Your primary focus with new business development should be on establishing “fit”.
Your product or service is not for everyone and every client, no matter shape, size or budget, should not be yours. If you believe the contrary, you are setting yourself (and your business) up for a great deal of disappointment. And if you are in sales, the simple fact is that you will fail, and that is ok.
Now, when I say to focus on “fit”, I’m not discounting issues of price, proof, people, experience, level of expertise, etc. Quite the contrary, as these are all factors related to “fit”. I’d like to share a recent opportunity that came from a past client contact who is now working for a very successful business five minutes from our office headquarters. At face value this sounds like a “fit” and perfect opportunity: It is a past client who we previously supported successfully and with whom we still have a good relationship. It is a company right next door to us within a sector in which we have experience. And, last, they are requesting the type of services we provide and have a budget with which to support them.
What could be wrong? All signs lead to a “fit”.
We were called in to discuss the opportunity and learn more about the business. The meeting was beneficial and comprehensive and we left feeling positive about the next steps to develop a proposal, which we submitted. After a week or so had passed, the client let us know that they had contacted a couple of other agencies to provide bids. Being that this is a relatively small town, I immediately understood who our competition for this opportunity would be and I also understood that this was a sign that the client did not have a clear focus on who we were as agency or what they wanted from a service provider. Additionally, the client let us know that there would be presentations and suggested that we might want to “develop speculative creative” since some of the other agencies called would be doing so. At that point I should have politely declined and moved on from the opportunity as I knew we would not be selected.
As a business philosophy, we don’t develop speculative creative or put on dog and pony shows for new opportunities. It is just not who we are and we have the strong philosophy that speculative creative diminishes our industry and gives away what we are selling for free. However, in the end, after some internal discussion we elected to push forward with the opportunity because it represented a good past client and an even better potential new client. But at that point I repeated to myself and to our internal leadership that all the signs were there that we would not succeed. This wasn’t about being negative or creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, but for me, the “sales guy”, I simply knew the “fit” was not there despite how good the opportunity initially looked. The client could not make a distinguishable judgment between our agency or another (I qualify this statement by saying that, as a new-business professional, we can always do better, and it is essential for us to clearly define the feature differentiators of our business and what it would be like to work with us). Additionally, the client wanted to be wooed in a way in which we refuse to participate.
In the end, the client picked the agency that developed a campaign and strategy before being hired or paid. Many in our industry, and I, humbly suggest this is an unethical practice, borderline desperate from the agency side of things, and a misguided choice from the client. If I were the client in this position I would ask myself: once the solutions are developed for free, what exactly am I paying for at that point? Implementation? Sure, but that is a commodity with significant downward price pressures, so again, what should I be paying for in a big-ticket sense? Were these solutions grounded in a deep knowledge of my business and industry? How could they be, as we only just met? Or put another way, are the proposed solutions right for my business and can the strategy path be validated in some way to ensure the desired result? Why does this agency have enough time to develop my solutions for free in order to get the job? If they are willing to participate in developing speculative creative, in what other shortcut business practices do they participate?
I saw the signs and, in this case, made the choice to move forward with the opportunity despite them, but the difference is I did not lose any sleep over it when we found out the client went with another agency. It was just a black-and-white, unemotional fact that the client and our agency were not a good “fit” at this time.
Tips for fit and signs to look for (a handful of my top-line assessment points):
- Budget. Is there a budget established? Does the budget fit for your business? Is budget the only point of decision making for this prospective client?
- There is a great deal of information that you can glean from a budget conversation and it is incumbent on you as the new-business professional to help drive that conversation. “You can’t make money if you can’t talk about money”, so get over this hurdle and discuss it openly, as it will tell you a lot.
- The client. Do they respect your profession? Have they done their homework (do they know what they are buying and have a thought process on why they contacted your business in particular)? Are they experienced? Who are the decision makers and how complex is that dynamic? What is their procurement process like? Do they speak poorly of past agency experiences? Do they provide information freely? Does the client and business strike you as ethically minded? Does the client work in an industry that you have experience in supporting within an arena in which you want to work?
- You should be able to assess how these questions would be answered after one meeting with the prospective client. Every situation is different and unique, but answering some of what I would call “general truths” about a new client and opportunity will help give you the vision for the day-to-day future working dynamic if you move forward.
- Look in the mirror. Ask yourself if the work project discussed can be honorably done by your business at a high level.
- Every opportunity that comes to your door may not be the right opportunity. If the project discussed is not one you typically do or feel comfortable selling, then politely let the prospective client know, communicate what you actually do and discuss whether there is another opportunity that may be more aligned to your business, and, if you can, recommend who the client could call for the type of work they need. Establishing this up front will save everyone’s time and the client should respect your honesty and foresight.
- Timeline. Does the client have a sensible timeline?
- The timeline discussion is telling. Typically, with good new business opportunities there is a driver to a client’s timeline. That driver could be, for example, a competitor going to market within the next 6 months or less that could impact market share. In a perfect scenario, the projected timeline would be sensible, well-planned and achievable, and would be a nice sign that this client is on top of their needs, organized and experienced with a project like the one you are discussing. Conversely, a short window with immediate needs that shortcut your business process should be a warning sign for further examination of the opportunity before proceeding.
The signs of a “fit” are there if you learn to look for them. As a new business professional it should be your goal to ask the questions that establish whether each new opportunity is a good opportunity to grow your business one good client at a time. When you focus on the signs of a “fit”, they become larger than the neon signs in Manhattan. If you choose to ignore them, then you do yourself a disservice and ultimately set yourself up for a lot of unnecessary disappointment and dissatisfaction with your profession. Focus on “fit” and you will enjoy the profession and your employer should appreciate you for it.
Good luck with sales my friends.