Win Without Pitching: Q&A with Blair Enns

This post is part of the Insider Series, which is designed to feature professionals in our industry, offer business insight and discover new paths in the agency world.

Blair EnnsBlair Enns (@blairenns) is the founder of Win Without Pitching and a business development consultant to creative firms worldwide.

In his book, the Win Without Pitching Manifesto, he teaches agencies how to gain more respect and power in their client relationships, which in turn transforms how they get and do business. Blair is also a regular speaker on business development topics.

In this Insider Series, he discusses how agencies can improve their business development processes to win more frequently, and develop stronger long-term client relationships.

Q&A with Blair Enns

MAI: In your Win Without Pitching Manifesto, you advocate for agencies to specialize to differentiate. What are the benefits of specialization when it comes to positioning?

Blair: The goal of specialization is to reduce or eliminate competition. There are three main benefits: a sales advantage (your win rate goes up), the ability to support a price premium (you charge more) and increased power in the client relationship (the client listens to you and lets you lead). The first two go hand-in-hand and are really the test of how well positioned you are. When well-positioned brands of any kind compete in their sweet spots, they outsell competitors in a head-to-head comparison and do so while charging more, not less. Your answer to the question, “Are you winning while charging more?” is the answer to the question of how well positioned you are.

The third area of power is something I talk about quite a bit because the buying and selling of creative services is rife with institutionalized bad practices (chief among them, giving thinking away for free). I can give you techniques to use to sell differently, but if you have no leverage with the client then it’s just useless theory. The leverage happens when the client sees few alternatives to hiring your firm. This is such a basic, universal law of supply and demand economics that to argue against it is like arguing against gravity while standing on the earth.

When you have the leverage that specialization brings, you can start to push back on the client’s selection process and offer another way forward—one that isn’t so expensive, inefficient or demoralizing.

MAI: What challenges do agencies face without a firm positioning strategy in place, and how can they overcome them?

Blair: The challenges agencies face without specializing are many. You can see how many of those are implied in my earlier answer. Pricing pressures, low win rates, little control in the sales cycle—which almost always translates to little control in the engagement. That’s why I think of business development as a game, titled The Polite Battle for Control. If you don’t get it before you’re hired, you won’t get it after and your ability to do your best work will be impaired. This lack of control manifests itself in so many ways: the agency bears most of the costs, the propsect keeps you at arms length and creates a load of work for you to do, you get very little real information on how you will be scored, you spend hundreds of hours a year reinventing the proposal wheel, etc.

Other challenges include being pigeon-holed as a tactical shop and not getting a seat at the strategy table. Generalists are getting stuck with the smaller, cheaper, less sophisticated clients and that trend is growing, as the largest marketers increasingly work with rosters of specialists. In the Google era, clients don’t have to put up with generalists when they can find experts in minutes. The generalists are left with the bad clients, and even those clients are increasingly going to places like Crowdspring and 99Designs, as they should.

MAI: What’s wrong with the typical pitch presentation used by most agencies to gain new business?

Blair: Allow me to re-phrase the question: What’s wrong with building a me-too business with so many direct competitors that you have to repeatedly and expensively keep giving your most valuable product away for free, and cede the practitioner position in the relationship to the patient in hopes that he might hire you and then tell you how to operate on him? Nothing, if you’re a masochist. A better question is why are there so many masochists in the creative professions? It’s a long answer with many variables, but one of them is creative people are addicted to the presentation.

MAI: How can agencies improve their business development process to win more frequently? What is the new model for selling?

Blair: In the simplest terms, it comes down to two steps: gain power, then leverage it in the sales cycle. Gaining power starts with positioning; leveraging it starts with deprogramming agency folks from decades of institutionalized bad practices.

Simple enough to state, but there are peculiarities of the creative personality that make both difficult.

MAI: What problems are caused when agencies over invest in RFPs? What should they do instead?

Blair: I have four priorities for winning new business.

  1. Win without pitching if you can.
  2. Derail the pitch if you cannot.
  3. Gain the inside track if you cannot derail.
  4. Walk away if you cannot gain the inside track.

When you receive an RFP, you’re starting at priority #2. You try to see if you can derail it. RFPs are one place where I try to train my clients to respond like robots as soon as they hear those letters. I want them to immediately respond with, “We don’t typically respond to RFPs,” then say nothing. Do this and in the few seconds that follow, you will immediately get a measure of how much power you have with the prospect and whether you might be able to derail by suggesting an alternative approach.

If the process is entrenched and they won’t put it aside, then try to grab the pole position as the favored firm. You do this by pushing back and seeking behavioral concessions. The best test of whether a prospect sees you as different is their willingness to treat you differently. Most firms never push back. It’s more, “Thank you sir, may I please have another?”

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