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.
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.
Having done two mandatory tours of duty in the big agency world, I understand the RFP process. It’s a necessary evil to win most large accounts. However as a small business, I find them to be downright painful. An RFP ought to be called a Request for Pain.
As a small business owner, RFPs are extremely taxing. Consider that in a large or mid-size agency you have business development and senior staff dedicated to winning this kind of business. In a small agency like mine, you are basically pulling time from a very limited resource pool. Instead of focusing on local networking events, phone calls, building relationships online, and developing useful content, you spend 20, 40, 60 or more hours building a proposal and pitch.
The odds of winning RFPs are not good when you are small. I would say the same thing for a large agency, but is easier to dedicate the resources and mitigate the risk.
You almost always have to have a prior relationship, and get the RFP written to you, or intelligence to help you shape your pitch. There is almost always a favorite or two in the dance.
If you do not have a prior relationship, question whether it is worth your time. Many times the third through fifth firms have been referred as good agencies that might be able to do the job, but the odds are long. In the cases were the RFP is hard-wired, some or all of players three through five are asked because they can’t win. They have a glaring flaw.
In the case of a small agency, size is almost always in issue. In a wired RFP, a small agency is an easy kill. Scaling questions must be addressed to the client’s satisfaction. Sometimes this is overcome with a focus on niches, such as community management or social media content. With larger contracts, though, even the ability to scale quality niche work becomes an issue. Most large companies don’t want to deal with a network of consultants and small boutiques to achieve scale. Can you blame them?
People do business with people they like. So if there is no relationship, you have to become the darling of the potential client very quickly and get the same type of intelligence that the favorites receive. That can be hard to do. If the client is cold and distant during the initial RFP process consider it a clear warning that you are wasting your time.
I almost always decline to participate in RFPs because of these many issues. The pain is not worth it. At least for a small firm like mine. My time is better served networking and building relationships for projects and winning business with people that know and trust me (and my firm).
Have you listened to someone defend that they are selling? How pathetic is that? It’s not that they are wrong, the entire economy moves on financial transactions, for profit and not. We are all salespeople at some point in our lives, even if we’re trying to get a job. What’s pathetic is that their defense deflects the real issue, which is shoddy sales skills.
The mark of a great salesman is simply that they don’t make you feel sold to; rather, the transaction is so natural it seems like an obvious action. You feel good about buying, because you needed or wanted the product or service. Opening your wallet was easy!
When a real salesperson hears an objection, they listen, ask questions, and try to meet their customer’s needs. If they can’t, they refer them somewhere else. To them a relationship between buyer and seller is built on trust and value. Salespeople foster that rather than simply garner transactions.
What they don’t do is defend themselves, or when their call to action is questioned, go into a hard sell. In essence, this is forcing the sale, the terrain of used car salesmen.
There is nothing wrong with asking. A great call to action is a specific ask. But when you get no, then keep asking, and people start complaining, pay attention. It has nothing to do with sales, per say. It has everything to do with the salesmanship. Don’t be a sales puke.
Responsibility for the resulting social media bubble and the increasing demand for impact belongs to the PR industry in its 2.0 incarnation. It’s the same industry that during the 1.0 era relied on similar metrics, such as number of press clippings, impressions (sound familiar?), and the winner of all metrics, ad equivalency. Current PR definitions of success online will always be suspect, just as the industry’s prior metrics always led CEOs to question the value of public relations.
As the Harvard Business Review so adequately stated it, “‘social’ media is trading in low-quality connections — linkages that are unlikely to yield meaningful, lasting relationships.” PR 2.0’s popularity based metrics gauge attention, but not business actions. Common business actions include sales and brand reputation for companies, and donations and advocacy for causes. For that matter, current social media metrics fail to measure attitude (reputation), the hallmark of PR.
Measuring attention has created the very strange ongoing conversation about influencers, and their thoughts. Influential talking heads — as determined by attention metrics — dominate today’s social web conversation. Influence also allows PR pros to build lists of “important people” to target for pitching in the hopes of achieving earned social media impressions. Sound a little like the old media relations game?
Like PR 1.0’s impressions, attention in social media has its value. There’s a reason why attention represents one of the three As. But it only represents a piece of the puzzle. Because inexperienced businesses and nonprofits were desperate to adapt they accepted the PR industry’s social media metrics as the answer. And as such, over-reliance on PR 2.0 metrics have created the increasingly discussed bubble.
Attitudes and Actions
Social media communications represents a confluence of disciplines, from the already discussed PR to advertising and relationship development (called business development, sales or development depending on the type of organization). Social can also include HR, customer service, etc., but from a pure marketing standpoint, these are the three primary internal disciplines. Traditionally, while all three intersect at times within social, advertising’s call to action and networking yield sales and long-term relationships.
That doesn’t mean that advertising would have done a better job defining metrics. Pay per click, and more specifically the click through rate, still hang over the industry as debatable cost metrics for online properties. But advertising’s legacy is that a campaign works if sales increase. In the case of branding campaigns, advertising works if reputation and awareness increase. Advertising skills have their role in the art of getting people to the site, then getting them to commit to an action.
Yet advertising’s downfall has always been its inability to develop one-on-one relationships, which for many organizations falls to the development team. In business-to-business organizations and nonprofits this role and title should be familiar. Even large consumer product organizations have relationship developers that vie for channels and distribution. In consumer product and service companies after the sale, the customer relations department often takes over.
These people create, build and sustain critical relationships for years, even decades. Applied, development skills bring that irreplaceable relationship element to social media marketing and communications. Relationship development builds a sense of loyalty within a community. This extends beyond the momentary casual interaction to continued participation and actions over time.
To become more effective, social media metrics need to take into account the other marketing disciplines at play. That means measuring real actions such as sales/donations as well as reputation, advocacy and strength of community. A retweet algorithm won’t cut it, nor should a business or cause blindly accept attention metrics as the sole determination of program success.
What Will Happen When the Bubble Bursts
Businesses and causes are already questioning the value of social media programs. Their highly touted Facebook fan pages and Twitter accounts aren’t answering the right kinds of questions about impact. Navigating truths and myths about disruptive communication technologies will force a much deeper level of accountability for communicators and other professionals using social tools.
This change in tone and accountability is already being felt. The recession is forcing organizations and companies to make their communications programs work correctly, or drop them altogether.
What would be unfortunate is if the backlash is too severe and swings completely towards sales goals without respect for relationships, or the necessary step of garnering community attention. As with most things in life, the middle road is the best course. Only time can tell what will actually happen.