Without Pitching tool belt. It keeps the prospect from draining valuable agency resources. In this post we expand on that theme, describing four times when it might make sense to walk away, and how to do it.


The Take-Away is a technique, it is a mindset, and often, it is a tone and manner. You set the tone for the Take-Away at the very beginning of your relationship by being discriminating in your qualification of prospects, looking for great matches between the prospect, his need, and your agency, and by being brutally honest when the match is not there. Remember that by qualification I mean determining where the prospect is in the buying cycle, and also recall that of the four key areas in which you need information to be able to accurately qualify your prospect, Need = Supply is the first. (See The Four Keys to Qualifying | The Win Without Pitching Newsletter) The supply part of this equation is often neglected by the overeager, but it is vital to determine a fit. That means being honest about your ability to bring a solution to the problem. If the challenge is outside of the scope of your expertise then pursuing it too hard may ruin your credibility on future, more appropriate assignments. Declining on poor opportunities brings validity to your claims of good matches down the road. Besides, prospects can smell over-eagerness and they compensate for it by becoming more selective themselves.


Even before your first conversation with your prospect, the positioning of your firm and the communication of that positioning via your website, advertising, and reputation should convey a sense of focus, and therefore selectivity. Browse agency websites and more often than not, you do not see this selectivity. What you usually find are words like ‘choose us', ‘hire us', and first-person language that says ‘we can help you', without first describing the ‘you' being spoken to, or the problem in question. Declare your specialization to the world by saying ‘we are experts at helping companies like X solve problems like Y.' Proper positioning sets the tone of selectivity and allows prospects to make the first assessments of the fit between their need and your supply. Some well-positioned agencies state on their websites and in conversations early in the buying cycle, that if your needs are tactical then you have come to the wrong place, but if you are rethinking the very basis of your brand, then perhaps we can help. Your website and marketing materials are great places to start weeding out poor fits, thereby raising the quality of the opportunities that get through.


You can safely assume that in any pitch or competitive situation one agency has the inside track. That firm is viewed differently, coveted more has an inside advocate or inside information. If your firm does not have this advantage, then one of your competitors does. Under certain circumstances, you may decide that some speculative pitches are worth engaging in, but the ones in which you clearly have no advantage are not. Certain techniques can be employed to try to gain an edge (some of which we will cover in future issues) but when it is obvious that you cannot lever an advantage it is time to walk away, before the pitch. Explain your reason for walking away (‘We don't begin to solve the prospect's problem until we are engaged,' or, ‘We present proposals only in exchange for an agreement that you will make a decision on the proposal in the meeting…') and suggest to the prospect that they proceed with their review and hire the best firm. Add, however, that on the outside chance that they don't get the solution they are looking for from the competing agencies, then you would be happy to talk to them.

While this technique does not often result in immediate gains, I have seen it work many times when the prospect finds that none of the speculative solutions offered by the overeager agencies are on target. If they do come back to you at this point, you have plenty of leverage to dictate the terms of the relationship. But even if they do not, when things go wrong with the winning firm (and they will, the only variable is time) yours will be the agency that retained its dignity, its mystique, and its ability to affect the buying process and the pricing structure.


Often in the buying process prospects demonstrate bad behavior. They don't return phone calls or emails, they hold back basic essential information about their need or intent, or they otherwise demonstrate an unwillingness to engage in a consultative process to determine the fit between client and agency. Too often the agency pursuing the work lets this behavior slide, thereby setting the master-servant tone for the relationship in which the client is free to treat the agency poorly. A prospect that does not treat you respectfully is not likely to change his stripes once he becomes a client. Worse, the lack of respect usually translates to little inferred value in your offering. You can choose to pursue this one to its inevitable conclusion, or you can be pragmatic and end the embarrassment with your head held high by telling your prospect that you have decided there is a poor fit between companies and they would be better served by another agency.

Your tone in this situation is important. Be direct, but polite. I recently ran into someone who had left a message for me that I did not return. She pointed her finger at me as she walked past, smiled broadly and said, ‘You were supposed to call me back, and you didn't.' Her smile combined with her direct words struck the perfect tone. I was politely called on my poor behavior and was left no room to offer a flimsy alibi. I now return her calls promptly. If you handle the Take-Away properly, sometimes the prospect will come to attention like a child that was merely unsure of his boundaries. At worst, you can bet that your future calls will be returned.


The notion of walking away is seen by some to be contrary to the idea of demonstrating enthusiasm for the prospect's business, something more than a few people believe is mandatory to winning the business. While wanting it more than your competition is an admirable competitive spirit that may serve you well, be careful of demonstrating this tone of over-eagerness. The place you want to get to with your prospect is one of mutual respect and mutual understanding that your agency is uniquely qualified to handle the assignment. If you determine that the fit is a perfect one for the agency but your prospect isn't as enthused about the fit, then you've got trouble and no amount of groveling will turn this poor opportunity into a fulfilling, lucrative client that treats you and your employees with the respect you deserve. If your prospect sees value in your positioning, then you have some leverage to dictate the buying process, command premium pricing, and set the proper tone for the relationship moving forward. Wanting it more is poor compensation for a perceived lack of expertise.

Allow me to close this issue by posing this question: When selecting a surgeon, would you go with the doctor with the most relevant expertise, or would you choose the most enthusiastic? Those who are good at what they do are selective about for whom they do it. That, regardless of the reality of your situation, is the tone and manner you should project in all your business development efforts.

Blair Enns
Blair Enns is the Win Without Pitching founder and CEO and the author of The Win Without Pitching Manifesto and Pricing Creativity: A guide to Profit Beyond the Billable Hour.
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