Pitching for New Business
One Strike and You're Out!
How to cope with Tenders, Beauty Parades and Pitching for New Work
Getting New Work
When it comes to getting yourself in front of potential new clients and 'strutting your stuff' you really don't get a second chance to make a good first impression. It's one strike and you're out, not three.
Which means you absolutely have to be brilliant first time around if you want to have any chance of creating a good working relationship with your potential clients.
Ah. The 'relationship' word.
We'll tell you this right now, most people, when they make tender presentations, partake in beauty parades or pitch for new work, rarely take the relationship side into account. They see their job as presenting the work of their own firm in as professional a manner as possible, making sure the facts are accurate, the material is polished, the PowerPoint slides are up to date and their technical expertise at the ready.
All that is incredibly important. But as far as we're concerned, it's certainly not the most important thing for people to pay attention to. We know it's a cliche, but it is 'you they buy' in the end, not the slickness of your PowerPoint. We'll even go a few steps further: the more you hide behind your technology, facts, figures, and statistics, the less your chances are of clinching the deal.
Now, we can hear you already:
- The client expects to see all that.
- Our rivals will come along with great presentations, so we have to as well.
- We've always done it this way.
- My company's doing just fine, why change it now?
- If I'm really honest, without PowerPoint I'm lost.
- How else are we going to show them our track record?
We're not arguing with any of that; we're still saying, however, that the more you rely on anything other than you, the smaller the odds get of converting meetings into business.
We'll ask you this question: how high is your conversion rate? 80%? 75%? 60%? 50%? 40%? Lower than that? Then you aren't really even in the game, we have to say. You're probably relying on a couple of huge clients who give you work year after year, which is incredibly risky. We know. In the early days of Impact Factory, we relied on one big client, and when they went we had to scrabble mighty fast to get ourselves some new clients. A mistake we've never made again!
Anyway, back to conversion rates. We have a number of clients who come to us asking for help with their 'pitch conversion' because even though they know that 50, 60, even 70% was good once, it's not good enough anymore.
Impact Factory is not a big conglomerate; we don't have branches all over the place so that if one bit of the business is a bit weak, another can prop it up for a while. We also don't have stockpiles of completely different 'products', so if one loses market share we can 'borrow' from another one. What we have is what we do exceptionally well: help people deal more effectively with interpersonal skills. So our pitch conversion needs to be high. And it is. In terms of face-to-face meetings, we convert 90% of them into work for the company.
We make no bones about the fact that in this area, we are very good at what we do.
You too can be even better than you already are.
You do have to go back to the 'relationship' word. From the moment a potential client makes contact with you, you need to start building a relationship with them: your eye needs to be on who they are, not just on the work they potentially might give you.
This is about listening to more than just what they are saying. At Impact Factory, we find, time after time, that what the client initially thinks they want won't necessarily be what they need, or indeed, what they really want.
Before we get into some of the things that could help your pitches, let's look at some of the things we notice that get in the way.
Some people are spectacularly good at walking into a client meeting and wowing their audience, seemingly effortlessly. This document isn't for them. We're talking to the people who are usually uncomfortable with the whole beauty parade process.
There are a number of reasons why this is so, but for us, the most common is the fact that people who were hired for their technical expertise in fulfilling a successful tender, now have to make them as well. Eeek!
"I didn't sign up for this."
"That's not why I got hired!"
"I'm not a salesperson."
See, when people are technically brilliant they feel confident in their skills - it's what they were hired to do and they understand the parameters of their job. Then things change within their company and now these 'fulfillment' people are expected to undertake expanded responsibilities by fronting for the company, whereas before they were really content to be 'backroom boys (and girls)'.
Or, if they did go out on pitches, they went with one of those naturals who could do all the client razzmatazz and then turn to their colleague to introduce the technical know-how and expertise.
So here you have all these capable people, who, in the past, have been applauded - and rewarded - for their expertise, now put in the position of feeling extremely uncomfortable and consequently deskilled. Their confidence will be eroded; they could feel resentful and a bit hard done by because this new role has been imposed on them.
Think about it. Here you have a group of people with great track-records; they have years of experience; they do what's asked of them in a professional and timely manner. Their work gets good results and they may even be one of the leading edge creative thinkers in the business.
Then they're given this responsibility for doing it all; for getting involved in all aspects of the tendering process. They can no longer just react to what a client thinks they want; they have to understand the context in which the client is even asking the questions. They have to be able to gently challenge, suggest, persuade, influence - soft skills these people may not have needed to utilise when they've dealt with client pitches in the past.
No matter how good people's core skills are, the competitive marketplace requires people to have additional and complementary skills they haven't been called upon to use before. We know this adds to the pressure people are under, especially in a successful company.
For a lot of people, it's as though the professional rug has been pulled out from under them.
Added to this mix is the very real fact that clients are getting pickier too.
Whereas before, they might have made choices based on reputation, past history, and solid expertise; now companies are aware that they need and can demand, more as a matter of course. If they have a choice of companies with relatively similar high-level technical proficiency, for instance, they'll start looking for the 'x' factor: that special something that says, "This supplier is the one for us."
That 'x' factor is the 'you' in the 'It's you they buy'.
OK, so now that we know that pitching for new work may be unknown and most certainly, uncomfortable territory for a lot of people, the crucial question is: what do you do if you find yourself in this potentially difficult territory without much of a roadmap?
You'll do what most people do; hunker down and rely on what you've always relied on: your technical expertise. Which is the very thing that makes you less effective in these situations.
Face it, you're not going to magically become a natural, but you can develop skills that will help you feel significantly more capable in this new arena.
The biggest shift you need to make here is probably one of perspective. Tenders, beauty parades and pitches most likely look one way to you now: the client has asked for 'a, b and c' and that's what I'll give them.
Your new perspective has to include an understanding of where the client is coming from, which you, now, may have to help them articulate.
One of the most important skills you can develop is the ability to see a situation from your client's point of view, not just your own. Sounds logical; it's just that most people new at this pitching business simply don't do it. They want to plunge right in with solutions instead of taking the time to figure out what's going on for the other 'guys'.
It's not as difficult as you think.
You can start to do this by:
Getting a real feel and insight into the company 'dynamics'
Creating two-way, empathetic communication
Giving them an actual experience of your ways of working (rather than just talking about it, or showing them even more PowerPoint slides)
Here are some hints and tips that might help kick-start a new way of building client relationships for you:
Identify beforehand your most effective communication skills, even thinking about what your colleagues and friends might say about you. Ask yourself what qualities you have in non-work, social situations that you might use in client meetings.
Work out what you need to know before you go in, not just what you're going to tell them.
Never ask more than three direct questions in a row or it will start to feel like the Spanish Inquisition.
Use as many open questions as you can fit in. Think of what you are doing as 'schmoozing' the client.
Give them a reason for answering a question; it helps if they know why you are asking.
Suggest things to them and offer the opportunity to agree or demure.
Use pauses and silences to gently nudge them into talking.
You can check out where they are coming from without actually asking. For instance, suggest that "Some of our other clients are looking for such and such from us because..." This is soft probing and is likely to create some response or reaction in all but the most poker-faced clients.
Check your understanding and assumptions by asking really soft questions such as:
So what you're saying is...
I'm assuming that...
Does this mean that...
When you say..., do you mean...
Would it be true to say...
I'm sensing that...
Perhaps what you're looking for is...
Try to remember to include things like a bit of self-disclosure, their name (without sounding like a double glazing salesperson!), complimenting them on how they are already tackling things and effortlessly including their jargon when appropriate.
What we're looking at here are ways to increase the client's confidence in you: not just that you know products, but that you are coming from a real sense of what their own issues and complexities are.
When you understand a clients' needs - really understand them - then making suggestions, offering ideas and positioning 'products' becomes part of that relationship.
Use a combination of these techniques to discover things about the other person, and they about you. Beauty parades and tender presentations are a great way to shine and you can actually start to enjoy the fact that there is more to you than just your professional expertise.
The more you develop the 'x' factor of you, the higher your chances are of making subtle and quite strong bonds with your potential client.
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