The Win Without Pitching Manifesto by Blair Enns presents some very transformative ideas and guidelines to people and businesses who sell their thinking as a service.
The book is organized into twelve sections where each section dissects a proclamation that you must declare in your business. Its ultimate objective is to put you in a position where you don’t have to pitch (give your ideas away for free in order to win the sale).
The main focus here is to gain power in the client-business relationship where power usually rests with the client due to the many alternatives that he or she has. For example, by declaring that you will specialize and build expertise in a specific area (this is actually the first proclamation in the book), you eliminate much of the competition in the market place since most businesses are unwilling to specialize; this eliminates most of the alternatives available and gives you the ability to dictate the pricing and terms of engagement.
If you sell advice, ideas, services (especially creative services), then this book is an absolute must-read. It will completely change the way you work and think about your services.
The following summary of The Win Without Pitching Manifesto by Blair Enns is meant to be concise, reminding me of high-level concepts and not trying to recreate the whole book. This summary is basically a bunch of notes and lessons paraphrased or quoted directly from the book and does not contain my own thoughts.
• To pitch simply means to attempt to sell or win approval for one’s ideas by giving them away for free, usually within a competitive, buyer-driven process.
• The twelve proclamations:
- We Will Specialize
- We Will Replace Presentations With Conversations
- We Will Diagnose Before We Prescribe
- We Will Rethink What it Means to Sell
- We Will Do With Words What We Used to Do With Paper
- We Will Be Selective
- We Will Build Expertise Rapidly
- We Will Not Solve Problems Before We Are Paid
- We Will Address Issues of Money Early
- We Will Refuse to Work at a Loss
- We Will Charge More
- We Will Hold Our Heads High
1. We Will Specialize
We will acknowledge that it is the availability of substitutes – the legitimate alternatives to the offerings of our firm – that allows the client to ask, and compels us to give, our thinking away for free. If we are not seen as more expert than our competition then we will be viewed as one in a sea of many, and we will have little power in our relationships with our clients and prospects.
• Expertise is the only valid basis for differentiating ourselves from the competition. Not personality. Not process. Not price. It is expertise and expertise alone that will set us apart in a meaningful way and allow us to deal with our clients and prospects from a position of power.
• Power in the client-agency relationship usually rests with the client. His power comes from the alternatives that he sees to hiring us. When the client has few alternatives to our expertise then we can dictate pricing, we can set the terms of the engagement and we can take control in a manner that better ensures that our ideas and advice have the desired impact.
When the alternatives to hiring us are many, the client will dictate price. He will set the terms of the engagement. He will determine how many of our ideas and how much of our advice we need to part with, for free, in order to decide if he will choose to work with us.
• Positioning is the foundation of business development success, and of business success. If we fail on this front we face a long, costly uphill journey as owners of creative businesses.
The Purpose of Positioning
• Positioning is an exercise in relativity. Our goal when endeavoring to position ourselves against our competition is to reduce or outright eliminate them.
• When we drastically reduce the real alternatives to hiring our firm, we shift the power balance away from the client and toward us. This power shift allows us to affect the buying process and increase our ability to protect ourselves from having to part with our thinking for free, from having to respond to wasteful and inefficient tenders or requests for proposals (RFP), and to otherwise devalue our own offering or increase our cost of sale.
The Three Steps of Positioning
• Positioning is strategy articulated and then proven. These components of strategy, language and proof are laid out here as the three steps we must take to build deep expertise and meaningfully differentiate ourselves from others:
- We must choose a focus.
- Then articulate that focus via a consistent claim of expertise.
- And finally, we must work to add the missing skills, capabilities, and processes necessary to support our new claim.
• The first step – focus – is to answer the strategy question of “What business are we in?” Choosing the focus for our firm remains The Difficult Business Decision. Too often, we decide to not decide and so, in our minds, leave open the possibility that we may continue to do all things for all types of clients.
The Benefits of Positioning
• We can measure the success of our positioning by gauging our ability to command two things simultaneously: a sales advantage and a price premium.
A Sales Advantage → To possess a sales advantage means that when and where we choose to compete, we win more often than not.
A Price Premium → To command a price premium means that when we win, we do so not by cutting price, but while charging more.
Winning while charging more is the ultimate benefit and key indicator of effective positioning, for price elasticity is tied to the availability of substitutes. The more alternatives to our firm, the less power we have to command a premium over our competition.
If we do not win while charging more then it is likely we are attempting to run a business of ideas and advice from a position of weakness; or we are trying to compete outside of our area of focus; or we have avoided The Difficult Business Decision altogether and have chosen, by not choosing at all, to run a business without a focus or a fundamental business strategy.
• Control → Beyond the combined benefits of a sales advantage and a price premium, positioning brings us control in the form of increased ability to guide the engagement. We are hired for our expertise and not our service. It is a mistake to believe that the service sector mantra of “The customer is always right” applies to us.
Like any engagement of expertise, we often enter into ours with the client not truly knowing what he needs, let alone recognizing the route to a solution. For us to do our best work we need to leverage our outside perspective. We need to be allowed to lead the engagement. We need to take control.
Our ability to control the engagement diminishes with time. Sometimes we lose control slowly and other times quickly, but we always lose it. It is important, therefore, that we enter the engagement with as much control as possible.
The Cost of Creativity
• One of the hallmarks of creativity is a fascination with the new and the different. Properly harnessed, this fascination allows us to bring fresh thinking to old problems and ensure that our offerings to our clients are always evolving. Un-harnessed, our firm-wide desire for the new and the different can lead us to avoid The Difficult Business Decision. It can serve as a rationale for not having to choose a focus, for not having to eliminate competition.
• We can choose to let our fascinations and passions go unbridled. We can choose to remain a “full service” firm doing all things for all people. This lack of strategy will make us relevant to everyone with marketing or communication needs. It will indulge our desires to do something different every day and to make every engagement different from the previous ones. When we make this choice, however, we invite all kinds of undifferentiated competition as well as some highly differentiated, specialized competition.
• We must recognize that as individuals we are inclined against the narrow focus that drives deep expertise, but we must also recognize that our business must have this focus if it is to prosper. We must see our protestations, rationalizations, and justifications for not facing The Difficult Business Decision for what they are: excuses.
The Paradox of Choice
• There is no fun like making money because financial strength affords us all kinds of options in our business and personal lives. The path to financial strength begins with facing The Difficult Business Decision. There are some exceptions to the proclamation that we must specialize, but it is unlikely that we are one of them.
Until we make a brave decision, success will elude us and we will look at the market and complain about the economy or the clients, all the while knowing that it was us. The problem has always been us, and our struggle with focus. We are at the root of our free-pitching problem and we alone have the power to free ourselves from the pitch. The client will not free us. Our trade associations can do little to help us. Our competition will not cease to give their ideas away for free.
2. We Will Replace Presentations With Conversations
We will break free of our addiction to the big reveal and the adrenaline rush that comes from putting ourselves in the win-or-lose situation of the presentation. When we pitch, we are in part satisfying our craving for this adrenaline rush, and we understand that until we break ourselves of this addiction we will never be free of the pitch. Presentation, like pitch, is a word that we will leave behind as we seek conversation and collaboration in their place.
• To wean ourselves off our addiction, we must take the first step of changing our behavior with our existing clients. Once we have accomplished this, the second step – changing the way we behave with prospective clients in the buying cycle – becomes possible.
• Even when we pitch and win, we lose. We devalue what should be our most valuable offering and set up the wrong dynamics between the client and us.
• We must move away from the place where the client sits with arms crossed in the role of judge, and we take to the stage with song and dance in the role of auditioning talent. While both parties find the showmanship of our craft titillating, the practitioner’s is a stronger place than that of the performer. It is this practitioner’s position from which we must strive to operate. Practitioners do not present. Stars do not audition.
• A successful presentation requires surprise. It depends on a big reveal in the form of a key diagnostic finding, a dramatic strategic recommendation or a novel creative concept that is at odds with expectations or set against a backdrop of uncertainty. Preserving the surprise requires us to keep the client at arm’s length and let our knowledge pool up behind a dam that will only be opened at the presentation.
While we protest against the client’s selection process that keeps us at bay and asks us to begin to solve his problem without proper collaboration or compensation, we often acquiesce, in part, because his process allows us to meet our need to present. In this manner, we allow – or even deliberately create – an environment that leads to a higher likelihood of failure in order to preserve the dynamics of the presentation.
• At a time when we should be conversing, we are instead cloistered away preparing for the one-way conversation called the presentation. We behave this way in our engagements with existing clients, so when prospective clients ask us to bridge massive communication gaps by presenting to them instead of talking with them, it is only natural for us to agree.
Step One: Improving Collaboration with Existing Clients
• Making the big reveals small and reducing our dependency on the presentation requires us to work more closely with the client. This creates a challenge: how to invite him in without allowing him to drive? This delicate balancing act of bringing him closer without conceding control can only be achieved when we establish and communicate the rules of the engagement. Alas, another challenge: we’ve never been fond of rules.
• When we do not clearly spell out how we will work together we leave a void that the client is quick to fill. Thus begins the erosion of the power we worked so hard to obtain by following the first proclamation.
• In our firm, we will adopt the following policies that will allow us to bring the client closer without sacrificing control.
Strategy First → We will agree with the client on the strategy before any creative development begins. By including the client in our strategic development processes, we will help ensure we never find ourselves presenting creative rooted in ambiguous strategies. We will not develop, nor share with the client, creative of any kind before the challenge has been diagnosed and the strategy prescribed and agreed to.
Continuous Reference to Strategy → Immediately prior to presenting any creative, we will review the agreed-upon strategy with the client. In this way, we keep the discussion around the creative focused and measured against the strategy. Any time we come back to the client to share new ideas or concepts we will set the stage first by reviewing, once again, the strategy that guides us.
Freedom of Execution → We welcome the client’s input on the strategy and in exchange we ask him to grant us the freedom to explore various ways of executing it. This means we invite him to say, “That blue isn’t bold enough to deliver on our core value of strength.” But we explain that he is not invited to say, “Make it darker.” Suggestions on this front are always welcome, but dictates are not. We value our clients’ insight into marketing strategy, but we need the creative freedom to explore the destinations implied by the strategy. The client must ultimately approve of our recommendations, and be satisfied with the outcome, but he must also let us explore along the way.
Fewer Options of Better Quality → When we present creative options, we will strive to limit them to as few as practical. There is an inverse correlation between the quantity of creative options we present to the client and the confidence we have in their quality. When we present options, we will recognize our obligation to recommend one over the others. We will be careful not to cede our expertise by asking, “Which one do you like?” We will direct all discussions around the creative back to the strategy and ask if we are accomplishing our goals. It is an abdication of our responsibility and our expert position in the relationship to share all of our endeavors with the client and then ask him to choose.
Only We Present Our Work → Whenever our diagnostic findings, strategic recommendations or creative solutions are presented to anyone in our client companies, it will be personnel from our firm that does so. Our key client contacts may assist us, but our work does not get presented without our involvement. One of the benefits we bring to our clients is the advantage of an outside perspective, one that is not saddled with perceptions of bias or a hidden agenda. We will not allow proper guidance to be sacrificed at the altar of company politics.
• One of the costs of creativity is the abhorrence of routine – the dislike of systematic ways of thinking and behaving. This characteristic of our hardwiring that contributes to our creative problem-solving abilities keeps us from establishing policies on how we work. It causes us to perpetuate the process void, that by implication, we invite the client to fill.
• While we dislike routine, the client – and ultimately, any consistency of success – demands it. We must, therefore, reconcile ourselves with the fact that routine will be imposed. Once we accept this we can face the question, “Would we prefer to have routine imposed on us, or would we prefer to be the ones who take the lead and define the rules of the engagement?”
Step Two: Eliminating Big Reveals in the Buying Cycle
• Once we have eliminated our own need to present, the only reasons left to do so are the client’s. But on this, the client shall not have his way. He may not recognize it yet, but the presentation serves neither our interests nor his.
• Presenting is a tool of swaying while conversing is a tool of weighing. Through the former, we try to convince people to hire us. Through the latter, we try to determine if both parties would be well served by working together.
• The tone of a conversation, in which both parties endeavor to make an honest assessment of the fit between one’s need and the other’s expertise, is entirely different from the tone of a presentation, in which one party tries to convince the other to hire her. Presentations build buying resistance; conversations lower it.
• Let’s consider for a minute what we are trying to accomplish in the buying cycle, in this meeting with the prospect in which we once played the role of presenter.
Mission: Position → First, let us focus on our business development mission – our highest calling and purpose. Our mission is to position ourselves as the expert practitioner in the mind of the prospective client. We must resist the temptation to sacrifice our mission for money or other short-term gains. This mission should guide everything we do in the buy-sell relationship. It is a contravention of such a mission to try to sway someone to hire us through a presentation. This simple idea is radically at odds with what most of us have been taught. It is not our job to convince the client to hire us via presentation or any other means.
Objective: Determine Fit → While our mission is to position, our objective at each and every interaction in the buying cycle is simply to see if there is a fit between the client’s need and our expertise suitable enough to take a next step. That’s it. It is not our objective to sell, convince or persuade. It is simply to determine if there exists a fit suitable enough to merit a next step.
• The dynamics of the relationship with the client are shaped early, before he hires us. Here we establish the role that each will play throughout the engagement. Most selection processes set up an audition atmosphere where one party commands and the other complies.
We must never allow ourselves to be placed in this presenter/ complier role where the terms and next steps of the relationship are dictated to us. If we assume this lowly role that is offered to us early, we will never be able to exchange it for the loftier expert practitioner role that is required for us to do our best work.
• How we sell shapes what we sell. It impacts our likelihood of delivering a high-quality outcome and it affects the remuneration we are able to command for our work.
• Alas, you may have guessed that we will never be completely free of the presentation. That is not the goal of this, the second proclamation. The goal is to be free of our own need to present.
• To be truly free of the pitch we must change the tone of these meetings with our prospective clients and move from the presenter/ complier role to that of the expert practitioner. This we do as a doctor or lawyer would, through conversation and collaboration and not through presentation.
3. We Will Diagnose Before We Prescribe
We will take seriously our professional obligation to begin at the beginning, and we will never put our clients or ourselves in the position where we are prescribing solutions without first fully diagnosing the client’s challenge.
• There are four phases in our client engagements:
- Diagnose the problem/ opportunity
- Prescribe a therapy
- Apply the therapy
- Reapply the therapy as necessary
• While it is common practice in the creative professions to prescribe solutions without fully and accurately diagnosing the problem, in almost every other profession such a sequence would render the professional liable for malpractice. Too often we are guilty of this flawed process and our clients are guilty of trying to impose such a process on us through the pitch. We owe it to ourselves and our clients to stand firm on this most basic of professional practices and to never agree to begin working on a creative solution to a problem that we have not fully explored.
• In a process that pits multiple firms against each other and asks each to present solutions, the client does not have the time to invest in meaningful diagnostics with them all. So he abbreviates the diagnostic phase; he dictates the process, marginalizes it and proclaims that his self-diagnosis is valid enough for us to proceed.
• It is more likely that the client’s perspective will be wrong, or at least incomplete, than it is that it will be whole and accurate. We know this. Doctors know the same of their patients. Lawyers and accountants know the same of their clients.
The customer is not always right. More correctly, he usually has strong ideas and a strong sense that he is right, but is locked into a narrow view and weighed down by constraints that seem to him to be more immutable than they really are.
When the client comes to us self-diagnosed, our mindset must be the same as the doctor hearing his patient tell him what type of surgery he wants performed before any discussion of symptoms or diagnoses. Our reaction must be, “You may be correct, but let’s find out for sure.”
• One of the advantages the outside expert brings is perspective. And one of the hallmarks of creativity is the ability to see problems differently, and thus find solutions others cannot see. To bring our perspective and problem-solving skills to bear, we must be allowed time and freedom to diagnose the client’s challenges in our own manner.
• We let the client dictate and drive the diagnostic process, usually because we have not bothered to understand, formalize and explain our own. We have not taken control of this issue. We have not correlated our likelihood of high-quality outcomes to working from a defined and meaningful diagnostic process. We have not made this case in our own minds and we have not made it to the client. So the client intervenes and fills the void in our own working process by deciding how much information and access we will be allowed in the pitch. Lacking our own process, we have little means to push back and argue for a better way.
• The most successful clients, whether owners or executives, have achieved their success in part because of their ability to take control – their ability to rise above and orchestrate others. This is their strength; and even though it is not always in their best interest, it is in their nature.
• When we think back now on our worst client experiences we can see that most of them were rooted in this mistake of letting a dominant client direct the engagement, beginning with a self-diagnosis that we took at face value. Thinking we are in the same business as retail clerks, somehow convinced that there is truth, or even nobility, in the line, “The customer is always right,” we took the money and did as we were asked.
When these engagements go wrong we cannot understand how the client can possibly blame us. “We only did as we were told,” we rationalize. We see him as demanding and difficult. He sees us as irresponsible order-takers not worth the money he is paying. He responds with more angry demands and again we comply, giving him what he wants. The spiral continues until we finally part, each blaming the other.
If design truly is a process, then we will define and guard that process and we will walk away from those clients and situations, like the pitch, where the process is dictated to us, or where we are otherwise asked to propose solutions without a proper diagnosis.
• Throughout the buying cycle, we are constantly gauging whether or not the client recognizes and values our expertise to the extent that he is willing to grant us this control. Does he see us as the expert who merits the reins of the engagement, or does he see us as the order-taker supplier that needs to be directed?
• Possessing our own formalized diagnostic methods, whether they are proprietary to us or not, goes a long way to our positioning in this matter. Like any other competent professional, it is reasonable to expect that if we address similar problems on a regular basis then we would have a formalized way of beginning the engagement. It follows that we would demand to be allowed to follow our own process and not readily agree to use one developed by the client or his procurement people.
• A good client will begin to relinquish control once he has the confidence that the expert practitioner knows more than he does, or has the tools to learn more. Formalized diagnostic processes are such tools.
• From here forward, we will view the act of prescription without diagnosis for what it is: malpractice. We will assert the professional’s obligation to begin at the beginning and walk away from those that would have us proceed based on guesses or un-validated self-diagnoses.
4. We Will Rethink What it Means to Sell
We will acknowledge that our fear and misunderstanding of selling has contributed to our preference for the pitch. We will embrace sales as a basic business function that cannot be avoided and so we will learn to do it properly, as respectful facilitators.
• We recoil from the “s” word because we see selling as the distasteful act of talking others into things. We see it as the act of persuasion. And while we are comfortable with our role as persuaders in a marketing sense – putting our clients’ messages in front of groups of their desired customers – we bristle at such persuasion in the intimate setting of sales, where the interaction is more human and the product we are selling is us.
• Making things and selling things are the two basic functions in business. For our business to succeed we must succeed at both. It is true that if we are exceptional at the first we may experience times in the life of our business where merely being adequate at the second will carry us, but over time, all things will revert to the mean. No matter how good we are, there will be times when we are required to sell.
• We can hide behind the pitch and kid ourselves that as marketers we are taking a more noble path to the same goal; but the truth is that, until we embrace the fact that we are salespeople too, and we learn to master this craft as well, we will not achieve the success that we desire. We cannot be in business without embracing selling. We must, therefore, overcome the stereotypes and learn to do it properly – professionally.
• Selling, when done properly, has nothing to do with persuading. It is not our job to talk people into things. Selling is about determining a fit between the buyer’s need and the seller’s supply (our very objective) and then facilitating a next step. Sometimes the proper next step is to part ways, sending the client on to another provider who is better able to serve him.
• We might argue that the high-pressure salesperson is going to sell more stereos than the respectful facilitator, but it is not stereos that we sell. We sell ideas and advice – the very contents of our heads – and so how we sell impacts what we are able to deliver. We cannot disappear immediately after the transaction is concluded and leave the client to wallow in his buyer’s remorse. After the close, our clients are stuck with us for a long time.
• There is only one way we can afford to sell: the way of the respectful facilitator.
• If we have not specialized and set ourselves apart from our competition in a meaningful way then all we have left is convincing. Convince or pitch: these are the options of the undifferentiated firm.
• Our objective in each and every business development interaction is to determine if the fit between the client’s need and our expertise is suitable enough to take a next step. This in itself implies the subsequent job of determining and then facilitating that next step.
• Proper selling can be distilled into three steps, based on the client’s place in the buying cycle. These three steps replace the art of persuasion. To sell is to:
- Help the unaware.
- Inspire the interested.
- Reassure those who have formed intent.
• The first thing we must understand if we are to approach selling properly and respectfully is that the client’s motivation, and by necessity, our role as salesperson, evolves as he progresses through the buying cycle. He moves from unaware of his problem or opportunity, to being interested in considering the opportunity, and finally, to intent on acting on it. As he progresses in this manner, our role must change from one of helping, to inspiring, and ultimately to reassuring.
• The psychology of buying is the psychology of changing. Selling, therefore, is change management. The very best salespeople are respectful, selective facilitators of change. They help people move forward to solve their problems and capitalize on their opportunities. The rest talk people into things.
• The next steps in this model of facilitating change are driven by the client’s need to move forward to solve his problem, not by what we as salespeople have or have not done. The model does not ask, “Have we obtained a meeting?” It doesn’t ask, “Have we presented a proposal?” The focus is on the client and whether or not he has recognized and begun acting on his need.
Step One: Helping the Unaware
• If we are narrowly focused experts then we should be able to succinctly articulate our expertise, and concisely describe to the client who we help and how, over the phone. To request a meeting after the client has told us he does not see a fit is to admit that a) we need more time with him to explain what we do because we haven’t been able to capture and communicate it succinctly, or b) we’re looking to talk him into something.
• When we find ourselves saying, “I’m going to be in the area and I’d like to come by to see you…” we cringe at the words coming out of our mouths. Such behavior creates buying resistance that we will have to overcome later in the relationship. It causes us to sacrifice our mission (to position ourselves as experts), and it creates the dynamics for an expensive sale that will see us poorly positioned to lead the engagement once hired.
• For our future client, we must take the long road of helping him, over time, to see that perhaps he does have a problem. We do this primarily through the dissemination of our thought leadership – our writings on our area of expertise.
• Over time, true thought leadership positions us as experts in our field and creates the opportunity for some of our thinking to trigger in the client the idea that perhaps his performance in a certain area could be improved.
• The role of our thought leadership is to educate, not to persuade. The future client should be smarter for reading it, we should be smarter for writing it, and, one day, when the client does experience a problem in an area on which we’ve written, our guidance may be helpful to him in seeing the opportunity within his problem. Until that day, we continue to cement our position as leaders in our field through our writing. Experts write.
• When we sit down to write about our area of expertise, we will be confronted quickly with an assessment of our success in following the first proclamation. Are we adding to the millions of words that already exist on a subject? Are we retreading well-worn ground? (e.g.: A brand is a promise, or, Is your brand authentic?) Or, are we delving deeply into meaningful subjects for wisdom that truly helps?
• Writing our way forward is a long-term approach that requires the patience of a farmer versus that of a hunter. But it is the only effective, respectful way with the client who says no and does not see the fit between his need and our expertise.
• We can build a business with enough people saying no to us every week, provided many of them agree to subscribe to our thought leadership and we are diligent about future follow-up.
Step Two: Inspiring the Interested
• The unaware future client sits at his desk reading our thought leadership on an emerging media, technology or school of thought relative to his business. His awareness grows, and he begins to see that his organization is lagging in this area. He assesses his situation. He begins to gather more information. He considers the discomfort of falling behind. He looks to the future and now imagines the benefits of being out front. He considers the risks of taking action, weighing the pros and cons. He is interested in the opportunity in front of him but not yet intent on taking action.
• The interested future client looks for inspiration to move forward. This is where we as creative people excel. We are among humankind’s most natural inspirers. Our work is inspirational. Our skill in commanding and leading a room is inspirational. Our ability to come at problems from previously unconsidered angles and our passion for solving the problem not yet solved are both inspirational.
• Our goal with such a prospect is to inspire him to form the intent to solve his problem; it is not to inspire him to hire us. At this stage, hiring us is but a possible future consequence of his deciding to take action. Our focus needs to remain on the client, helping him to facilitate the change in himself that he is considering.
• Our portfolios are our best tools of inspiration. They show the client what could be. They show him what others have done. Our examples of our best work paint the picture of the beautiful world on the other side of his pain. Inspiration is the primary role of our website, our brochure, our sales collateral, and our in-person portfolio review. It need not even be our own work that we show here to inspire the interested, just inspirational outcomes.
• When we get ahead of ourselves and attempt to inspire the unaware, we create buying resistance and set up the wrong dynamics. Trying to inspire someone who does not recognize that he has a problem is a recipe for defensiveness and resentment. Inspiration is something we must save for the interested.
Step Three: Reassuring the Intent
• The interested prospective client sits across from us and, through our portfolio, views examples of organizations that have mastered the challenge he is now considering. Through our examples and our conversation, he begins to envision a future of wonderful possibilities. Inspired by what his company could become, he summons the resolve to commit to solving his problem.
• Our mistake is in thinking this is the last step. It is not. What goes up must come down. After only a few hours, the client’s euphoria wears off and he slips into a hangover of doubt called buyer’s remorse. Now he questions everything, including his decision to move forward. He considers all the things that could go wrong, all the reasons why this might not make sense.
As natural inspirers, our tendency is to do exactly the opposite of what is required at this moment. Playing to our strengths, we lean towards inspiration once again at a time when we should reassure.
• It is not in the nature of most creative people to offer the reassurance the client seeks here. We tend toward excitement at a time when he requires calm. We speak of an organic approach to problem-solving when the client would be soothed by the logic and consistency of hearing about our defined approach. We continue to talk big-picture when the client now needs to process sequentially and seeks to understand what the steps are that we would take together. He asks questions of the smallest detail – questions that seem meaningless and even odd to us but are of the utmost importance to him in his quest for assurance that he is not about to make a significant mistake.
• Closing – the last step in the buying cycle – is all about reassuring. Let us remember that when a future client has formed intent and asks us for a written proposal containing free recommendations or speculative creative, his primary motivation is fear of making a mistake. If we can keep this in mind and look past his request to his underlying motivation, then maybe we can find other ways to offer the reassurance he seeks.
Most creative firms take these requests at face value and simply comply. You need to offer alternative ways forward. Phased engagements, pilot projects, money-back guarantees and case studies framed in defined methodologies are among the many viable alternative forms of reassurance. The key is to respond to the motivation and not necessarily the request.
The Four Priorities of Winning New Business
• It is not our goal to replace the client’s rigid and often ridiculous selection process with one of equal rigidity and absurdity. Let us be guided by the following hierarchy of four priorities of winning new business that will ensure we do not become overly rigid in our approach. The goal is to win. The preferred means is to not pitch. A firm that does not win will not last.
The First Priority: Win Without Pitching → We first strive to secure the business before it gets to a defined, competitive selection process in which we are pitted against our peers and asked to give our thinking away for free. This is easiest when the client sees us as the expert and reaches out to us first. It is also easier when we reach out to the client at a time early in the buying cycle when he is unaware of any need; and we stay with him as he progresses through the buying cycle, at first helping over time, then inspiring when appropriate, and finally, reassuring at the end. To Win Without Pitching is the ideal, but it is not always possible.
The Second Priority: Derail the Pitch → We often do not become aware of opportunities until late in the buying cycle – when the client has already formed intent, has already put a selection process in place and has reached out to numerous firms. In these examples, our priority is to derail the pitch – to get the client to put his process aside and take an alternative first step with us.
The Third Priority: Gain The Inside Track → There will be times when, try as we might, we cannot derail the client’s selection process. Some organizations’ policies are too strong. Some clients are too unwilling – even when they do recognize and value our expertise. In these examples, we apply the same principles laid out here, but our priority is now to get an edge over the competition within the process.
When we do choose to participate in the client-directed selection process we should do so with the perspective that every competitive bid process has a preferred option. Somebody almost always has inside information or access to hard-to-reach decision-makers. Sometimes the outcome is predetermined and the process is but a veil of legitimacy. Our default assumption should be that somebody always has the inside track.
If we cannot Win Without Pitching, if we cannot derail the pitch, then we endeavor to be the one on the inside track. We begin to participate in the process but do so while constantly gauging whether the client recognizes and values our expertise. We ask for concessions. We ask for access to decision-makers. We negotiate what we will and will not write in a proposal or show in a presentation. We measure the client’s words, but more importantly, his behavior – his willingness to treat us differently – and if he grants us the inside track, then it may make sense for us to proceed.
The Fourth Priority: Walk Away → There will be many times when it makes sense to do so; but for those prospects that would otherwise meet the parameters of clients we can best help, walking away is the fourth priority. We walk away when we cannot Win Without Pitching, when we cannot derail the pitch and when we are unable to gain the inside track. Good prospective clients who recognize and value our expertise will grant us one of the above. The others are not worth sacrificing our mission on in a long-shot attempt to out-pitch others, one of whom almost certainly has gained the inside track ahead of us.
5. We Will Do With Words What We Used to Do With Paper
We will understand that the proposal is the words that come out of our mouths and that written documentation of these words is a contract – an item that we create only once an agreement has been reached. We will examine all the reasons we ask, and are asked, to write unpaid proposals and we will never again ask documents to propose for us what we ourselves should propose.
• When we look back at the proposals we have written and we consider the engagements we have won, we can easily conclude that it was rarely the written document that secured the business. Those engagements we won were the ones for which we were best suited. The suitability of the fit was apparent to both parties throughout the conversations in the buying cycle. The written document did little to sway the decision.
• Just as we are leaving behind the pitch, the presentation and persuasion, so too are we abandoning the written proposal and thereby freeing up the dozens or even hundreds of hours we previously devoted to it every year. We have long been conditioned to think that the written proposal is a necessary step in the buying cycle. It is not.
• The document that we write is the contract. It serves as public verification of an agreement we have already formed with the client in conversation. The agreement is an oral understanding that covers the scope of work, timeframe, budget and the basic terms of the engagement. While the agreement may be subject to minor details, all of these issues are addressed in conversation first. The paper is produced only once the agreement has been reached.
• The buying resistance that we engender in the client is partly a result of the obvious investment we have made in the sale. When we spend hours on a lengthy written proposal, one that diagnoses and prescribes for free, it sends the message that we need the client’s business. We clearly imply to him that he has the power in the relationship. Beyond giving him the upper hand, we also make it difficult for him to be honest with us.
Let’s face it, No is the second-best answer we can hear. If the client does not see a fit between his need and our expertise, we want to hear so as early in the buying cycle as possible. The more heavily invested we appear to be in the sale, the less likely the client will tell us what he is really thinking. When he thinks we cannot bear to hear no, he will simply stall or defer or deliver a string of maybes. Most of the time, he will do so behind the shield of a request for a written proposal.
• We want to operate from the practitioner’s position where we have not overinvested in the sale, where we are not trying to talk the client into hiring us, and where we invite him to say no early and often. In this environment, there is no room for the written proposal, which, like the presentation, is a tool of swaying.
• Let us explore the many reasons why the client asks for a written proposal and see how many of them are valid.
To Keep the Hordes at Bay → The over-supply of undifferentiated creative firms has necessitated a process that keeps the client from being overwhelmed. He uses the written proposal as a tool to help him. It allows him to keep the masses at arm’s length and still give him something upon which to determine a next step. If we have succeeded in following the first proclamation and we have built an obvious specialized expertise, then we make it easier for the client to let us in. Otherwise, he will use the written proposal to keep us out.
We must embrace the challenge implied by the request for proposal (RFP). If we see the RFP as a tool for keeping undifferentiated firms at arm’s length, then we will take up the challenge to break through the proposal process and gain validation that the client does indeed recognize and value our expertise. When he does not, he will use the proposal, and its supporting selection process, as a means of maintaining distance.
The better clients, when they do recognize expertise, will crack open the façade of the proposal process and agree to a proper conversation. The question is one of merit: is the expertise of our firm deserving of such access?
If the client does not recognize and value our expertise then we have failed – failed to build true expertise, failed to demonstrate that expertise or failed by pursuing an opportunity that is not properly aligned with our expertise. In most of these cases, it is appropriate for us to retreat. We can do so without having overinvested in the opportunity. We can do so with our integrity intact and with possible future business opportunities preserved.
To Compare → In sorting through many similar firms, the client seeks to grid out their likenesses and differences. Undifferentiated firms gladly participate in this process. By not following the first proclamation, these businesses operate from positions of little power. Thus, all they can hope for is to win based on service (as demonstrated by compliance to the client’s process), personality, price, or by beginning to solve the client’s problem within the proposal. The process itself is an exercise in homogenization that reduces each firm to samples of its work, ill-informed guesses at possible strategies and hourly rates. True differences do not shine through in written proposals.
To Measure Value → Value = Quality/Price. The client’s challenge in determining the value of our services is that the quality of an idea not yet delivered is difficult to measure. This leaves him with two options: he can over-weight the decision toward that which he can measure (price), or he can ask us to deliver the idea (for free) in an effort to determine its quality. By following the third proclamation (We will diagnose before we prescribe) we demonstrate that our ability to do our best work is rooted in the strength of our diagnostic and strategic development processes. A client asking for unpaid ideas in a written proposal is like a patient asking for a diagnosis and prescription from a doctor he refuses to visit or pay.
The flaws of the proposal process are one more reason we must see the request for a proposal as a challenge to be met. Either we leverage the power gained by our expertise to impact the client’s process and replace the proposal and accompanying presentation with conversation, or we walk away and leave this client to another firm.
To Gain Inspiration → The most common, and costly, business development mistake shared by creative firms around the world is that of mistaking interest for intent. Clients often ask creative firms for proposals before their intent to act on their problem has been formed. In these situations, we must recognize that while the client is simply seeking the inspiration to help move him forward, sending us away to write is not likely to achieve it.
We must learn to measure the client’s intent; if his decision to act on his opportunity has not yet been anchored to a future date or event (a decent indicator of intent), then the written proposal is not the tool to help propel him forward. If the engagement has not yet moved from his wishlist to his to-do list, then it is still inspiration he seeks.
We are better off in these cases exploring our previous work for examples of inspiration, or examining with him his competitor’s work or other best practices from further afield. Sometimes such explorations merit a small paid discovery engagement, and sometimes they are merely part of the conversations in the buying cycle, but we must not mistake the seeking of inspiration for the will to move forward.
To Stall → Sometimes the answer is no. Sometimes the answer is probably not. And if this is what the client is really thinking, then this is what we should be keen and able to hear. But when we push too hard – when we pitch, present and invest in a written proposal – we often make it difficult for the client to be honest with us. In these cases, he will use the written proposal and its supporting process to not say anything to us when he really would like to say no.
If the answer is no, we want to hear it; therefore, we want to make it easy for the client to say it. It serves neither of us when we lob a written proposal over the fence and wait patiently for a reply.
To Shop Around for a Better Price → We are under no obligation to provide the client with a reference of services, process and price just so that he can find someone else to do what we would do, the way we would do it, but cheaper. Res ipsa loquitur.
Getting Paid to Write Proposals
• One of our new mantras that we will repeat to ourselves and our potential clients is: We do not begin to solve our clients’ problems before we are engaged.
• Many times, the client’s situation, or the probable solutions, are so complex or technical that we need to better understand the challenges if we are to propose and quantify responsible solutions. Such engagements demand that we begin our diagnostic work in order to present a plan. But let us not make the mistake of doing this diagnostic work for free.
Understanding and diagnosing the client’s situation is vital to the success of any engagement, and it is our work here at the very front of the engagement that will largely determine whether we succeed or fail in our endeavors for the client. We must charge for this work.
• Doctors charge for MRIs. Accountants charge for audits. Lawyers charge for discovery. And we charge for our diagnostic work as well, whether it is a brand audit or discovery session that we conduct ourselves, or outside research that we commission.
• For these complex challenges in which we must diagnose before we can even begin to quantify a prescription, our clients pay us to write proposals via a phased sale that begins with a diagnostic. The outcome of the diagnostic phase is two parts: findings and recommendations.
In our findings, we deliver our diagnostic discoveries, and in our recommendations we include a plan to move forward, complete with timeline and budget. In this way, we get paid to craft the proposal those times when it is necessary to write one.
• Our proposal is indeed the words that come out of our mouths: “We propose to do X for you, over Y timeframe, for Z price.” Once we have agreement on the proposal, then we write up the contract for signature. Let us be clear to our clients and ourselves: we are not in the proposal writing business. And let us make a promise to ourselves that we will no longer ask a document to do what we ourselves should do: propose.
6. We Will Be Selective
Instead of seeking clients, we will selectively and respectfully pursue perfect fits – those targeted organizations that we can best help. We will say no early and often, and as such, weed out those that would be better served by others and those that cannot afford us. By saying no we will give power and credibility to our yes.
• Most of us do not suffer from having too few clients. The problem with our client roster is usually one of quality, not quantity. We sometimes attempt to compensate for the quality of our clients by adding more of them; but we know that having numerous small, unsophisticated or otherwise inappropriate clients is no reparation for having the right type and size of clients.
• If we are to build a lucrative expert firm then we must regain this balance of a small number of high-quality clients. Once regained, we must accept that our client base will turn over and we must understand that this churn is healthy. Our client relationships should not be life sentences.
• Clients hire us at times of need. We generally solve the most pressing problems at the beginning of our relationships, and over time, the nature of our work slides toward the tactical end of our offering. Thus, our positioning with the client changes. At some point, we become less of an outside advisor and more of a partner, and then, ultimately, a supplier. Eventually, we part ways. The transition is inevitable; the only variables are time and the point of departure.
• The optimal engagement length will differ from firm to firm and from client to client, but we must embrace the idea that turnover is healthy, and the subsequent idea that our business development goal is to manage such turnover. If it is our desire to grow our practice, then we accomplish this by ensuring that the new clients we take in represent increased opportunity over that of those departing.
• Selectivity is one of the defining characteristics of the expert. It builds credibility, reduces buying resistance and creates the conditions where it is possible to replace presentations with conversations.
• A clear understanding of our goals – a small number of slowly revolving high-quality clients – makes it easier for us to adopt this selective approach. We will not win every opportunity, nor do we need to. From this, we should take comfort and patiently go about finding those that we can best help in a manner that is more focused and less frantic.
• Clients can smell selectivity. It is one of the early cues that signal to them to drop their guard and participate in meaningful discussions of fit or raise it and retreat behind the protective cover of “the selection process” where they ask for credentials, proposals, and presentations.
• Buyers prefer to be politely vetted by a seller who has clearly defined parameters of the nature of the work he will do, the type of client he will take on, and the budgets with which he will and will not work. The client’s experience in dealing with the selective expert versus the enthusiastic generalist who barges headlong into every opportunity is night and day different. One invites him to advance; the other causes him to retreat.
• Selectivity begins with positioning – the very focus of our enterprise. Our public claim of expertise must describe who we help and how, and in this description, those that would be better served by others should be able to select out. The client should be able to determine from a sentence or two whether our expertise is likely to meet his needs.
• The narrower our claim of expertise, the more integrity we earn. By staking a narrow claim, we build the credibility for the client to assume we have capabilities beyond our claim, whereas a broad claim generates the opposite reaction. The client knows the great difficulty of amassing broad expertise, and when such a claim is made, he assumes our true expertise, if any, must be much smaller than what is declared.
• No is the second-best answer we can hear. If the answer is no, we want to hear it as soon as possible, before we and the client unnecessarily waste valuable resources. When an opportunity first arises, therefore, we try to see if we can kill it.
This is contrary to how we typically act, but it is a powerful approach that lets us weed out poor fits early and eliminate those opportunities where the client would not hire us in the end (or those where we would regret that he did).
If the opportunity is right and we retreat just a little, the client is likely to follow. The retreat-and-follow is an important test of how much the client recognizes and values our expertise. It tells us if he sees a fit and indicates to us the power we have to lead any engagement.
• There are many common reasons why an engagement might not make sense: money, the nature of the client’s need, his willingness to let us lead, geographic location, the depth of our experience. We want to develop the habit of putting on the table for early discussion these or any other concerns we, or the client, might have.
• The dynamics of objections are such that when one party raises them, it is incumbent on the other to address them. Our tendency is to avoid areas of potential objection, but they cannot be avoided forever. Eventually, the client raises them and we are forced to address them. Such dynamics are easily reversed when we learn to raise the objections first and place them on the table for the client to address.
Instead of waiting to hear, “You seem expensive,” we might say, “I’m a little concerned about the ability an organization of your size has to afford us.” In this manner, we want to learn to lean into potential objections. If the objection is going to kill the deal, then let’s kill it early.
• It is okay for us to accept work outside of our area of expertise, provided: we have the ability, we have the capacity, we can do it profitably and we are not deluded into thinking that such work immediately merits expanding our claim of expertise.
• If we are well-positioned then we will possess capabilities beyond – often well beyond – our declared expertise. When potential clients approach us with needs within our capabilities but outside of our central expertise, it is vital that we handle these enquiries with honesty. When our claim of expertise is broad, we are inclined to respond to such enquiries with what the client expects to hear: “We can do that!” This reply builds buying resistance and makes it difficult to replace presentations with conversations.
• The target is not the market. We take precise aim at the smaller target and are happy to hit the wider market. Our claim of expertise should be a lot narrower than the sum of our capabilities.
• When we encounter an opportunity within our capabilities but outside of our expertise, we owe it to the client to tell him that, yes, we can do this, but no, it is not why we are typically hired. We owe it to him to reiterate our claim and point out the gap between what he needs and what we do.
From there, the client can make the decision to bridge the gap or not. He can decide that our experience translates to his need and that he would rather work with someone who is honest about her strengths. Or, he can decide to look for someone whose expertise more closely aligns with his need. If the gap is to be bridged, it’s better if it is the client who does so. The dynamics of objections, and the need to reverse them, apply here, too.
• On this point of accepting work outside of our expertise, let us remember that we never want to be enticed into competing for it. If the client bridges the gap and says, “I think you can do this,” and it makes sense for us to do it, then we are within our rights to take the work. If his statement is followed by an invitation to compete for the work, however, then we are better to decline, point him in the direction of a firm better aligned with his need, and get back to looking for our next perfect fit.
• Passion can be a tiebreaker when the client believes the level of expertise to be equal among his considered options. When we play up the tiebreakers of price, chemistry, and passion, however, we tacitly imply that when it comes to measuring us on the most important variable – expertise – we are no better equipped than others in consideration.
We must be free to use our passion, without forgetting that it can easily become a liability. The client may view our display of passion as an invitation to take control and an admission that our expertise may be lacking. Let us use our passion but beware that we do not overuse it and allow the client to use it against us.
• As our expertise deepens, so too does our ability to be selective. Expertise forces selectivity. The generalist is drawn to the problem he has not yet solved. His curiosity trumps all else. He feels no discomfort in operating outside of his area of expertise because such an area is broad, shallow and loosely defined. He pursues with passion the new and the different. When the transition is made, however, and he becomes used to the benefits of deep expertise – when the client ceding control to someone deserving of such control becomes the norm – he will not be easily enticed back to operating from the powerless position of the generalist.
• When given a choice to operate from the position of power that comes with deep expertise or to pursue work outside that area for clients who will not allow him to lead, the expert will refuse.
He will refuse not because it is written here to do so, but because he will never want to retreat back to that place of generalist order-taker. He will be wary of situations in which he does not have confidence in his ability to find the best solution – in which the landscape and challenges are unfamiliar and he has to admit to his client, “I’ve never done this before.”
7. We Will Build Expertise Rapidly
We will view our claim of expertise as a beginning and as a rallying cry for perpetual progress. Once focused, we will work to add to and deepen the skills, capabilities, and processes from which we derive our expertise, and we will commit to the idea that continuous learning is mandatory.
• We address here the third of our three steps to positioning our firm. First we select a focus, we then articulate that focus via a claim of expertise, and finally, we work to quickly add proof to our claim.
• When we put our flag in the ground, heads turn. The competition, seemingly oblivious to us before, suddenly takes notice. Those that do not claim meaningful territory are rarely attacked. What is there to defend, after all? This is one of the indulgences of the generalist: it is an easier life. It is not as lucrative. It is not as fulfilling. It is, however, easier. Nobody attacks the unthreatening generalist.
• The truth about the average human being is that, regardless of what he claims to want, he will avoid the difficult decisions and the undesirable tasks, even if they represent the path to the outcome or future he desires. The proven reality is that most people will change their desires, even their values, before they will change their behavior.
• Putting one foot in front of the other, we begin by choosing a focus and articulating a claim (the first proclamation). Then we change the way we sell (proclamations two through five). We become selective about our new clients and the work we do for them (the sixth proclamation).
And now that we have momentum and we begin to taste the benefits of expertise, here in the seventh proclamation we make a promise to ourselves that we will see how far we can go. We commit to deepening our expertise, rapidly and forever, so that we can find out just how good we can become.
• From the moment we make the claim, we find ourselves in a race with no finish line. It is a race in which the greater our lead, the more we have to lose; therefore, the faster we feel we must run. This is not an easy path. Once we are on it, however, moving past the stationary generalists on the sideline, we realize we would not have it any other way. We would rather race to fulfill our potential than stagnate in unchallenged contentment.
• A claim is just a claim; anyone can make one. Our claim of expertise helps us break through the clutter of competition and gain attention at the very first interaction with the prospective client. But from then on, it is incumbent on us to prove our claim. The further we progress into the buying cycle, the more the proof of our expertise aids us. Without proof, we find ourselves having to pitch – having to begin to solve the client’s problem as proof of our ability to solve his problem.
• The proof that we desire to build, and that our future clients need to see, is rooted in our skills, capabilities, and processes. These are things that we must never cease to build – assets to which we must never stop adding.
• The good news is that the very act of focus is likely to build depth. When we narrow our field of thought we think deeper.
• We need not be smarter or more creative than our competition, only more focused. Focus is powerful, but it is just the first step in building deep expertise. Other steps follow.
• Writing gets us found. Writing helps to cement our position as experts. Most important of all, writing about what we do is the fastest way to deepen our knowledge. Writing at length on our expertise drives us into the deep crevices of our territory.
• As focused experts, we benefit from repeated observation of the same challenges. Writing is the tool that helps us formalize our thinking on these observations. It forces us to tighten our arguments and therefore our understanding.
• Writing might not come naturally to us, it might be painful at times, but the rewards are significant and the exercise is mandatory. If we are to be experts we must write.
• The skills we must possess or acquire in order to succeed in a differentiated creative enterprise are: consulting first, writing second, artistry third. The problem-seeing and problem-solving skills of the advisor, along with the ability to lead others through the engagement, trump everything else. Writing follows, for writing both proves and deepens our expertise. The artistry, increasingly, is the commodity. It is inexpensively acquired from those that neither have, nor attempt to cultivate, the first two skills. We must take control and we must write.
• If we want to build deep expertise we must take pains to document how we work, to define how we will work in the future and to continuously refine and improve our approach. Working from a defined process leads to the very consistency of quality that a potential client tries to discern late in the buying cycle, when our role is to reassure.
Nothing reassures the client more than him drawing the powerful inference that little variability in process equals little variability in outcomes. Every one of the firms he is considering can demonstrate an ability to do great work, but the question he wants answered before he buys is: “How do I know I’m going to get their best work?”
When we are able to demonstrate strong processes, the client can decide for himself the implications of our processes on the consistency of our quality.
• If we have no meaningfully defined processes, then there is not much to train our people on. But once we commit to defining and improving how we work, then we must commit to training our people on such methods.
• We must make the commitment that in our firm all our people will feel compelled to keep up with their associates and excel past our competitors. When our new employees come to work for us they must feel as though the learning never ends and the pace of learning never lessens. We race together.
• We build a culture of continuous learning by hiring for skill, by developing it through training, by empowering our people to form their own professional development plans that we will approve and fund, by holding them accountable to these plans, and, most importantly, by leading with our own example. We go first, and set the example of pace and determination required to be part of our enterprise.
• While creative people have a proclivity for generalist tendencies that allow them to explore the new and the different, most will select a path of deep expertise once it is shown to them and they have experienced the benefits. Without that experience, not all will be convinced to join us on our journey.
8. We Will Not Solve Problems Before We Are Paid
Our thinking is our highest value product; we will not part with it without appropriate compensation. If we demonstrate that we do not value our thinking, our clients and prospects will not. Our paying clients can rest assured that our best minds remain focused on solving their problems and not the problems of those who have yet to hire us.
• A pitch-based business development strategy devalues our thinking and emphasizes the more commoditized parts of our offering. If we do not value our thinking, the client will not. He uses many cues to try to ascertain our value. He looks for signs from us of how we value ourselves. How can we diagnose and prescribe for free one minute, and later ask for hundreds or thousands of dollars for similar thinking?
• This pervasive challenge of giving our thinking away for free is easily remedied. It is as simple as deciding we will no longer do it, writing this commitment into a policy statement, and then stating to the client with polite conviction, “It is our policy to not begin to solve our clients’ problems before we are engaged.”
• It is irresponsible of us to use our identity as artists as an excuse for not forming business standards and policies. Clients lay policies on us as though they were law and we respond with preferences and inclinations. No – we must respond with policies of our own. We encounter far less client resistance when we preface our requirement with the words, “It is our policy that…”
• “We don’t do speculative (spec) creative.” But our designs are merely the application of our strategy; and our strategy, when arrived at responsibly, is rooted in a thorough diagnosis. Each of the phases that precede design or any other application work has a value at least as high as the application. Like creative, this thinking that precedes it should not be given away for free.
• The line that separates proving our ability to solve the client’s problem from actually solving his problem begins at the diagnosis. We correctly collect preliminary diagnostic information in the buying cycle in order to assess the client’s situation and make a determination of our ability to help. But we should not progress so far as to share our diagnosis with the client before we are hired and appropriately paid. Beyond that, we certainly should not be prescribing strategy without proper diagnosis and compensation. Free pitching is free thinking, period.
• Our need to not begin work without appropriate compensation does not end once the client commits to working with us. The transition from intent prospect to new client takes place through a series of steps, each an escalation in his commitment. While we do not doubt his word when he speaks it, we must remember that he is not fully committed until he has parted with his money.
• The escalation of commitment begins with a private one, when he says to himself, “I’m going to do this.” From there he moves to shared commitment when he says aloud to us, “Let’s do this.” He then further escalates his commitment by signing his name to a legal document, be it a contract, letter of intent or memorandum of understanding. But even now he is not truly committed. It is not until he has parted with his money that he is fully committed to moving forward with us, and even then we will still have to reassure him through the inevitable period of buyer’s remorse.
• We must recognize this escalation of commitment as a natural series of steps, and simply ensure that we do not begin to solve the client’s problem until he has completed all of them, the most important being the last: payment. One third to one half of the fee portion of the engagement is appropriate, or even the entire fee for the first phase in a phased engagement.
• There is no need for us to be tentative about stating our requirement for a deposit before we begin working for the client. We simply say, “We’ll get started as soon as we receive the deposit, as is our policy for all new clients.” We need not apologize for being responsible business people.
9. We Will Address Issues of Money Early
We will resist putting ourselves in a position where we have overinvested in the buying cycle only to find the client cannot afford to pay us what we are worth. We will set a Minimum Level of Engagement and declare it early in conversations so that if the client cannot afford us, both parties will be able to walk away before wasting valuable resources.
• Let us commit to memory the Win Without Pitching rule of money: Those who cannot talk about it, do not make it.
• How often have we found ourselves deep into a business development opportunity, heavily invested in time and other resources, only to learn at the end that the client’s budget was far below what was required for us to do the job? How is it that we get so far with such a gap in vital information? How is it that we allow ourselves to do so much work without first having a meaningful conversation about the financial fit between both parties?
• The client has a budget, or at the very least, budget limitations, and we should have our own parameters that define our minimum client size. With each party having such criteria, it becomes easy to determine as early as practical if there is a financial fit. But for many of us, it is not easy: money conversations are a source of stress.
• The root of this money stress is not in the conversations themselves, but in not having them when we know we should. Overcoming this stress begins with deciding that from here forward we will talk about money early and often. As soon as the opportunity arises we will lean into the discomfort of the topic, deal with it immediately and eliminate the stress from the subject.
• When we commit to deliberately managing a slow, steady churn of a small number of clients, we commit equally to the idea that each new client must be of a certain size, representing a certain amount of fee income. We owe it to our prospective clients to share such fee expectations with them as soon as appropriate.
• The annual fee minimum that we require becomes our Minimum Level of Engagement. It is an approximate number (usually somewhere around 10% of our total target fee income for the year) that we use as a tool to quickly weed out poor financial fits, to escalate discussions of short term tactical projects into discussions of long term strategic engagements, and to help us begin the money conversation early.
• Soon after a need is initially determined, it is incumbent on us to let the prospect know that we only work with a small number of new clients every year and therefore can only add clients that will spend at or above our Minimum Level of Engagement.
We are not looking to the client for an iron-clad commitment on this point, we are simply saying, “This is the size of client it makes sense for us to work with, so if you decide at some point that you would like to work with us, we ask that you be prepared to commit to fees at or above this level over the year.”
• The Minimum Level of Engagement is a powerful tool that we want to commit to using often, but without being overly rigid in its application. There will be times when we choose to waive our minimum, but let us not confuse the prerogative to waive it with the necessity for using it in conversation. We want to develop the habit of routinely sharing our Minimum Level of Engagement in every first discussion of an opportunity with a new prospect, while always reserving the right to waive it, if appropriate. Waiving it without mentioning it doesn’t count. Such behavior is simply a failure to follow our own parameters of selectivity.
• As selective experts, it is not in our interest to pursue project work that is tactical in nature or well below our Minimum Level of Engagement. This does not mean we do not take on project work from time to time. Obviously, we undertake project work for existing clients with whom we have larger, more comprehensive and strategic relationships.
We may choose to take on new project work if it meets certain criteria, such as, if we have capacity, if we can do it profitably, if it does not impair our ability to obtain more appropriate strategic work from the client in the future and if we do not have to compete for it.
• Project work is a byproduct of pursuing a small number of more meaningful engagements. We use it to fill gaps in capacity, but it is not the mainstay of our practice. If we were to accept even half of the project work that comes to us, then we would find ourselves aimlessly building a tactical firm burdened by too many small clients and projects, with the commensurate challenges of poorer financial reward and less fulfillment.
We will refuse more project work than we accept, but from time to time we will accept it. It is here that we would waive our Minimum Level of Engagement.
• Delivering our Minimum Level of Engagement early teaches us of the client’s ability to afford us. If we find that the client does not meet our minimum, but for other reasons, may still represent a lucrative opportunity, we can simply follow up with language such as, “Before I say no, let me ask you a few questions.” This keeps the minimum in play and lets us continue to gather information to make an assessment of the fit. In this way, we better manage the dynamics of the buying cycle.
If we determine the fit is suitable and we decide we would take this client on as one of our few exceptions to our minimum requirement, we must ensure that removing the minimum is the last thing we do before accepting the engagement. We never want to be in a position where we agree to waive our minimum only to hear, “Great, we’ll send you an RFP,” or, “Now we need to meet with a few more firms.”
• We use our Minimum Level of Engagement like any other objection that we raise early for the client to overcome. Like the others, we reserve the right to remove it. This is the power of no. When we use it, it helps us measure and improve our place in the relationship, and it’s only as permanent as we need it to be.
• One of the functions of business development is to keep bad clients or other poor fits out. Like the gatekeepers at our clients’ companies, we must establish who is allowed in for meaningful discussions and who should be gently guided away to a more appropriate relationship with our esteemed competitor.
The fastest way to efficiencies in our business development approach is to unabashedly uncover important information early and use that information to make an honest and practical assessment of a fit.
The answer to the question, “Can and will the client afford us?” is vital information that we must resolve to uncover as soon as possible. Walking away from those that cannot pay us what we are worth lowers our average cost of sale and preserves both our positioning and any future business opportunities with the client.
10. We Will Refuse to Work at a Loss
We will build our practice one profitable assignment at a time. Excepting our carefully selected pro bono engagements and the occasional favor to our best and longest standing clients, every project will generate a profit that recognizes our expertise and the value we bring to our clients’ businesses.
• We will strive to win while charging more and thus validate our expert positioning. If we are not accomplishing this feat, then we have not yet succeeded in implementing the earlier proclamations.
• We must dispossess ourselves of the notion that we can operate on thin profit margins at the beginning of a new client relationship and then work to increase those margins over time. We know that profit margin, like power, only diminishes with time.
• Like the medical professionals that our four-phase model of diagnose, prescribe, apply and reapply suggests, our highest value offering is our ability to bring new perspective and understanding to our clients’ problems. Success at each phase depends on getting the earlier ones correct.
The first two phases of diagnose and prescribe represent the strategic portion of the engagement – the thinking phases that precede the doing. Our strength in these first two phases is what sets us apart from our competition and keeps the commoditizing forces of the profession at bay.
The thinking that precedes and wraps our doing is our value-added differentiator. It is the basis of our deep expertise. Our opportunity for profit margin in the engagement is greatest in these first two phases and diminishes from there.
• No client will willingly allow us to reverse this natural trend and command more profit margin as time goes on. We must admit that an approach that sees us sacrifice significant margin to win business with hopes of making it up later is rooted either in naivety, a false agreement with a client who is telling us what we want to hear, or in our own dishonest intentions of hoping to find profit that is not visible to the client.
• A key test remains to win while charging more. When we win by charging less, price becomes our positioning that we wear like an albatross with that client forever: we become the price shop.
• In our enterprise, there will be no loss leaders. As experts, we will not discount with new clients today for the opportunity to make money tomorrow. We will save the use of discounts for our best and longest-serving clients at times when they need our support.
• Legitimate price negotiations are fair game. If, from time to time, we decide that it makes sense to cut price to win the engagement, we must ensure we never cut so deep as to jeopardize its profitability. By seeing that every engagement is profitable, we ensure that our firm is profitable.
• We may negotiate from time to time, but before we cut price we will ensure we have explored all the alternatives.
Guarantees → Clients may attempt to negotiate because they are unsure of the value of our services. In these situations, we can consider guarantees as alternatives to discounting. Not guarantees of return on investment – for too many variables remain out of our control. Not guarantees on our entire spectrum of offerings – for they may be used against us late in the engagement. It is appropriate to guarantee the first phase – diagnosis and prescription – of a phased engagement in order to reassure the client of the value of moving forward with us. There is far less risk in this guarantee than there is in pitching free ideas and hoping to get paid.
Terms → Clients may see the value of our offering but attempt to negotiate based on their inability to pay. In these situations, before we discount, we should consider offering favorable terms that let the client pay over time.
Holding Our Ground → Sometimes clients will see our value and will be able to afford us, but will negotiate to get a better price nonetheless. Often, negotiating success in these cases goes to the party most comfortable talking about money. The one with the least emotional baggage on the subject will do better at holding his ground. By following the ninth proclamation (We will address issues of money early), we work to ensure that that party is us.
• When we have explored the alternatives and still we choose to discount, we will adhere to two rules:
We Leave it to Last → First, we will ensure that cutting price is the last thing we do. We will search for and address all other objections before we agree to discount. In one final sweep before we agree to accept less, we will ask, “If we were to agree to this price, is there anything else to stop us from deciding to work together right now?” If no objections or next steps remain, then we can cut our price and take the engagement. If there remain steps to be taken or objections to address, then we will do so before we discount.
We Put it in Writing → Second, we must ensure that such discounts are clearly identified in all written documentation, including contracts, estimates, and invoices, in order to remind the client of the true value of our services. Our failure to abide by this rule will almost certainly cost us in the future as the client “forgets” this proper value and references only what he previously paid. By recording our discount in all price documentation in this way, we ensure that such a discount does not set a precedent for new pricing moving forward.
• In the early days of a firm, there can sometimes be little foundation on which to build expertise. Here, pro bono – or even deeply discounted work within the selected field of focus – might be required to build that expertise. In these cases, there is no shame in being upfront with a prospective client about working cheaply or for free to amass expertise. Such an approach is valid, for a period of time. If we truly are trading profit for expertise building, then we will be honest and direct with our client about it. To do it quietly is to employ the generalist tactic of competing on price.
11. We Will Charge More
As our expertise deepens and our impact on our clients’ businesses grows, we will increase our pricing to reflect that impact. We will recognize that, to our clients, the smallest invoices are the most annoying. Through charging more we will create more time to think on behalf of our clients and we will eliminate the need to invoice for changes and other surprises.
• By following the money proclamations – getting paid first (VIII), talking money early (IX), refusing to work at a loss (X), and now, charging more – we develop a confidence that attracts better clients and weeds out poor fits without wasting resources. Proper employment of our Minimum Level of Engagement helps in this regard: thrifty clients are repelled and quality clients are attracted.
• In boldly charging more than our competitors, we advertise to our prospective clients that we have confidence in our ability to deliver high-quality outcomes.
• As we get better we will charge even more, until we find that equilibrium that captures the appropriate remuneration for the value of our services. Our premium pricing will cost us clients from time to time; but if we are not losing business on price occasionally, then we are not charging enough. Conversely, if we need to win on price, we are not setting ourselves apart as experts.
• Like our competitors, we too will use pricing as a positioning tool; but unlike them, we will strive to demonstrate higher pricing and thus benefit from all its positioning implications. Where others talk of their “competitiveness” on this front we will march headlong into the subject, following the ninth proclamation (We will address issues of money early), and boldly explain that we are likely to be more expensive than other options under consideration.
• We will invite the client to tell us that he would prefer to work with a more affordable firm. We will not apologize for charging more; it is fair compensation for the increased value we deliver as experts. It lets us improve our offering by giving us the means to reinvest in ourselves and, most important of all, it almost certainly improves the outcome and the experience for the client.
• When we take on an engagement with thin margins and then we encounter a problem with the engagement – from our doing or not – we are left with little ability to fix the problem. Healthy margins give us the wherewithal to fix mistakes, earn trust and build loyalty with our clients. In this way, our most profitable clients get our best service. It does not happen the other way around. Superior service does not improve profit; profit improves service.
• When we look down and see the profitable client’s name, we are happy to pick up. When the unprofitable client calls, we cringe. Our clients know whether they are getting the best from us, but they rarely know why. Failing to charge enough leaves us little room to move and creates discordant dynamics with our clients. All of this affects the quality of our work and our reputations as reliable advisors.
• Healthy profit margin is vital, for sometimes the right thing to do is to give some of it back in order to correct a bad situation.
• The change order represents most of what is wrong with our business model and our client relationships. Firms like ours are not fired over the large invoices for strategic work; they are fired over the small invoices for tactical work. It is the change order that creates the resentment that builds until the relationship snaps.
• When the client allows the expert firm to take control of the engagement and charge more, he does away with the injustice of a new invoice every time a small tactical change is requested. Is this not a tradeoff that quality professionals and better clients would make?
• We sell our thinking but we do ourselves a gross disservice in selling it by the hour. The surest way to commoditize our own thinking is to sell it in units of doing: time. Later in the engagement, when the strategy work has been done and we are deep into implementation work, the client buys our time. It is our thinking, however, that separates us from our competition and forms the basis of our ability to premium price.
• When we charge for thinking by the hour, we undo much of the work of the previous proclamations. “How much an hour?” we hear the client think. “How many hours?” When we employ commodity pricing we invite commodity comparisons, regardless of the value we deliver. The defining characteristic of a commodity is an inability to support any price premium.
• If we cannot win while charging more, then we must face the reality that we are selling a commodity.
• While our engagements follow the four phases of diagnose, prescribe, apply and reapply, it is the outcomes of the third and fourth phases that are the deliverables the client seeks. Our strategy – diagnoses and prescription – is how we do what we do.
• The strength of our strategic processes, rooted in our deep experience and systematic thinking, is what ensures our high likelihood of a high-quality outcome. This is the basis of the premium we command, therefore we should not be charging for it in units of time.
• We must price our upfront work, right up to the first creative deliverable, in big round numbers that end in zeros, and thus clearly imply that our pricing for these services has little to do with the hours it takes to deliver them.
• For the reapplication work that follows, we are free to charge by the hour. When our clients buy our thinking, however, they need to understand they are not buying it in units of time. It is not until we cease to sell these strategic services by the hour that we can truly charge more.
• We never want our clients to be in situations where it is easy for them to decide to not take our advice. Any time someone hires an outside expert, the ultimate outcome he seeks is to move forward with confidence. What is the value of good advice not acted upon? It is our job to tell him what to do, but that is often the easy part. We are equally obliged to give him the strength to do it.
We are not meeting our full obligations to our clients when we make recommendations that they find easy to ignore. The price we charge for such guidance should be enough that our clients feel compelled to act, lest they experience a profound sense of wasted resources. There must be the appropriate amount of pain associated with our pricing. This implies the need for our pricing to change as the size of the client changes. Larger organizations need to pay more to ensure their commitment.
• Another reason larger clients must pay more is they derive greater financial value from similar work we would do for smaller organizations. To charge John Doe Chevrolet what we would charge General Motors for the same work would be irresponsible of us. The larger client pays more to ensure his commitment to solving his problem and to ensure his commitment to working with us – and he pays more because we are delivering a service that has a greater dollar value to him.
• Of all the investment opportunities we will face in our lives, few will yield returns greater than those opportunities to invest in ourselves. Price premiums give us the profit to reinvest in our people, our enterprise and ourselves. The corporations that we most admire are the ones that invest in research and development.
12. We Will Hold Our Heads High
We will see ourselves as professional practitioners who bring real solutions to our clients’ business problems. We will seek respect above money, for only when we are respected as experts will we be paid the money we seek. This money will allow us to reinvest in ourselves, become even better at what we do and deliver to our families and ourselves the abundance we deserve.
• Today, we in the creative professions find ourselves standing at a crossroads. On the one side, the process of design is finally being seen as the last great differentiator of businesses and economies; while on the other, the outputs are increasingly seen as commodities.
Technology and oversupply are combining to rapidly widen the gulf between the commoditized tacticians who now bid their services against each other online, and the expert practitioners who command significant fees for leading their clients to novel solutions to meaningful business challenges.
The middle is disappearing. The need to choose a path is being forced upon us. If we continue to choose not to choose, the decision will be made for us, and we will be pushed down the commodity road where we will reside with thousands of other order-taker suppliers who will never be free of the pitch.
• This is not a bad time to be forced into decision. The world is waking up to the idea that the challenges of both businesses and societies are challenges of design, creativity, and innovation. The opportunity for us to have a meaningful impact on the world has rarely been larger.
• When we express our resentment for the client who does not value us, we are really expressing our self-loathing for not being able to walk away from him. We must accept that the bad clients and the ridiculous selection processes are not going away. Those that expect us to work for free as a means of proving our worth are not suddenly going to disappear. It is, after all, the client’s money. He can employ any means he likes to select someone to help him, no matter how absurd or insulting. We can only control how we respond. The power we wield is the power to walk away.
• We possess something that most others do not. We see what others cannot. We can conceive what does not yet exist. At our very best, we have it within us to lay out the future and lead people to it. When we imagine ourselves at our best, we can see again the change we might bring to the world. We can see the power we have to move people and organizations.
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