So you’ve been asked to pitch for some business. The most natural thing in the world is to focus on your intentions – whether you want to pitch, how much resource you’re prepared to throw at it, the timing, the deliverables …
What often goes unasked (and unanswered) is why the invitation to pitch is being made in the first place. That matters because it helps identify who your real competitors for the business are, and therefore whether you believe you have a genuine chance of winning the business on terms that are acceptable and sustainable to you.
Some organisations have to put their business out to pitch – it’s policy. Chances are they also do this a lot, so it’s a process for them – which means their intention is to do what they always do. They’re going to be looking for good process back. They need to see that in addition to taking away their problems you can and do do things by the book. Your biggest competitor in this situation is a return on your investment. You’ll win if you’re the safest pair of hands, but chances are all you’re going to win is this piece of work, because the follow-up will almost certainly be pitched as well. Do your numbers and your resourcing very carefully for projects like this.
Some organisations are tyre-kicking. They want to see what’s out there, and they want to see people compete for their attention. So they send out the commercial equivalent of an ‘open call’ and wait to see what walks in. This situation – commonly referred to as “the beauty parade” – generates a line-up of attractive companies in a revolving door pitch that sees an entry and exit on the hour. The way to win is to be impressive, and lucky. The biggest thing you’re competing for is attention. Bring fireworks. The show is usually more important than the tell.
Some organisations are trawling. They need ideas – and the simplest and most cost effective way to source them is to go out and get them from the market under the façade of the pitch process. Alarm bells should go off if you hear anything like “we’ll know the answer when we see it” or “We just want to see your ideas”. The natural inclination of many service organisations is to help. So they prepare a pitch where they tell themselves they’re convincing, when in actual fact they’re solving. In particular, watch for pitch situations where the organisation receiving the pitches retains control of the ideas, either as of right or in exchange for a nominal fee. Your biggest competitor in these situations is loss of ownership. We’ve all watched people prepare a pitch, lose, and for those ideas to somehow find their way into the final thinking. Be disciplined about what you reveal. Show enough to prove they need you – then have the confidence and pride in what you do to stop.
Some organisations are genuinely looking to change. These are the pitches that really count because these are the situations in which a company is not only most motivated to look for new ideas but also to look for new generators. The key dynamic in this circumstance is almost always action. The biggest competitor is your perceived ability to generate momentum versus how others are perceived. Show up with a strong understanding of what’s going on, some searching questions, some telling insights and a plan of what you believe can be done in the first 90 days. Bring proof you’ve pulled off what’s required before, it was just as scary and it worked. If you can’t bring a similar example, bring case studies and testimonials that demonstrate your ability to lead and to be trusted.
Some organisations are really looking not to change. They may be making genuine-sounding review noises, but in point of fact, the pitch is really just a means to an end that you’ll never be privy to. There is no competitor in this situation. Because there is no genuine intention to do anything. If the reason for pitching is not clear, if the objectives seem muted and you only receive vagaries for answers, decline politely.
Some businesses just want to cut cost and pitching is a way to solicit participation in that process. They may or may not be open about that. The pitch invites that always cause me concern are the ones that focus on “this is your opportunity to work with a prestigious brand” or “this is the first of many projects we have planned”. There’s a good chance that working with these companies is going to cost you – in margin, in time or both. Unless you have a genuine low-cost model that you can work profitably to advance both businesses’ agendas right from the outset, I’d walk away. If you do have a low-cost model and you do decide to stay, be very clear about the service expectations and resourcing that come with that model from the first project on. Chances are that a company that wants to save costs still expects to have high-touch service. If you can’t afford to deliver that, make your case, set a negotiation point and don’t go beyond it. The company that “wins” in these situations is the company prepared to forsake the most profit. The biggest competitor is the urge to stay and make things work somehow because you hope the other party will be reasonable. If that’s what you’re banking on, sorry – but you’re on a hiding to nothing.
The four questions I recommend you ask
I find a lot of wheat and chaff sorting can be achieved very early on in the pitch process with just four questions. The next time you’re invited to pitch for a piece of business, ask:
1. Why have you put this business out to pitch, and what do you hope to gain by doing so?
2. How did you decide who was on your pitch list?
3. When was the last time you ran a pitch of this size?
4. What was the result of that pitch – did the business stay with the incumbent or did it go elsewhere?
You’ll build a rapid profile of the business’s intentions, and therefore the identity of the real competitor(s), from what you’re told – or not told.
Question mark made of puzzle pieces taken by Horia Varlan, sourced from Flickr.