Making Adversarial Assumptions in the Sales Process

Blair has another podcast therapy session about “good clients vs. bad clients,” as David tries to help him see procurement people as actual human beings who sometimes are just overwhelmed.


DAVID C. BAKER: Blair, are you there? You're there.

BLAIR ENNS: David? I'm here. Are you there?

DAVID: I'm here. This is an interesting topic because you're starting to come around--

BLAIR: I came up with it.

DAVID: That's not why it's interesting. It's interesting because you are starting to come around to the fact that you're starting to picture procurement people as having family members and kids and dogs and being real people. Up until this point, you've just envisioned them as robots who are all evil. I'm overstating the case.

BLAIR: You are. We're not just talking about procurement, but also people on the client side who are on procurement.

DAVID: Yes, but I think it's interesting because, at some point today, I do want you to tell the audience how you are diving deep into this with your own research, because I'm really curious about what you're going to find with this.

BLAIR: You're setting me up with that word research. You know I don't do research.

DAVID: [laughs] It's a small "R", research with a small "R". We're really talking today about how we don't want to lump it all together, that there's some nuance around the professional and the non-professional procurement side. What made you want to talk about this?

BLAIR: The topic that we're describing is- we're calling it Good Client, Bad Client. I had a situation last week where I was doing one of these ask me anything thing things on video with an organization, where there are a bunch of agency principals putting questions to me. Then we're kind of having a conversation where it wasn't just me answering the questions. There was just a pretty good group discussion of about 30 people. There was an agency principal who was offering his take on how it handles specific situation.

As I was listening to him respond to the question, and I don't remember either the question or his response, but I remember thinking, well, that's very magnanimous of him to take the point of view in this situation that another agency principal was dealing with. That the client is a good person who's in over his head, or who doesn't have bad intentions, and really just needs a helping hand from the agency. I thought he responded to the question really well, and was very magnanimous and open-minded. It made me realize that in a lot of the advice that I give, I'm assuming a more adversarial relationship between the client and the agency.

This happened a few days ago, and I've been thinking a lot about it since then. I realized that in my own business, I almost never assume an adversarial situation with the people that I'm talking to in a sales conversation. But I often assume an adversarial situation on behalf of my clients when they're being pushed around by their clients. It made me realize, yes, these are some assumptions that aren't fair to make. There clearly are situations where you, as an agency owner, or a professional, you're dealing with a client who is what we would all agree to be a bad client. Their motivations are bad, their behaviors are poor, et cetera. I realized it's not fair for me or for anybody to assume these things as a starting point.

Probably a better starting point would be something that I hear often in the voice of a friend from years ago. She would say most people aren't jerks, they're just overwhelmed. I think that's a great principle or philosophy to take through life when you're measuring or just observing the behavior of others. We can assume that this person's in idiot or malevolent, but the reality is, most of the time, they're just overwhelmed.

I wanted to talk about various situations that our listeners might find themselves in, and how to make the distinction between what's a good client and what's a bad client. What's really driving their behavior, and then ultimately get to the issues of what should you do in these situations.

DAVID:  Give me an example, at least one example, of something that might come across the transom that might strike an agency principal as a sign of a bad client. Then there's actually a really simple explanation for it. We're wrong to jump to conclusions about that. Give me an example of that.

BLAIR: Sure. Let's start at the beginning of the relationship. Let's say, you don't currently have a relationship with a prospective client, and then you get this RFP that comes in over the transom. The RFP is very onerous. It's we need you to submit all of these things to us. Here are the things that we require of you in terms of information about your firm, and maybe even at this point kind of speculative thinking about the client situation, and here are the things that you're not allowed to do. You're not allowed to phone us, there's no forum for you to ask direct questions.

If you have a question that you want to pose to us, we will then circulate that response to that question, not just to you, but to the other firms under consideration, et cetera. We can, in a situation like that, depending I suppose on our mood, reflexively think, oh, this is a bad client because it's a bad RFP. It that doesn't recognize and value our expertise. It treats us like a vendor when in a sea of many. We can assume in some situations that this is a person who doesn't value what she's buying, either from us or from anybody else, and doesn't really value the contribution that whatever firm she hires is going to make to that business.

We can assume all of these things. They just see us and everybody else as a commodity. This person is used to buying our services like their commodities. They don't hold this in high regard, et cetera. Therefore, they're not going to treat us well. Maybe that's the reality. It may also be that this is a person who either has never done this before, or is borrowing best practices from those that have come before her. This is just the way we've always hired a firm like yours, and putting myself in the client shoes, we've always done it this way. It's just never occurred to me that this isn't the appropriate way to hire a firm like yours.

DAVID: In some cases, it might be a matter of education. If you approach it correctly, the person on the other side of the table might actually be grateful that you stepped in, and kindly, respectfully said, hey, here's another perspective on this. It's not as if you're necessarily trying to disrupt the pitch, is something that you've talked about a lot, but you're really just trying to help them a little bit. Even if it just takes 15 minutes of your time. It may be innocent, it's rather than just a quick assumption that somebody's out to get us.

One of the things that strikes me about this is that our reaction to this onerous process which we have to go through is that it seems like it's the same process for a small project, the first project we're doing for a client, then it would be for some massive publicly traded agency that's going to get a $10 million project, and the ROI isn't quite there. We're just like, oh my god, another time without necessarily looking behind this. So you're saying that sometimes you do have to play this game? Maybe you play it a little bit differently, right?

BLAIR: Yes. I think we're all wired a certain way. I'm wired to probably think, oh, this person's incompetent.


DAVID: I would love to explore that for a minute.

BLAIR: As I'm saying this, I'm realizing how many people have been on the receiving end of communication for me thinking, oh my god, this person's just incompetent. I remember one of the last pieces of business I closed in my agency, new business development career, was a fortune 500 company, a very large organization. I pushed back on what was a very onerous selection process. The client said to me, "Listen, I'm not saying this is the right way to go about it. It just we've always done it this way, and nobody's ever said no before." That's just a reminder that you think, okay, big corporation used to hiring firms like ours all of the time. They're notoriously cost-efficient. They like to keep their costs low.

They're known, their brand is essentially known for that. They're going to push us around, they're going to make us feel like a vendor. I just very politely asked for some concessions. I was told those words, basically. I'm not saying this is right. This is just the way we've always done it and nobody's ever said no. That floored me. I think you can be like me where a lot of these situations, especially when an RFP comes in over the transom. You look at it, and if there are things you really don't like about it, I mentally gird myself for a fight.

Now, that's only if I don't know anything about this person or organization. If I've had a conversation with them and I'd know them to be reasonable, I'm going to assume that they're reasonable, and they've inherited a flawed process. Just as I have this default assumption, and I'm ready to go to battle when I see something that's flawed. There are other people who are kinder, gentler, more magnanimous and understanding than I am.

DAVID: Like me.

BLAIR: Like you, David, who would look at that and think, oh, this isn't a very good way to hire a firm like ours, but this person probably just needs a little help. I'm going to call up and offer this person some help. Regardless of the point of view that you're coming from, I think back to one of the principles that I talked about a lot and we've talked about on this podcast, say what you're thinking. You say it with kindness. We refer to this principle as kind ruthlessness.

You are ruthless in your behavior and your standards, but you're always kind in your words. If you think there's a flaw in the process, then you would pick up the phone, and you might begin with, "Thank you. Hey, I received your RFP. Thank you very much for thinking of us. It looks like you put a lot of work into this, I really appreciate the effort you've made. I do have a concern, and that is it's a little bit onerous. You're asking us to do a whole lot of work before we've explored each other at a high level. Also, I'm concerned that it looks like perhaps you've borrowed this procurement process from elsewhere in the organization that's more used to procuring goods, widgets, et cetera. I'm seeing areas where it doesn't quite translate. Are you open to having a conversation about this?"

Here I am talking to myself. Instead of assuming an adversarial relationship, I think we need to go into all of these situations where the first communication from the client rubs us the wrong way. I think we need to give them the benefit of the doubt, as my friend often says, "Most people aren't jerks, they're just overwhelmed," assumed that they're overwhelmed, that they've borrowed a process from somewhere else, that they've been distracted by other things, and that what they really need is somebody to help. Then you offer to help.

Depending on a bunch of different variables, that client may or may not be open to helping, but I think you've got an obligation to start there. When you see a flaw in the selection process, whatever that flaw is, it's too onerous, it doesn't seem to be appropriate for the services they're buying. First of all, you just assume that this is a good person who has made a mistake, and then you offer to help, without being pedantic.

DAVID: The answer to this may be very easy. I could very well sound stupid asking this question, but you've mentioned several times the idea of conversation, phone call, talk, not email because I-- My God, I don't know if there's anybody on the planet that's more guilty than I am of making bad assumptions about somebody's intent or their level of disgust or whatever. That frequently happens when I haven't had a conversation with somebody, it's been more of an email. I tend to read bad things into email.

What do you do when a conversation is off-limits, or is that not the case too much? How do you take this away from written communication in an email, or a document, to have that human connection with somebody if they are resisting that?

BLAIR: That's a good question. I think, quite rightly, you should assume that no conversation is ever off-limits. Even when you're told, "You're not allowed to communicate with us. You're not allowed to have a phone call with us." I think those are guidelines in some procurement processes. It's actually in your best interest to ignore those. We're recording this on a Friday, the week that I had this week where I was in a really bad mood for a few different reasons.

DAVID: No, you were just overwhelmed. You were just overwhelmed.


BLAIR: Thank you for your understanding, David. I was so overwhelmed. Then, I responded in writing to my marketing team on something, had this gross overreaction to something that the team did. I was like a teenager on a message board, just flaming somebody. Then I hit send, and I was like, "Oh my God, what have I just done?" Then I apologized, even that wasn't enough. We finally had a deep conversation where I groveled today. It's funny. When I came up with the topic, this thing hadn't happened yet, but it happened since then, but it's really timely.

Somebody once said, "All of the personal growth in your life will take place in the gap between the stimulus and the response." That's number one. When you get something in writing from a client, and you think this is stupid, or they're malevolent, or they're trying to take advantage of you, or you think some other evil thought of them, the first thing that you do is pause. You do not respond immediately. This is Blair talking to Blair, admonishing himself for his behavior this week. That's the first thing you do. The second thing you do is, ideally, when you respond, you don't respond in writing.

You pick up the phone and respond, because so much inference gets communicated or dropped in the written communication. I think that happens with clients a lot. It's really about how you're feeling. A friend of mine once said to me that he learned that almost all of life's problems are internal problems and not external problems. He said, specifically, they're blood sugar problems.


BLAIR: Hangry, hangry problems that's when they're talking to their grand kids, they're hangry. There we go.

DAVID: Can we talk about some specifics? We can bring this down to a real practical level. I'm interested in talking through a few specifics. One of the ones that you thought might be useful to talk about is in the sale, when you don't appear to be valued by the client. We've talked a little bit about this already. Where's that coming from? What are some of those assumptions that you might make in err? What's the truth, sometimes? Let's talk about that one.

BLAIR: When I'm hearing stories from my clients, agency principals who are telling me stories of how prospective clients are pushing them around in the buying cycle, or in the sale, I get my back up a little bit on their behalf. But very often, the truth is that this isn't a bad client, it's just that you have no power. You're not seen as meaningfully different. This is a busy client who's trying to run this process, whether it's a well-conceived and well-organized process or not, they're trying to run this process to hire a firm to help them take their organization forward.

If they don't see you as meaningfully different, if they're looking at four, or five, or 15, different firms they're considering, and you all look the same, then you're going to get treated like the vendor, rather than the expert practitioner. Very often, what we would identify as poor behavior early in the sale, it's not a function of who that individual is. It's a function of the externalities, the context. You're just not seen as meaningfully different. We're always advocating, push back on a flood selection process, and see if you get a concession granted to you.

If you get that concession granted to you, it's a very good sign that they'll likely see you as meaningfully different. Now, we've all been in situations where we're overwhelmed, and people who- I don't know how to put this delicately, people who are just annoying or aren't adding value to us, or just kind of in the way, we tend to be-- I realize I'm saying we, but it's really me. I don't know how many people share this. I can easily be dismissive of somebody who I see is not bringing any value, just bringing complexity to my life.

They might have something to offer me, but it's nothing that I can't get from somewhere else. Very often, what you would attribute as poor behavior from a malevolent client is really just a function of the fact that you're just not seen as meaningfully different.

DAVID: Yes, it's not you. It's me, right?


DAVID: You're the issue. It's the way you're positioned and you're putting that on them without seeing the root problem of why this is even happening.

BLAIR: Yes. I think I've talked about this before. Fundamental attribution error is this idea that we ascribe to others, we ascribe the motivations for what they do as internal, as based on their character. When really it's almost always about the external motivations. It's about context. In this situation, you might be treated poorly by a client, and you're thinking, "Oh, that's a bad client. This is somebody who's not a nice person, who doesn't think highly of firms like ours at all." The reality might be that you've built, and are running a "Me, too" firm that looks like so many other firms, and you have no power in the buy-sell relationship.

This might be a perfectly wonderful person. The truth is, you won't know what it is until you push back, until you say no, until you ask for concessions. The first thing I would suggest is you ask, "What's at the root of this person's behavior? Is it the fact that we're an annoyance because we don't seem to be bringing any exceptional value to the table?"

DAVID: Yes, exactly. I've just thought of so many examples of that, and how it's interesting that you push back. You still don't know what the answer is, and you still may never know what the answer is, but you might discover something that is worth turning your own frustration level down and using it as a painful opportunity to say, "You know what? We're probably not going to turn this around, but this is one more piece of evidence that we need to step back and look at the bigger picture about how we are being perceived in these conversations."

Another one, which I hear this one a lot, maybe more than anything else, it's when you put all this effort into winning an account, and your contact on the other side goes silent. It's easy to understand why your assumption is automatically pissed off, really, because you put all this effort in, and then you're not afraid of "no" so much, you just feel abused that somebody won't even take the time to tell you what's happening. That's another good example because it happens so much. What's happening here and how do we unpack that?

BLAIR: Let me ask you a question. Because it's fairly common, we've all experienced it. We're going down this path with somebody. In this case, it's to determine whether or not it makes sense to do business together. The communication is fairly prompt and open, and then all of a sudden they stopped communicating. There can be lots of things going on. It could be classic bad client behavior. My question to you is, have you ever been in a situation like that where somebody quit responding, and then you sent a snarky email, only to hear back, "I'm so sorry, my mother died," or something like that?

DAVID: Yes. I just melt inside. Yes, that's happened. I haven't sent any snarky emails, I think, in at least been a long time, at least two weeks, I think.


BLAIR: I got one from you yesterday. That was a text.

DAVID: Yes. That was a text. Yes. I'm better at that now, but in almost every case, it's just been something very innocent. That's usually when I'm a very talented passive-aggressive composer of written language. It's never a good idea because-- If we flipped that around, if somebody is trying to sell me something, and I go quiet, it's often because I'm just super busy, or I just need a little bit more time to think. I form an opinion of that person that I am potentially going to work with. I form a large part of my opinion about them in terms of how they manage that exchange.

I'm so grateful to the person who just doesn't assume that I'm being rude, nor do they put any obstacle in front of me. There's no passive-aggressiveness. Yes, absolutely, I can relate to this completely.

BLAIR: Here's another example. I was having a call yesterday with somebody, and the appointed time arrives, and it's five after, and she's still not online for the Zoom call we're doing. An earlier younger me might have had my nose out of joint or something. I just sent her a note saying, "You must be running late from your previous engagement." This is a small thing.

This is just a small example of how instead of assuming that she stood me up, or this meeting wasn't important to her, et cetera, give her the benefit of the doubt. That's, again, it's a small behavior. I think we, not all of us, but people who are wired like me to look for and enjoy a fight every chance they get to get into one, we really need to offer the benefit of the doubt to the prospective client in larger context. When a prospective client goes away, where the communications have been great, and then they quit communicating, sometimes it's because the answer is no, and they don't want to tell you that.

We've talked before about a model for doing that. If you go to and you search for the magic email, I think it's called, you'll find a framework for getting those people who have disappeared to reengage with you. Sometimes they just don't know. They become paralyzed. In situations like that, you could think, "Okay. I'm emailing and they're not replying." Why not pick up the phone and call and say- even if you get voicemail, say, "Hey, listen. I haven't heard back from you on this. I'm getting the feeling that maybe you're overwhelmed by the decision. There are lots of variables that you need to consider or some things have changed. Would it be helpful if we just talked through this, and maybe I could help you with the decision? If the decision means we don't end up working together, I'm okay with that. I just want to help you get to a decision."

DAVID: Yes, absolutely.

BLAIR: You mentioned procurement off the top. Can we talk a little bit about procurement, because most of the examples we've been discussing so far hadn't been procurement. When it comes to procurement, I am guilty of seeing procurement as evil.

DAVID: You said that in a recent episode, right? Then I cheer you on. Yes. We're both guilty.

BLAIR: I've had lots of examples where I've said from a stage, "You don't work with procurement, you marginalized procurement." I have a problem with some of the ways that procurement goes about negotiating. I spent six years working in ad agencies on dealer association accounts. I got to know car dealers and car sales people quite well. You think about, "Oh, car salespeople. They're the biggest liars." We all assume that when we walk onto the lot. I don't know if it still works this way. I bought my last car online, but we all walk onto a lot. We brace ourselves for the fight. We brace ourselves for the lies that we're going to hear from the salesperson.

Car salespeople have a saying, and that saying is "Buyers are liars". Their attitude going in is, "You the buyer, you're going to lie to me. We're going to price negotiate, and you're going to lie to me. I'm going to lie to you." The assumption is these are the ground rules, and it's acceptable. We are both going to lie to each other. I think to give procurement a little bit more grace than that, but just off the top when it comes to professional buyers and in some categories, professional sellers, there's this assumption that the other side is going to lie, therefore, it's okay for me to lie. Does that make sense?

DAVID: It does, but are you--

BLAIR: I'm not saying that's okay.

DAVID: Yes, but you would say that there should be no lying at all. It's not the whole truth, nothing but the truth, however, that things says. You don't have to tell the whole truth, but everything you say needs to be true. You're advocating that on the seller side, right?

BLAIR: I think so. I think good, honest direct two-way conversation. There are times when procurement's not very good about it. Now let me give procurement the high ground here for a little while. My big beef with how procurement goes about buying creative or marketing services is they end up negatively impacting the services that they buy through their tough negotiations. They don't recognize that the lower prices they are able to extract from the agencies are obtained by putting lower quality people who are spending less time on the job. They don't have an appreciation for the fact that the firm they're hiring needs to be profitable.

I have a big problem with procurement on that point. In my next article, probably out by the time this podcast drops, is called The Inefficiency Principle. The idea that as you increase efficiencies, you can't help but drive down innovation. By increasing the financial or cost efficiencies of hiring a firm procurement, is neutering the firm's ability to innovate and to create extraordinary value for the client. I'm not reneging on that. That's a big problem that procurement has. They are part of the problem. This downward spiral of the quality of services that clients are buying, et cetera. Procurement's a big part of driving that.

Where I want to cut them a little bit of slack is these people report to others in the organization. It's usually efficiencies driven organizations. It's these large companies that are trying to return value to the shareholders, not by innovating new products and services, but by getting their costs as low as possible. They create the conditions where procurement just pays lip service to value creation. In reality, procurement is measured on their ability to cut costs.

If I'm the head of procurement at one of these Fortune 1000 companies whose stock trades at an income multiple as opposed to a growth multiple, and I think that's a really good test of whether or not this would be a good client and whether or not the organization is pursuing innovation or efficiencies. If I'm the head of procurement at an organization that is clearly pursuing efficiencies, I am rewarded not for delivering increased value, but only a part of value, part of the equation, and that is driving costs down. If I have a bonus at all, it's not for value creation, it's for cost reduction.

If my financial incentives are to cut costs, I am going to cut costs. As much as I love and will not give up on beating up on procurement and what a shitty job they're doing in procuring their client services, it's coming from higher up.

DAVID: If I could talk just for a second, and this might make a few folks angry who are listening, if I could flip to the other side of this equation, in what world can we safely just put the blame at the feet of procurement? Obviously, there's a significant amount of blame there, but we must own the fact that we've not created a world where they have much option. It's so easy for the procurement to see us the way they do because we haven't made a great case for value creation, and value creation is much more work. It's hard. It's hard to measure.

It's hard to incentivize, and we've done a poor job. We have to take some responsibility for this box that we put ourselves in, and not just make procurement the bad guy all the time.

BLAIR: I agree. I'll just tell another story to support that and cut procurement a little more slack here. I wasn't at this conference, but apparently at the Mirren Conference a few years ago, there was somebody from procurement at Coca Cola who got up and basically admonished the audience. It's an audience of agency people, saying, "You all look the same. You all say the same things. You all have the same Venn diagrams about the process that you say makes you different. You say it's your people in your processes. Your processes are all the same and they're all meaningless. Your people are interchangeable, they go from agency to agency, and in that context, marketing services, $130 an hour. Take it or leave it."


BLAIR: I may be getting some of the details wrong, but that was the story. Hats off to that procurement person for getting up there and stating what the problem is. There's an oversupply of undifferentiated creative firms, and so many of these firms do a lousy job of setting themselves apart from their competition. In that context, if you're not meaningfully different, the client has all the power in the buy-sell relationship. They're going to use that power to get the services as cheap as they want to get them essentially. As much as I love being a procurement as often as I can, you have to accept that as you pointed out, David, most of the time, or at least in the beginning, we've created these conditions. We are the problem.

DAVID: Yes, and the more we blame them, then the less we look at how we need to be solving this.

BLAIR: I'm going to give one more story in support of procurement, and then I'll go back to hating on them. I was interviewing a former procurement guy. He was interviewing me for his podcast, and we were talking about the procurement of agency services. He made the point that if procurement isn't involved, marketing ends up hiring who they like. His beef was without procurement, marketing brings no rigor or not enough rigor to the hiring of agency services, the buying of agency services. I thought, okay, that's a fair point to a certain extent.

One of my beefs with the rigor of the process is that procurement brings to the table is, I think a lot of that rigor is fake. I think it's this veil of transparency and working from a legitimate set of metrics, and very often it doesn't do any of what it proposes to do. I think it's kind of scientism in some ways, but I do acknowledge that without procurement's involvement, sometimes there's just not enough process as opposed to too much arduous process, I would say one procurement is involved.

DAVID: We've talked about the flip side of this and some of the proper reactions in other episodes, but can you summarize some key principles to keep us on track and to keep us from improperly blaming the bad people, whether its procurement or client, and how to manage that process.

BLAIR: Yes. I'll just rapid fire cover some of these things. I think no matter what you see is bad behavior, et cetera, you should assume that this person is not malevolent. It's not something about their character, et cetera. It's about their context. So don't make any assumptions about the person, or even the organization. The assumption is if somebody who is having a bad moment, give them the benefit of the doubt, point number one.

Point number two, you need to engage in conversation even when a process that's been laid out to you says, "You're not allowed to talk to us." You really should ignore that, reach out, and try to have a conversation. If it has to be via email, it has to be via email, but telephone is better. As a recurring principle, say what you're thinking. If you have concerns about something, just stop long enough to think about how to say this kindly, like increase the gap between the stimulus and the response so that you can choose kind words. But say what you're thinking, don't leave things left unsaid, and then don't go into flame thrower mode, right?

Just [crosstalk] pause long enough, but say what you're thinking. Another principle is conversations instead of presentations. Let's just breakdown these series of one-way conversations, and let's get into two-way dialogues. If there's something that the client is asking you to do, or something that the client's not doing that you don't like, ask to be treated differently. Ask for a concession because when you get those concessions granted to you in the sale, that's a sign that you're meaningfully different, that's an invitation for you to proceed further into the sale. So say what you're thinking, ask for concessions, and focus on conversations instead of presentations.

DAVID: It's a great reminder. This is really fun. I mean, not only does it relate to how folks are running their businesses, but it relates to the kind of relationships that we have in and outside of work, too. So it's some really fantastic reminders today. Blair, thank you. Good discussion.

BLAIR: Thanks, David, and thank you to our listeners. I don't know if there's value to the listeners today in this, but it was really helpful therapy for me. Really, at the end of the day, that's what matters most, don't you think?



BLAIR: Therapy disguised as a podcast.

DAVID: Talk to you next week.

BLAIR: Thanks, David.


Marcus dePaula