The Only New Business Indicator That Matters

Blair shares some new data (at the time he and David recorded this discussion in January of 2016) that points to the one variable that can predict the likelihood of a prospect hiring your firm.


David C. Baker: Blair, I've got this question, you got me started thinking about it. I'm just going to dive in here. This question is about the best indicator of new business success, not kind of a question. It cannot help but really make people curious. What's the answer? Then I have a bunch of questions about this one, it's just gotten me thinking. What's the answer to that? What's the best indicator or predictor of new business success?

Blair Enns: I just love this topic. We'll talk about where it came from, and how I've just gotten some data on it recently. The number one predictor of your likelihood to win the business you're pursuing is, did you affect the buying process or the extent to which you affected the buying process? Essentially, if you were able to affect the buying process, and by that I mean, change the way the client goes about hiring you, your odds of winning go way up.

David: Before you started consulting and training and so on, back when you were selling on the agency side, were you aware of that consciously or is that something that you learned after you left the agency side?

Blair: It's something I definitely felt and I intuited. I would say, to a certain extent, I probably behaved like that were true and important but I hadn't thought it through.

David: That's been a part of all the hundreds of agencies that you've worked with? I would guess that a listener would ask if they had access to a mic at this point, like, can you give me some examples of how you might affect the buying process?

Blair: Yes, in short, it's essentially getting concessions. The client comes to you with a defined selection process and says, "Okay, we want you to do these things and these are the rules, et cetera. Then make sure you don't color outside the lines. This can get dangerous, depending on your personality. When you start seeing these things, you start pushing back and jostling and you get into what I refer to as the game.

To me, business development is nothing but a game. The game goes by the name, the polite battle for control. You get into this little jostle, this polite battle for control and essentially early on, if you can get some concessions granted to you, then that's a sign to proceed, that's a sign that they see you as meaningfully different than you should proceed.

David: Meaningfully different in the sense that they're willing to basically suspend some rule because that way you'll talk with that, essentially?

Blair: Yes. It is an indicator of how different they see you to be. If you're seen as different than that's a sign that you have a competitive advantage, and that you should proceed. What are some examples of concessions? One might be they summon, you'd have met in their office, you ask them to come to your office. Saying no is a big one, saying no, and still being under consideration. Somebody said, "Fill out this form or give us all of the information in a written submission, complete and return it to us. We'll let you know if you've made it to the next step."

You get on the phone and just say something like, "Listen, a lot of this stuff is a bit of a Make Work Project for us, I can see how some of this information would be really helpful to you. It's easy for us to generate. How about if we respond to these questions via these existing documents and these ones we ignore, et cetera? If you got the client to agree, "Yes, I think that'll do it, then that's a sign of a concession. Sharing information that they're not volunteering to other firms under consideration, asking for marketing plans or something that isn't part of the package. A big one is access to decision-makers when you are told to access is not allowed.

David: Or turn on an even playing ground and nobody gets different access or something like that.

Blair: Yes, those cattle calls where all the agencies invited are invited to a briefing call, where they're trying to keep the playing field level, and you show up and I've participated in a lot of these and back in my agency career, and a lot of my clients go through them now. You show up and you try to sound smarter or different in front of all your competitors. That's a bit of a futile exercise.

David: The party putting these processes together, I presume they're afraid of something. They're afraid somebody will get an inappropriate upper hand or something. Is that the same group that's making concessions or are we playing two groups of people off each other? The one group that's putting them together and somebody else that's making an exception?

Blair: That's a great question. Sometimes it's the same people and sometimes it's different. When you think of in a larger client organization with more layers, you often have people who are driving a formalized selection process, aren't the decision-makers. They're not in charge of making the decision, they're in charge of the decision-making process. Therefore, they get stuck on the process. They're just really following orders.

No, no, no, this is the way that this is supposed to be done. I'm not going to make concessions to anybody. At the end of the day, they're not held accountable by the results of the firm who ends up getting hired. They're not responsible for future value. The concessions almost always need to be made by somebody who's responsible in the client organization for future value.

David: It seems like the contact that you as the agency are speaking with on the other side of the table, on the client-side, it seems like they hate the process as much as the agency does.

Blair: Yes. Sometimes they do, and those are the ones that are easier to derail to affect the buying process. Then the process people who are just in love with the process. They've gotten power. It might be one of the only forms of power that they have. They're just absolutely determined to use it and make sure that everybody sticks to the process. In situations like that, you really have to go around or moreover their heads and that gets delicate.

David: What's the role of the search firm if the client that's interviewing different agencies is using the search firm? Does that make it easier or more difficult? Does that impact the process at all?

Blair: The good news is the search firms seem to be not as omnipresent as they used to be. They're still there for sure. Search firms and procurement. If the formalized selection process like a search is being handled through either of those, it's very difficult. The search consultants are pretty good power-players themselves. They absolutely do not like it when you go around them to the end client. That's a long ball proposition. You essentially have to get them to buy in and get them to grant concessions to you.

David: If you piss off a search firm, is that going to come around and bite you in another situation where the same search firm is being used? Is that a consideration?

Blair: I think it's a consideration. You could see me rolling my eyes and furrowing my brow anytime we talk about search consultants. They don't like the businesses' search consultants, they're not in the business of searching. They're in the business of vetting. I think a lot of clients who are using search firms are abdicating their responsibility. I fundamentally believe search consultants have been replaced by Google. It happened 10 years ago. Having said that, there is something to be said for helping somebody manage some process.

I just have too many horror stories from my past about the absurdities of search council, okay, I've probably trashed them enough. My overarching advice is just to not begin relationships through search consultants. The larger the firm, the more advertising based it is, as opposed to design or product development. The closer to New York City, the more likely you're going to have to deal with search consultants. I'm not saying don't play ball with search consultants. The mistake is to build a business or a business development approach that relies on and actively works to solicit relationships with source consultants. That's just a big mistake.

David: Yes, it's out of your hand as well. Switching gears here a minute. I am thinking about timing. When do you start to insert some of your desire? When do you start to ask questions designed to steer the process a little bit differently? I don't really have a specific question but I'm just wondering is there a certain amount of relationship building or maybe just innocent questions and information exchange that has to happen before you have enough of a foundation where asking a question doesn't put them off?

Blair: Yes, that's a good question. There's a moment in time in the relationship between your firm and the prospective client. We refer to this moment as the flip. The flip is the moment when in the mind of the client, you or your firm goes from being seen as a vendor, in a vendor-customer relationship, to being seen as a practitioner, in a practitioner-client, or even a practitioner-patient relationship.

David: More of an expert.

Blair: Yes. You're trying to get to that high ground where they see you as meaningfully different, and they're willing to give you some I'll call it control or they're willing to let you affect the buying process. You're in pursuit of that moment from day one. You can take the arc of the sale. I like to break it down into four conversations. I'll talk about them discreetly like they're four linear, chronological, discrete conversations. It's almost never that clean, but it essentially represents the arc.

The first conversation is the probate of conversation where you essentially prove that you're the expert. Then there's the qualifying conversation where you're essentially vetting the opportunity, you're learning more about the situation, what they need, what's important to them, and you're matching it against your abilities or capabilities just to see if there's an opportunity here. Then you get into the value conversation, which is about pricing it out, what's engagement going to look like what's going to cost and then what I call the transition conversation, which is essentially a closing conversation. To me the idea of the probate of conversation, if yours is an expert firm then in the probate of conversation you are not present. That conversation is heard by your agents with the client through your agents. Your agents are your thought leadership, they've things that you write in your speeches et cetera and your referrals. Ideally, the first time you're having a conversation with a prospective client, it's a qualifying conversation, the probate of conversations has already been had. The flip has already happened.

If it hasn't happened and you're getting into the qualifying conversation, it might be the client's reaching out to you saying, "Hey you're one of X number of firms under consideration." They don't see you as meaningfully different now. You're still going in pursuit of the flip. That moment happens, often it's tied to the gaining of a concession. This is where you start to push back a little bit, ask for things. We're talking about this at a fairly high level and going through it fairly quickly so there's the potential mistake of people listening and thinking, "You're just going too far on this, getting power-hungry and being really pushy and obstinate."

That's not what I'm talking about. Again, the business development is a game and the game is called the polite battle for control. It's this kind of polite jostling and in the end, finally, the client starts to think about you differently and is more inclined when you say, "Well, we're not going to do that, but how about we do this?" The client is more inclined to say, "Okay, well we can do that." That's the moment you're looking for. I forgot what the question was but I hope I answered it.

David: I was just wondering when you asked that question, how far in and you're telling me that you're listening for the right moment. As you were talking, I was just thinking, "We're all pretty good at that." We may not think of ourselves that way but it's the way relationships work. If I want to ask for some favor in my 35-year-old marriage or something like it's time for a new car, then I might look for an opportunity when Julie is going to be more open to that idea. It's not so much a concession but it's just listening to the right timing in relationships whether they're business or not.

We're used to that way of thinking. We're asking a question when it's going to be a little more awkward for them to say no.

Blair: Also, I think the sooner the flip happens when you're seen as something special or a little bit different, then the less expensive the sale becomes. When you don't have that power you're pushed around and you're treated like a vendor. Any cost to be borne of the cost associated with the two parties sussing each other out, they're going to be pushed to the vendor. A practitioner has an ability to push a lot of those costs to the client.

David: What role does personality play here? Personality on the part of the person doing the selling on the agency side. Then, maybe are you listening for cues on the phone or in person from the person that you're selling to. I'm just wondering if part of it always applies and then some of it is different based on somebody-- I'm thinking about somebody on the other side like on the client-side that you're selling to. They're not driven so much by control, but maybe they're driven by rule-following or social convention. Maybe it's just instinctive but is there a role for that to play?

Blair: Yes, and on both sides of the table. Obviously, this polite battle for control comes more natural to some people than others. It would come naturally to you and it comes naturally to me, but it doesn't come naturally to everybody. There are various assessments you can use to essentially measure how comfortable you would be with this approach. You're a natural inclination to want to command the high ground in a relationship. On the flip side, there's the personality of the client, but the most interesting thing is how infrequently agencies ask for concessions.

I can distill the whole idea of winning without pitching down to two steps. The first one is gain power and the buyer-seller relationship through essentially positioning and building a deep expertise in a narrow area. The second step is to use that power to change how your services are bought and sold. You essentially gain a point of leverage, by being seen as meaningfully different, having deeper expertise is the only real differentiation, the most valid one. Then pushing back against that point of leverage. It's changing but still, most agencies don't have that point of leverage. What's interesting is, some have that, some are seen as different but they don't push back. They're still highly compliant in the buyer-seller relationship.

David: Are you saying that it could be in some cases as simple as simply asking?

Blair: Yes.

David: Okay. Because I've heard you say on the client-side before, to the question, why do prospective clients do that? Why do they have a cater-call and so on? I've heard you say because they can, because they have power in that relationship. It could be that simple because they can, coming down to-- That's interesting I hadn't really quite thought about that.

Blair: A, they have the power, B, very few firms push back. I remember one of the last pieces of business I closed in my agency career one of largest companies in the world everybody would recognize the name. When I pushed back on the sales process, I was told nobody's ever said no before. Nobody's ever challenged us, everybody's always just gone along because everybody wanted to work with them. That was surprising to me.


Blair: You've stated that your ability to affect a buying process is the number one indicator of your likelihood to win. You asked early on if there's something I've always known and I've intuited that, but I want to talk about some data that we've recently gathered that supports it. I'd heard other experts like Alan Weiss would say the number one indicator of your likelihood of winning the business in a consulting practice is the function of your relationship with the decision-maker. Were you previously known to that decision-maker and had you worked together previously?

The only study that I know that is measured something like this was a study done under the UK and it was Hathaway which is a sales consulting practice. They did a study on the procurement of legal services. What that study showed is-- and I forget what the exact numbers are but one that I remember is, looking at-- If you were the incumbent and you didn't affect the buying process, you still had a 40% chance of securing the business.

If you were an incumbent and you affected the buying process at all, your odds of winning the business went to almost 100%. Just think about it this way, you've got a client and account in review and it goes into a review and you try to get the rules changed for you. If you can do that, that's a sign that the client still sees you as meaningfully different and is willing to conspire with you a little bit to give you a bit of a competitive advantage. That's the first real data I saw on this. Recently at the end of last year, RSW/US did a omnibus survey and I was asked to submit two questions to the survey.

The two questions I submitted were variations of the same question. The first one is, thinking in the most recent new business opportunity that you won, to what extent were you able to affect the buying process? The second question is, thinking of the most recent new business opportunity that you lost, to what extent were you able to affect the buying process? I knew the numbers would come out in support of this but I was surprised at how strong they were.

If I could distill the results down into essentially three key points. The first one, that winning firms are almost 10 times more likely to have significantly affected the buying process than losing firms. 10 times. If you're able to say, significantly as a subjective term, but if you feel like you significantly affected the buying process, your odds of winning go up 10 times in comparison to not being able to affect that at all.

David: Wow, 10 times.

Blair: Is that a good enough number for everybody?

David: Maybe we would have guessed two or three times would have been great but 10 times seems crazy almost.

Blair: Yes. You want to know what your odds of winning the business are if you don't affect the buying process?

David: I do actually.

Blair: They're one in eight.

David: One in eight. [chuckles]

Blair: Yes.

David: Is it because you affected the buying process or is it because that's an indicator of something else?

Blair: Is that a causal relationship or is there a correlation? I've thought about this quite a bit and I haven't run it past my scientists friends because I don't think all that analytically. I've come to the conclusion that it doesn't really matter. It is a proper legitimate indicator. I think it's a correlation, but the answer is both. It's mostly an indicator of the power that you have, but by exercising that power, by leveraging you actually gain an even greater advantage.

I don't know if that's a sufficiently scientifically acceptable answer.

David: It seems to me like it's a confidence builder. That seems like a legitimate conclusion we could make here.

Blair: What firms should take away from this is, and I've written a couple of articles on this. It's not the polite compliant rule followers that win. I think of game theory. You're essentially trying to game the system. Think of it this way, you've got a bunch of different competitions and they're called pitches, they're all winner-take-all. There's no prize for second place. As long as the environment is there's lots of competitions that you might enter the typical approach or strategy by the typical firm is, enter as many competitions as you can, play by the rules largely. I think a lot of firms would say, "Well, we don't really play by the rules," but they do from my point of view and see how many you can win. What I'm saying is, begin to play a high number of competitions and right early on, try to get the rules changed in your favor. If you can affect the buying process, get the rules changed however you want to look at it, then those are the games that you play. If you can't, if you ask for concessions and can't gain entry, and don't waste resources, go to the next competition.

David: Right. Wow.

Blair: That's how I would like everybody to look at it. It's basically you get an RFP or something comes in over the transom, instead of saying, "Okay. I'm going to do everything that these people ask me to do," to me it's a Rubik's cube. It's like, this is a puzzle to be solved and really what you're trying to do is you're trying to get the rules changed in your favor and if you can make some headway on that front then you keep going.

David: Like you said, that would argue for doing it earlier rather than later just so that you're not wasting any more time.

Blair: Yes.

David: Does the person who's leading this need to be the person who does it or can they effectively use borrowed power? If it's not the principal but somebody else or does the person doing it need to actually be that person who has the innate confidence to try to derail the pitch in some way even if it's minor?

Blair: Well, I think so. It's whoever is on the front lines responding because I get a lot of people who come to this idea in the middle of an opportunity and I used in my consulting practice. We would talk about the source stuff and somebody said, "Oh, this is really great. Okay. Help me close this opportunity I'm in the middle of." If you look at the trail of their previous behavior up until now, it's been completely compliant. You can't go from the firm or one person in the firm being compliant early on and then all of a sudden trying to push back. It's just too in congress to the client.

David: Got you, right. Yes. It stands out as putting on a mask and not being yourself in a way.

Blair: Or changing behavior midstream. It's just weird to the client.

David: How do you train people around this concept and the specifics? Is it a part of a larger program that you have? Is this part of the classes that you start regularly every two or three times a year, or how does this work?

Blair: Yes, we covered in the program. It's quite a ways in. It's about five trimesters in before we get to it specifically. However, we're introducing seeds of content throughout. Also, I recently finished a series of webcasts called the Seven Masteries or the Seven Things That You Need to Master, mindsets, and overarching behaviors that essentially laid the foundation for being able to apply these specific points to a sales process.

Because if you've never heard of a win without pitching before and you're exposed to some of my thinking on these things, you'll think, "I can't do that. That would seem outrageous or rude even." Some of these things seem really pushing back, seem outrageous, or rude set against the backdrop of your historical behavior. The behavior is rooted in the thoughts in your head. So through this series of webcasts and people can buy access to the webcasts on Through these webcasts, I get people thinking these seven things you need to master.

Through the things that you need to be thinking ahead of time so that you can behave, generally big picture behavior, a certain way and then when it comes time to apply a specific point of sales process, it's really easy for you to do it. It's not in congress with how you've behaved previously it's in line with the thoughts that are in your head.

David: Like you said earlier, it's polite. That's one adjective. The polite battle for control.

Blair: Always.

David: I've heard a lot of agencies who have put together a list of how they'll decide which pitches to participate in or which RRPs to respond to and so on. One of the things I'm taking away from here is that that might be useful as an indicator, but you won't necessarily know whether you should participate in RRP unless you actually start the process and then very early on, see if you can impact the buying process.

Blair: Yes, exactly. You want to measure some things, start measuring and just keep it really simple. The answer will be obvious before you get to the closing meeting, but did we moderately affect the buying process? Did we significantly affect the buying process or did we not affect it at all? The survey response shows that if you don't affect it at all, your odds of winning are about one in eight. If you affect the buying process moderately, those odds go to one in two. If you can just moderately feel like you've moderately affected the buying process then you have a 50/50 chance of winning.

David: If you try to affect the buying process and are not successful, and so you drop that opportunity, does that client ever call you back? Are they less likely to call you back, more likely? What happens down the road?

Blair: I've got four priorities that we talk about, four priorities of winning your business. Number one, win without pitching wherever possible when the business before it gets competitive situation. Number two, if you can't win without pitching, try to derail the pitch. You've got a defined selection process, try to get them to put it aside and take an alternative next step with you. Number three, if you can't get them to derail the pitch, get the inside track through one of these concessions.

Those are the pitches where competitions it makes sense to enter. If you can't gain the inside track, the fourth priority is to walk away. By walking away when you can't affect the buying process, by walking away before you've incurred this huge cost of the sale, you say all kinds of things about your firm and you walk away, you preserve your positioning as the expert, you preserve future business opportunities, and you leave being the one that they couldn't have.

David: You aren't closing the door entirely on a relationship.

Blair: Oh, never. To me, walking away is close number 10. It's just the beginning. You have to have a long term perspective on selling. I think the appropriate perspective is, "Okay, these people are buying from us, they will hire us. They're just not doing it today."

David: I'm writing something right now. The idea is that we make the worst decisions when we are panicked and it seems to me like people make the worst decisions around this thing when they have this machine to feed which is something you and I have talked about before. They even know when they're doing it that it's not the right decision, but they're pushed into it. What made me think of that is just what you said a minute ago that I can walk away with my head held high and in the process, I've preserved my positioning.

They still understand me and I'm not in any big hurry to close this particular relationship. In fact, if I closed it now, I would be wasting it forever as opposed to maybe coming back to it in a year or two and it being a good relationship at that point.

Blair: Yes, I really truly believe that you are better off not winning the business at all than you are winning it from the vendor position in the relationship.

David: Right, because you don't seldom change that vendor relationship. If you're the waiter in the room, you seldom get invited to sit down at the table.

Blair: Yes, and that's the big lie we tell ourselves.

David: Yes, get the foot in the door.

Blair: It doesn't matter how you get it or what the project is. Often the relationships begin with small projects, but if they grow into something bigger it's because they're strategic in nature or there's been an open conversation about the fact that this is a test of the relationship and we're not in the business of doing these small projects. We're doing this is a test to see if it makes sense for a larger, more strategic type engagement.

David: This is great.

Blair: Thanks, David.

David Baker