No One Wants to Be the First Loser

Everyone who owns a business finds themselves in competitive sales situations, RFP or not. Even when you think you’re not in a competition, buyers consider other options including not buying. And that’s why as a competitive person, I hate losing. There is nothing worse than being told my company has placed second, which just means I am the first loser.

We recently talked about the super fun RFPs offer small business owners. RFPs take incredible amount of time they take. In fact, all new business efforts takes time, a necessary part of running a company.

But when you come in second, it is the worst kind of failure. The win was within grasp. Some sort of internal failure to satisfy the customer caused the loss. That’s painful, folks.

When donned the second loser, you also have a choice. You can look within and engage in a post mortem to determine why you lost. Or you can embrace the loser status, and blame the client. Or outside circumstances. Or just accept that the other option was more attractive than what you presented.

Why They Say No


The word attraction is important here. I find potential clients chose not to select my company because they just didn’t love what we had to offer. Or they loved something else more. Perhaps I failed to listen to them, and didn’t allay their fears. Or worse, I was cold and failed to build a relationships.

My friend Jack Vincent wrote a book, “A Sale Is a Love Affair.” It’s a great book, and I hope you read it. He talks about how sales are really about building relationships of trust and value. And like a love affair, if you don’t respect the other person and their feelings (fears, need for trust, etc.) then a sale goes awry.

I decided to forward a draft of this post to Jack and get his thoughts. “Sure, prospective customers want to know you’re competent and that your proposed solution is on the mark and that you can deliver it effectively,” wrote Jack. “But what often differentiates the winning pitch is the personal connection you establish during the pitch and the sales process. To this effect, winning new business has eye-opening parallels to finding love.”

While researching A Sale Is A Love Affair, Jack found that the advice given by today’s dating coaches and marriage counselors correlates directly with the best practices used by marketing consultants and sales trainers. “The mindset is actually a heart-set,” says, Jack. “It focuses on pulling prospects through their purchasing process, not pushing them through your sales process.”

So when I am the first loser, I always review the sale to see where it went wrong. Just like any relationship — marriage, friendship, parenting — business relationship skills can always stand to be improved upon. I need to know why I lost so next time, I can win the business, and more importantly, the fun project to work on with my new client and friend.

What do you think about close losses?


  • I was part of a team that was the first loser years ago. We lost out to a big NYC-based agency. I was disappointed they didn’t take the chance and go with a hard-hitting team of business owners who would have had a lot more vested in their success. We tried to convey that in the RFP process, but the nature of RFP processes make that love affair approach more challenging, for sure.

    In the end, we all want to do business with people we enjoy doing business which makes that relationship-building part during the sales process more than just winning the business. Sometimes, if it doesn’t work out, you know it wasn’t meant to be.

    • I think 90% of RFPs are wired anyway, and rarely engage in them. I just turned one down this week, in fact.

      I agree, it does take two to tango. And often I use starter projects to determine whether it makes sense to continue.

  • First loser is painful. It is hard not to wonder where you fell short and how close you came. I think Jack is right about it being similar to a ‘love affair’ and I am convinced many business decisions are not based upon logic but upon ‘gut feelings.’

    If the services and costs are relatively equal all you have to go upon is the feeling you get when you think or talk to a business.

    That feeling isn’t necessarily indicative of who will do a better job for you but it does play into who you relate to and or like better at a particular moment in time.

    • Buying is so emotional. We have to cater to feelings, too. And on that note, off to write a hand written note!

  • Does coming in second make you a loser? Or does it inspire you to do better/different/fill in the blank? The older I get, the more I believe that there truly is enough work to go around. When we let our competitive natures get in the way of relationships, then the losses go well beyond the bottom line. I try to step back and look at the bigger picture; sometimes the 30,000 foot view shows a lot more than we often credit it for showing. Love what your friend Jack said about winning new business and finding love. I would take it one step further – winning new business and sustaining love. At the end of the day, isn’t it truly the connections that we nurture the ones that yield the most return?

    • Keeping a client is much more valuable than winning one, for sure. But, the zen attitude about close losses isa bit different. I feel like second is karma showing me how close I am, that the painstaking effort of being mindful about a post mortem will help me win that business in the future. In the cases of third-fifth, it’s more of a not right fit/not meant to be thing. Hope that makes sense.

  • Great post, Geoff. Much of my early career was in business development (i.e., technical proposal writing, coordination, etc.) for U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) contractors. Unless you are an 8(a), veteran owned, or other special category of contractor, most companies only expect to win half to a third of proposals. You just factor business development into the government-audited overhead rate you charge. Much of the game is reading an RFP and figuring out if its points structure fits with your companies’ strengths, people, etc. You cannot take it personally, however, if you don’t win, especially since you are likely to lose half or more in the federal contracting world. All you can do is a post mortem to help you figure what went wrong, which will help you be more strategic the next time around. As an additional FYI, in my opinion, in terms of federal contracting, small boutique firms (unless you are a special category contractor considering a limited competition procurement) are better off identifying larger companies to serve as subcontractors or consultants to (the big firms will do the proposal) and then once you have a few gigs with a given federal agency, then try as a prime. That said, I am sure those whose expertise is in nonprofit or private sector RFPs may see things differently. :)

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