Beyond the pitch: better ways to start conversations with clients

The DBA’s John Scarrott says the pitch process could be the worst possible time to start conversations with potential clients and suggests alternative routes.

Group of business people by tbe office table

When is the best time for consultancies and clients not currently working together to be talking? The answer could well be when there is no pitch or project in the offing.

For a non-design example of this thinking, look at online dating brand Match.com. Match has developed its offer from simply setting people up on dates, to one of creating experiences such as dancing and painting classes.

Its members can sign up and go along to these events in order to meet people, who might at some point in the future want to meet up again. And if they don’t want to meet again, they’ve still had a good experience that has a value in itself. The “date” is a spin-off from the main business. It’s not the focal point.

So why might the pitch not provide the best structure for a conversation between consultancy and client? What can the agency do that would work better?

There are a number of reasons why the pitch might not be the best structure for you to build a relationship with your client:

A block to thinking

Firstly, the pitch process can block thinking on both sides, and replace it with a focus on short-term priorities.

In a pitch, consultancies can be drawn into addressing what is immediately in front of them; the brief, the deadline, the budget. Their thinking becomes biased towards themselves and less time is spent on client motivation, market condition and future vision.

Similarly clients can be driven by the same priorities. They’re looking for “the product”, the answer to their current problem. The nature of the process means both parties can miss the opportunity to ask questions beyond their immediate needs.

A good sat nav for the relationship?

The pitch process can conspire to set a certain tone and pattern for the relationship and the consultancy’s behaviour post pitch. The potential implications can be problematic – see if you recognise any of this:

The process starts with the consultancy meeting the pitch full on, running at full pelt. The pre-pitch stages involve them showing up, prepared to be better than any other consultancy that the client has ever had before. When they’re engaged and in the early stages of the project, they’re still creative; still ambitious; and quite possibly over-servicing.

But they can only maintain this pace for so long until they get a stitch and have to slow down. Later on in the relationship, the consultancy starts to think: “what do I need to do to protect and retain this client?” The relationship priorities become about meeting deadlines, and staying “on time”.

Does any of this sound familiar? If so, what can you do to create a conversation at another point? What are the alternative ways to build a relationship? What do you need to consider?

Your culture and brand

There is a risk that, to clients, consultancies can end up looking and sounding like each other. So with this in mind, your ability to leverage your culture, to create a real point of difference is crucial. If you’re going to start a conversation with a business on their brand, it makes sense that you know what you stand for and why (for a useful case study take a look at our series on creating belonging).

When you’re clear about your brand you can stop worrying about it, and get to know about your client from an internal cultural perspective by asking questions such as: “How do decisions get made?” “How does money move around the business?” “Where are the tensions?” “Where are the conflicts?”

Your timing

If you’re reading about a business developing its brand in the press it is highly likely that the decision-making process is already underway. It’s even possible that it has already been concluded, even if the headline is: “X looks to appoint a new consultancy”. And the method of appointment will certainly have been tied down. So the opportunity to influence has already narrowed considerably.

In order to get in earlier, look further out in the cycle. Ask the question – what is changing that might have an impact on the sector that might have an impact for your client’s brand in six months time?

Your content

Read your client’s industry trade press and websites, and ask yourselves the questions above. Perhaps create a blog post about it, send it to your clients and ask them what they think about it. Would they like to discuss it?

Your moment

This does not mean a meeting necessarily. If you’re invited to have a conversation, don’t show up with the mindset that “there’s a good chance this could lead to something – because we’ve been invited to a meeting”. Show up with an agenda, that you’ve sent through in advance, and an openness to dig into the issue. This is your chance to build a relationship.

Your business conversation

This is the clincher. Are you prepared to have a business conversation about brands? To articulate and discuss the value of what you do? To talk about design effectiveness? Because if you don’t do this, someone else will. And they could well be another type of marketing services agency, which would be a missed opportunity for a design business. Particularly when there is every likelihood that it’s a design business that is best placed to start the brand conversation, by asking the client: “What do you stand for?”

Discover more:

• How to create belonging in your business – a real-life example

• Starting on the right foot – how to get your business set-up right

• Setting up your design business and uncovering your values

• Five steps to putting your business values to work


Thanks to John Gleason Founder and President of A Better View, for contributing to this piece.

John Scarrott is membership director of the Design Business Association. For more information on DBA membership go to www.dba.org.uk/membership. Follow John on Twitter:@DBAScarrott.

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