Simple, prudent steps to being pitch perfect

There can be no consultancy that hasn’t felt the effects of the global economic downturn, so Jim Surguy’s advice on winning pitches couldn’t be more timely

Let me say at the outset, I don’t want to wade into the debate about the merits – or otherwise – of free pitching. Right now, everybody I know is at it. Yes, it’s wasteful, and it’s the biggest single argument in favour of account farming.

In other words, tap your existing clients and pursue all the organic growth opportunities you can in a planned and consistent way. Only then should you go on the ‘new’ new business trail.

But when you do head down that road, what should you bear in mind? Here are a couple of checklists for getting on to the pitch list and then winning the pitch.

Getting on to the pitch list

1 Develop your point of difference. Believe in it, and make it work for you. Along with your people and your credentials, this is what you’re selling.

2 Plan and organise new business. Commit to it from the top, and live it. Make it a priority. A written plan with specific responsibilities and a policing system is essential.

3 Use all the available tools. Network, use PR – articles, speeches, letters, use direct mail and selective advertising if you can afford it, seek client referrals, have an up-to-date website and up-to-date case histories. Answer the client’s unspoken questions – ‘Have I heard of these guys?’ and ‘Will it be credible to put them on a pitch list?’ – you have to become part of the prospect’s mental repertoire.

4 Target accurately both sectors and clients where you have expertise, experience and relevance. Develop your new business database and keep it current.

5 Keep making the contacts. You have to prospect to survive. Aim as high as possible. Use relevant and original communication. Above all, remember it’s a numbers game.

6 At the first meeting show work that could prompt a brief. Communicate your difference, highlight aspects of your work that are relevant to the prospect, prompt questions that drive need, show an intelligent understanding of their market and seek the earliest possible involvement in a pitch.

7 Keep in touch. Develop a reason to call, send clippings, mailings. Maintain your visibility and saliency. Use a follow-up system.

Winning the pitch

Companies don’t make decisions; people make decisions. Never, ever forget it. Remember when you were recruiting for a vacancy and you had a short list? You were looking for reasons to exclude candidates. Pitching is the same. You have to get it all right.

1 Understand everything. Why is there a pitch in the first place? Is it a new project, a management change at the prospect’s end, or dissatisfaction with the previous design group – if so, why: inadequate strategic or creative input, service level, change of personnel? You need to know. And why are you on the list. It helps frame your response. Ask.

2 Challenge the brief. Research the client and understand the context. What has gone before? What’s the competition like. Know how the work will fit into the client’s bigger picture. Interrogate the brief. Force the client to be explicit. What are they really looking for?

3 Manage the process. Internally, this is often sloppy. Meeting internal deadlines and rehearsal schedules needs realistic, decisive planning – and ruthless policing. A well-managed process is a valuable, recoverable investment even if you don’t win the business.

4 Understanding the prospect. You must understand the prospect’s insecurity: creative people are intimidating, design evaluation is subjective, turning people down hurts their feelings, and selecting a design consultancy involves high risk. It’s crucial to get close to the prospect before the pitch. Business is often half-won before the pitch. Try to start a working relationship from the beginning in order to take the client with you, achieving agreement on issues before the actual pitch. Participation and familiarity provide essential reassurance on both sides.

5 Clients are not stupid. They know your chief executive is not going to be their account executive. Make the team that will really work on the business the pitch team. And get the most out of your people – they will rise to the occasion.

6 Remember it’s a sales presentation. You will need to demonstrate insightful thinking on the issues and innovative creative work, but you must also engender participation to make the prospect feel more at ease. You can do this by embedding in the presentation controversial points, and by asking for questions. But, in concentrating on the substance, never forget this is a sales pitch. Clients like being seduced, so fire their imagination. Use some theatre, think carefully about the environment in which you’re pitching. Can you dress the room? Can you make the actual presentation more interesting when delivering your ideas?

7 Don’t forget the little things. Perhaps sadly, they are disproportionately important. Things like the quality of the coffee or food served, the quality of the presentation material and any documents you produce, the way the prospect is received, and – of course – the cleanliness of the lavatories.

Take care of everything if you want to win and show you’re hungry. Go the extra mile – your competitors certainly will.

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