Win Without Pitching®: Thinking

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Have you ever been close to securing a lucrative engagement only to be thrown off your game, and possibly out of contention, by an unforeseen late question from the client? While there's no way to prepare for every objection that might arise there are a few common ones that seem to create that deer-in-the-headlights response. You should never be in a situation where you are being thrown by the same late question yet again. Here are seven silver bullet sentences to keep at the ready for those opportunities that suddenly become endangered by the client's last-minute query.

1. “We don't begin to solve our clients' problems before we are engaged.”

This is a great response to requests – direct or implied – for speculative creative or uncompensated thinking of any kind. Deliver this response to any questions that should only be asked after the client has hired you. Make it stronger by prefacing it with the words, “It's our company policy that…” Another version is, “You've haven't hired me to answer that question.” You can further back up this little wrist slap by explaining how the prospect benefits from your policy of not giving your ideas and advice away uncompensated: “Our best resources are reserved for our paying clients. If you decide to engage us you can rest assured that unlike most of our competitors we save our ideas and advice for our clients and not our prospects.”

2. “We don't charge for our time, we charge for our thinking.”

Diagnostic and strategy work, the work that you undertake at the beginning of most engagements or projects, represents your greatest opportunity to add value to the client’s business and your greatest opportunity to profit. The further into the engagement you go the more the work becomes tactical or executional in nature and the more margin pressure you experience. For the higher value work charge in big round numbers based on the value being added, not based on the time it takes you to deliver. Any price that looks like it was arrived at by a formula (rates x hours) is an invitation to the client to ask about the formula and to challenge it. It's easy to pick apart $9,750 but difficult to challenge $10,000 because the former implies a precise method that can be questioned and the latter implies a more arbitrary assessment. When you are asked about your hourly rates on this high-value work, respond with silver bullet sentence #2.

3. “I'd be happy to write up a contract if you're telling me that we have an agreement.”

The proposal is the words that come out of your mouth; the document is the contract. When you’ve delivered your proposal and the prospect responds with, “Great – write it up,” deliver this silver bullet followed by, “Do we have an agreement?” The only valid reasons most prospects (other than government and other highly bureaucratic organizations) want a written proposal is to shop it, to defer their decision-making, or to try to pick your price apart. When the prospect says, “No, we don't have an agreement yet. I need to put it in front of my boss,” or some other objection, feel free to respond with one of my favorites: “We're not in the proposal writing business.” The only proposals you should be writing are the ones you are getting paid to write as part of a diagnostic or planning engagement. Get in front of the boss and make your verbal proposal again. Once you get an agreement in principle, then write it up.

4. “I'd be happy to present you with a proposal if it makes sense to do so.”

This silver bullet is usually followed by, “Let me ask you a few more questions.” Deliver it in response to an early or otherwise inappropriate request for a proposal. The inappropriate request can also be for a meeting or for references. “Great. Now can you get me a proposal?” can be met with, “Sure. I propose that we do X for you for Y dollars in Z timeframe.” You didn’t put your marriage proposal in writing, did you? Remember, the document is the contract. It comes out once the deal has been struck. The key with this silver bullet is it's a positive response that places the request aside and allows you to get the information you need to help you determine the fit. You are not agreeing to write a proposal, you are agreeing to present one if it makes sense to do so, which you will determine once you have more information.

5. “We'd be happy to sell you category exclusivity.”

A good response to a request from a prospect who has questions about account conflicts. They want the expertise that you developed by working with numerous companies like theirs but they don't want you to continue to do what made you the expert in the first place – hardly a fair request in most situations. There are some valid account conflict concerns but most are overblown. If the prospect wants all your capacity, simply agree to sell it to him. Smile when you deliver this line, put the emphasis on the word sell and look like you are about to win the lottery if he agrees. The objection will go away quickly.

6. “What's changed?”

The absolute ultimate high-gain question; use it late in the buying cycle when you reconvene for the close. Begin by recapping the situation: “When we last spoke, you said…” Then deliver: “Before we begin, let me ask, what's changed?” An associate of mine claims you should ask this question every time – and not the meeker closed-ended, “Has anything changed?” but the all-powerful assumptive, open-ended, “What's changed?” I'm not so bold as to use it in every situation but I do use it when I suspect something has changed even if it’s just my Spidey senses tingling. If there's a hidden objection you will unearth it immediately. Very simple. Very powerful.

7. “Now let's talk about the reasons why engaging us might not make sense.”

You're getting ready to close. Everything is great. Too great. One of the decision makers has barely said anything. This is where the skills of selling are the skills of a facilitator rather than a persuader. Your ability to close, especially in a long sales cycle and with many decision makers, is tied to your ability to uncover objections. Forget about overcoming them; uncover them! It's difficult to overcome an objection that you do not know exists. The amateur mistake is to try to overcome objections as you hear them. (There's a word for this. It's called arguing.) Do not. When you hear the first objection, ask for the next. Write them down. Keep asking. “What else?” “Anything else?” Beyond diligent objection hunting, asking the question reinforces the perception to prospects that you are as concerned with the fit as they are. Once you have all the objections you can then begin to move toward a close, beginning with a trial close: “If we can address these three issues to our mutual satisfaction, can we agree to get to work on this assignment?” If you missed anything in your list of objections you'll find it right here when you trial close.

There's a fine line between sound preparedness for common objections and the trite clichés of a salesperson more interested in making the sale than in helping the client. It would be foolish to go into a closing situation with a laundry list of quips and retorts at the ready, and just as foolish to be put back on your heels by the same question or objection more than once. Find your own words but make like the boy scouts and be prepared.

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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