02 26 2015

Strategy

Lie now and lose later. Assess your chances of winning early on.

In my travels around the globe I meet a lot of people who pitch on business they have no realistic chance of winning. They don’t like to pass up an opportunity — at least what looks like one to them — or they think if they pitch on every project that comes in the door, they’ll create the impression they’re constantly hustling. Some subscribe to the view that if you throw enough pitches at the wall eventually one will stick. To them, winning is simply a numbers game.

To me, however, pitching indiscriminately is a pointless exercise. During a Q & A once, I challenged an audience member who clearly thought the best way to increase sales was to respond to every RFP on the planet. All he had to do, he reasoned, was gain access to more RFPs, so he asked me how to do that. “What’s your goal?” I replied. “To win business or respond to RFPs?” If winning is your goal, then doesn’t it make more sense to pitch on 20 RFPs and win 12, than to pitch on 100 and win 5? And once you do start to be selective, isn’t it smarter to make your selections based on measurable criteria? Sure it’s tough to pass up what seems like an opportunity, but there’s a world of difference between grasping at straws and delivering a quality pitch that has a shot at winning.

But how do you assess if you have the goods to deliver a quality pitch? And how do you find out how your client views your strengths and weaknesses relative to your competitors’? (That’s important to know early in the process, too. I’ve seen two decision makers hold diametrically opposed views about a team’s skill sets. If you know how you’re perceived, you can figure out how to promote your strengths and come up with arguments to mitigate your perceived weaknesses at the outset.)

All of which is why, after my clients have gathered all their intelligence on the decision makers and determined how they perceive them, I ask them to complete a strategy assessment by filling out a worksheet and giving themselves weighted scores on their responses to these three questions:

  1. How well do you know the decision makers, influencers, and the extent of their influence over the decision?
  2. How well do you understand their needs?
  3. How do they perceive your strengths and weaknesses relative to your competitors’?

If they score 50 percent or higher, it means they have at least that much of a chance of winning, and they can proceed. If they score below 50 per cent, they can ask the client for more time to get to know them better, or take themselves out of the race. There’s no shame in dropping out of the race, by the way, if winning isn’t a realistic possibility. Far better to focus your energies on a pitch you can win.

Basically, a strategy assessment gives you a formula for deciding whether to proceed with a pitch. It forces you to examine the quality of your intelligence so you can make an informed decision about whether you have the raw materials to win. It also forces you to get to know the client before you commit. (It functions a lot like an online dating profile in that way because you can date before you move in together.) But just as people often lie shamelessly on their dating profiles, they lie on their strategy assessments.

I worked on a pitch once where a client admitted to me that he’d never met the decision maker. He wasn’t even sure of the person’s name, so he gave himself a zero out of ten on the first question. Then he looked me in the eye and tried to convince me that he had such deep knowledge of the decision maker’s needs that he deserved to give himself a seven out of ten on the second question. Another time, a client actually argued to me that if his team didn’t know the client’s needs, then none of his competitors could possibly know anything about them, either. I filed that one away in the Arrogance Hall of Fame.

I’ve seen people pretend they’re in a better position than they actually are many times. But why, you may ask, would somebody cheat on their own strategy assessment? For one simple reason: it gives them a justification to proceed with the pitch. For some people, like the guy who wanted to know how to access more RFPs, pitching on them provides a sense of security. For others, pitching willy-nilly is easier than making the effort to build strategic relationships with the client. They’re too lazy. In the case of the client who tried to retrofit his answer to come out with a higher score, he did it because I’d said I didn’t want to work on the pitch unless his team’s final score was 50 per cent or higher.

I know it’s tough to pass on a pitch when you’re never sure when another will come along. But think about it like this: when you embark on a pitch, you set off down a long and winding road. If you hope to make it to your destination without getting hopelessly lost, cross the finish line a winner, and team up with a compatible partner on the other side, why would you set off without a map, a compass, adequate provisions, or any idea whether that partner is right for you or not?