Pitched warfare

In these competitive times, winning new business has never been more difficult. No longer is it simply enough to smile gamely, plug in the carousel, flash through the slides and schmooze the prospect. Today everything counts – the prior research, the creative concepts, what you say, how you say it, and not least whether the prospective clients have remembered anything you told them in the first place.

Sending in your chairman to give a firm handshake, show off some past work and then talk terms won’t work like it used to, according to Kerry O’Connor, advisor to the Sales Promotion Consultants Association (SPCA). She explains: “At the height of the Eighties boom we simply had more willing buyers with lower expectations from a business presentation.”

A protracted recession brought an abrupt halt to such casual pitching and presentations, and today things are very different. Potential clients have become much more professional – they have sharpened their negotiation skills to do battle in a highly competitive and price-sensitive market populated by what appears to be an ever-increasing number of marketing services companies.

“Today the stakes are that much higher,” says Simon Rhind-Tutt of the Tutt Consultancy, which advises creative companies on business development. “The advent of the corporate merger means there are fewer buying points. With the over-supply of marketing services it all adds up to a very competitive pitching arena.”

Talking to those who pitch professionally on a regular basis, the inescapable impression is that presentations have almost become a science. O’Connor observes: “The market is much more competitive and clients are far more aware of what they are buying. Even the most average of service companies will give a multimedia presentation.”

In addition, the number of client representatives attending any given presentation has changed, as John Walter, senior consultant with communications specialists The Kingstree Group, explains. “In the late Eighties you may have found yourself pitching to three or four people; today you could be up against at least half a dozen.”

Not only do clients turn out in greater numbers, they have often done more homework than they used to do. The result is that clients are often more focused and knowledgeable than the marketing experts pitching to them, says Rhind-Tutt.

So how do you get your message across – and how do you measure the extent to which what you have said has been retained and understood? Failure to ensure your information has sunk in wastes a considerable amount of time and money.

According to Tony Wightman, managing director of relationship marketing agency TSM, this could be up to two weeks of work for the team doing the pitching at his agency.

But, as with all things today, technology is trying to help. Peter Knowles is the marketing director of IML, a specialist in interactive audience response systems that allow the presenter not only to measure how effectively the message is being put across during the presentation, but also to assess the overall effects at the end. The key to really knowing what the audience thinks of you is in the handsets. Yes, you saw them on TV game shows like Joker in the Pack. Now, according to Knowles, these handsets are poised to take their place in the boardroom – and this time it’s no joke.

Interaction with the audience is brought about through the use of infra-red handsets units which enable participants to enter responses to given questions. A liquid crystal display can record how the individual has scored at the end of the presentation.

“Presenters can see as they are going along what the audience preferences are and change the focus accordingly,” suggests Knowles. And, if that wasn’t enough, IML’s equipment will churn out an evaluation report after the presentation to allow you to gauge your communication.

Knowles concedes that the entry of interactive technology to the business arena has been more a result of the novelty factor than anything else. “When laser lights and dancing girls became inappropriate, people began to look around for something new,” he explains.

Knowles believes the handset introduces an air of novelty that can be financially justified while tapping into the interactive touchy-feely mood of the late Nineties. Handsets also enhance a good salesperson’s skills, he insists: “It’s still a fight to get business. Surely any new angle that you, as the business presenter, can find shows that you have an interest in the client and are keen to understand their needs.”

One key advantage is that handsets can afford a level of anonymity to individual members of the client team and help to override peer pressure. If one of the client team doesn’t agree with the managing director’s opinion, he or she can tell the handset and not the boss. The main thing, says Knowles, is that the presenter is in control. You can set the questions up beforehand, therefore setting the agenda.

But wonderful as the technology may be, Knowles is the first to admit that it is only a support tool: “However, if the pitch is wrong, at least you know about it at the time. The art of the salesperson still has to override the technology.”

Jon Stewart’s company, Group Dynamics, has been active in the presentation business for 15 years, renting out keypads used for group response. Stewart also believes this technology has a role in pitching: “You can keep clients on their toes by getting them to take part in the presentation. You can motivate them and avoid confrontation.”

However, many business presenters still believe in a more basic approach to finding out what their audience has absorbed. As Walter says, if you want the audience to retain a message, you have to keep that message simple: “You shouldn’t overload the client with details, so that he or she has still got some pertinent questions to ask at the end of the session.”

Walter also informs his trainees about the awesome power of silence. “A few seconds of silence in a presentation affords the listener time to digest information and make mental notes for questions, and for the presenter to check his or her notes,” he explains. Walter adds that the best test of whether the account is in the bag is the nature of the questions asked at the end: “If the questions relate to what was in the pitch, you can tell you are on to a winner.”

TSM’s Wightman speaks from experience about the trials of new business pitching and presentation. His company is a mere two-years-old and last year it made 25 pitches. Wightman believes the direct way is best to find out whether your audience has understood what you have told them. “If you get the feeling that people haven’t understood what you are saying, simply ask them.”

If you have screwed up badly and got the whole pitch seriously wrong then you simply have to admit it, advises David Poole, managing director of direct marketing agency DP&A. “After all, the client is looking for honesty and integrity. This is one way you can prove you have it.” The cab ride back to the office can be long, lonely and miserable after a bad pitch, but Gareth Zundel, group PR director at Harvard PR, says you shouldn’t waste time moping – you should ask the client precisely where you went wrong. “One in five times the client may tell you,” he says.

Wightman takes this post-rationalisation process on another stage and sends out a questionnaire after the presentation asking comprehensively about TSM’s performance. However, in his experience the response rate is not very high. He suggests this may be be-cause clients realise their initial brief was not as clear as it might have been.

Poole uses the same tactic: “About three years ago we had a spell of coming second in a series of pitches, so we developed a questionnaire to find out why.” This has yielded a number of benefits: “People are impressed that you are trying to improve your business methods and it leaves the door open for the prospect to come back to you in the future.”

Rhind-Tutt is a fervent believer in the power of the post-mortem. He claims a large proportion of his work is going to see clients on behalf of agencies that have failed to win business.

He maintains there is very often a pattern of mistakes that emerges, whether it is the service company’s failure to interpret the brief, the chemistry or the creativity. “It is vital to know where and why you have gone wrong and be brave enough to do something about it – however much it hurts the egos involved,” he says.

New business and sales represent the lifeblood of any marketing services agency, maintains Rhind-Tutt. “It is not just a matter of income but the morale of the company in question. If you are not getting the business, you need to do something about it.”

All of which makes gauging the prospect’s understanding of the presentation – either during or after the pitch – all the more important for marketing agencies which want to stay in business. Ignore the potential client’s response and you will be picking up that second prize for a long time to come.

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