How to Lose a Prospect in Three Minutes
Recently, I was tasked to help our firm secure a new vendor relationship. As the firm has grown, we’ve recognized that there are some things that we can no longer do by ourselves, and that its best to have experts steering the ship. After some initial research and comparison, I assembled a team of beta-testers and we got down to business. We narrowed our choices down to five providers, and requested demos from each.
Three of the five were good. One was exceptional (more on them later). The last was -- in a word -- insulting.
I'm trapped in a demo and I want to get out!
About three minutes into the last group’s demo, It became abundantly clear that:
- They knew nothing about our business;
- They did not know or care about our specific requirements;
- They believed their roster of clients was so impressive that they didn’t need to provide an exceptional user experience; and
- They were infinitely smarter than us.
Needless to say, even if their offering met our needs (it did not) and even if its functionality was better than the competitive set (it was not), within three minutes we knew we were moving in another direction. As we huddled after the call, we were more embarrassed for them than angry at them. Based on their performance on that one call, they eliminated any chance to win our business.
Never rest on your laurels
In reflecting on that experience, I took some time to think about how I approach the new business process. What could I learn from this experience to enhance my chances of leveraging past success for future growth? How could I ensure that I conveyed expertise without being haughty? The key points that I identified were, not surprisingly, very similar to the four on which vendor number five had failed.
- Learn about your prospect’s industry. This may sound like a no-brainer, but I am not referring to a general industry: I’m talking about the business of the business. What do they really “do?” Sure, you could say that a company that manufactures seat belts is in the “automotive industry,” but wouldn’t they appreciate your specific focus on the work they actually do? Specificity indicates that you have done your homework and that you actually care about the assignment.
- There are always specific requirements. I’ve seen great RFP’s and I’ve seen horrible RFP’s, but most have one thing in common: the opportunity to ask questions before you respond. If you do not take advantage of this opportunity you are not only missing a chance to gain significant insight into the project, but you are telegraphing to the prospect that you think you have it all figured out. Chances are you don’t. Ask yourself this question: if the prospect knew everything about PR, would it be soliciting your services? Likewise, you should assume that the RFP lacks nuance, and you should clarify exactly what the prospect needs so you can be thoughtful and accurate in your response.
- You are only as good as your next engagement. While past experience and success can be a very useful lever in gaining a prospect’s trust and comfort, it should never be used as a substitute for fresh thinking and new ideas. I am astounded by how many companies in the PR industry (and across professional services, for that matter) play the “Take a look at our roster!” card and expect that it will carry the day. Maybe everyone on that roster is wrong. Instead of name dropping and logo flashing, focus on what you have learned from working on a diverse group of quality clients, and how that experience will help you to create and shape a new and fulfilling relationship with the prospect.
- Arrogance is toxic. There is such a fine line between confidence and condescension, especially when you are trying to convey mastery of a concept or a business to a client. While you always want to appear confident, you also need to remember that you probably don’t know as much as the people you are presenting to. Likewise, respect the fact that while the prospect may not yet even know their specific requirements (see point number two), at least they were smart enough to seek external support -- and maybe from you. You should know more about PR than they do, but there is no need to make them feel bad about it.
Walking the Walk
In the end, I felt good about my self-assessment as it related to my new business approach. More or less, it comes down to being confident in your craft, but also a decent human being. Strike the right balance and people will seek out your services. In my mind, that is the highest level of success.
As for our vendor search, we ended up choosing a partner that did not meet one of our specific requirements -- right now. But, they were smart enough to anticipate what we would ask, assured us that the functionality is under development, and even asked us to be part of the roll-out testing. By understanding our business and providing a framework for shared success, they were able to build a level of trust that made our decision very easy. Their ability to understand our needs even before we signed up was a clear indication that they wanted to be more than a vendor -- they wanted to be our partner and grow together. After all, winning the client is the easy part. The real work begins once the contract is signed.