It happens to the best of ’em. Dennis Crowe sweated his way through a recent new-business presentation as his PowerPoint slides imploded on his laptop. The slides were created using two different versions of software, which weren’t meshing well, to say the least. As president and creative director of VehicleSF, a San Francisco branding firm that counts Nike, the NBA and Levi’s among its clients, Crowe’s a presentation pro. Yet he struggled to keep his train of thought as the slides failed to sequence as planned.
For most creative professionals, new-business presentations rate up there with skydiving or bungee jumping in the stress-inducement category. Victory is sweet, but getting there can seem like a freefall. Veterans are more relaxed, but still feel the heat when potential new business is on the line.
Making the Connection
“You prepare as best you can, then throw yourself out there and hope they like you,” says Sonia Greteman, president of Greteman Group, a Wichita, KS-based branding agency. Greteman has spearheaded her company’s new-business efforts for 15 years, so she’s comfortable with her portfolio and presentation style. Knowing how to present her company and distinguish it from competitors is key, but in the end, she admits, her success in the boardroom depends on how well she connects personally with prospective clients.
“The most important part of our presentation is not our qualifications or our proposal, but the connection we make with them,” she explains. “We have to build trust during that hour, a confidence level that they either have with us or they don’t. If they don’t like us, they won’t hire us.”
It’s as simple as that, says Richard Truitt, principal of New York City-based Truitt & Kirkpatrick, a communications-consulting and editorial-services firm. During 40 years in PR, Truitt delivered many presentations and has sat in on hundreds more as a consultant to corporate clients. He’s concluded a basic truth about successful new-business pitches: Winning firms are chosen not because of their experience, ward-robe or connections. They’re chosen because the client likes them the best.
“It comes down to a feeling of comfort, and perhaps some excitement and intrigue,” Truitt says. “You have to start building confidence even as you walk in the door and take off your coat.” The concept of likability as the most important success factor may seem overly simplified at first, but not if you dissect all that contributes to it. The ability to engender confidence in potential clients is a product of being prepared, crafting your message in a way they can relate to, and knowing your strengths. Crowe, Greteman and Truitt outline nine steps to guide you:
1. Make sure the client is right for you. Being selective about which clients you pursue saves time, resources and money. And knowing who your ideal client is—and isn’t—improves your new-business success. “I used to pitch anything, then midway through the process, I’d realize it wasn’t even right for us,” Greteman says. Given how expensive the business-development process can be (Greteman says her firm spends $10,000 to $20,000 annually wooing new clients), she’s become highly selective. “When I do pitch, I make sure it’s a good fit for us: Does it use our strengths? Will it challenge us? Is it good for workflow? Can we work with the key contacts? Are the client’s values and culture compatible with ours?”
Crowe is also careful about the clients he targets. “As a firm, we’ve come to realize our core strengths, and we really circle the wagons around those,” he says. “It defines the kind of clients we pursue. If we’re well aligned with the client and their business, we tend to be very successful. Knowing who they are is half the battle.”
Truitt also cautions against a scattershot strategy: “Be targeted about how you pursue clients. If you get 10 requests for proposal, do your homework and choose two you know you can win.”
2. Ask lots of questions. Qualify the client and the project before you end up in the boardroom. When you receive a request for proposal or an invitation from the prospective client, call them or schedule a meeting. “We want as much information as we can get so that we can make intelligent decisions, first about whether or not we’ll pitch, and second about how to prepare if we decide to go for it,” Greteman says.
Sometimes this process takes more than one phone call or meeting. But it should yield the following information: what the client is looking for, the criteria for selecting a design firm, the budget, any existing research that can be used in the project, the meeting participants and the major decision-makers, the other competing firms and the client’s reasons for ending any current relationships with creative firms. “We’ve found that the smartest [prospects] are willing to talk with us, because it’s a win-win situation for them if we come to the presentation prepared,” Greteman says. “If they won’t talk to us, or if they seem to be uncertain or less than forthright, we don’t go after the job.”
3. Be prepared. For Crowe, this means spending a lot of upfront time researching the client, the project and his firm’s approach to the presentation. From phone calls and meetings with the prospect, Internet searches and other research, he says, “I try to find out about their organization’s needs. If they have a specific project in mind, I find as much as I can about it so I can cater my presentation to their mindset.” He also researches the client’s corporate structure for insight on how to explain his firm’s design-development process, pricing, project management, protocol and other aspects of doing business.
Preparation isn’t just about adequate knowledge of the client and his business. It’s also about practice. A dry run (or two or three) will help prepare you for any technical challenges and ensure you have command over the equipment and materials you use. “This is too important to leave to chance,” Greteman says. “When we practice a presentation, we fine tune and simplify. I always ask after each piece of the presentation, Who cares?’ If I can honestly say I don’t care, we leave it out.”
4. Connect with the client. It’s a given that you’re qualified to do the job—or you wouldn’t be in the room. You’ve thought through your presentation and crafted a tailored message about your unique approach to the project. You’ve practiced and have your timing down. But your most important objective isn’t “showing your wares,” Truitt says. It’s connecting with the prospective client on a personal level. How? Truitt has identified ways that “master presenters” can forge a bond with clients:
• Build personal trust. “Clients want a firm they know they can rely on and at least one person in the firm in whom they can really believe,” Truitt says. “You need to be that firm.”
• Differentiate yourself. To clients, many of whom have little or no design experience, your work may be indistinguishable from that of other firms. Communicate your strengths, style and business methods in a way they can relate to.
• Sell the relationship. “Prospects looking for a service provider are much like you when you’re choosing a restaurant,” Truitt says. “The food is important, of course, but you keep gravitating back to that cozy little place around the corner where they always remember your name and hold your favorite table, even on busy days.” Stress how important the client is to you and your firm.
5. Focus on winning the business. It’s possible to go too far in preparing for a client presentation, Truitt says. He’s seen many agencies conduct heavy research and interviews to learn about the client’s issues so they can present a solution during the new-business presentation. “It’s not the time or place to be solving the client’s problems,” he asserts. “It’s the time for building their faith in you and your firm.” Most prospects believe their issue is so unique that you couldn’t possibly understand it. Trying to solve it during the new-business pitch may communicate that you think the problem is simple. And some clients use the RFP process to gather free ideas.
“The key here is knowing where they’re coming from beforehand,” Greteman says. “If they’re looking for just ideas, we show them ideas. We like to present thumbnails, just concepts. You don’t want it to be too polished, or they won’t have the opportunity to be part of the process.”
6. Capture the first six minutes. Conventional wisdom says you have five to six minutes of your prospect’s complete and undivided attention. What they think of you in the first few minutes of your encounter is what they’ll think of you at the end. So frontload your presentation to deliver key points first.
Crowe says the first portfolio piece he shows to potential clients is the ringer, the one that’s most relevant to their issues and sends the strongest message about his company. “Based on the research I’ve done, I also try to answer any concerns they may have,” he says.
Conquering clients’ fears and relating your understanding of their needs may be the most important objective, Truitt agrees. “Talk about their needs first, and try to break down any fears or suspicions in the first few minutes,” he says. Addressing issues such as service, billing and time commitment may alleviate barriers to their listening to the rest of your presentation.
7. Show the big-picture context of your work. Category experience is one of your most powerful weapons in a new-business pitch. Show prospective clients that you have relevant, meaningful experience with similar projects and that you have a process in place to tackle such projects. Presenting your work in the context of business objectives is another key strategy. “Show that you’re a consultant who solves problems and tailors your work to meet your client’s business goals,” Truitt says. “Demonstrate that your work is a vital part of something bigger within the client organization. Relate the proposed work to the deeper ambitions of the client.”
8. Don’t sacrifice the message at the altar of the medium. PowerPoint has become a staple of new-business meetings, and creatives often use it and other programs to update the portfolio work they show clients. Crowe uses it because it’s a quick, easy way to present visuals. But be sure the tools you use to communicate don’t get in the way of your message. And make sure you’re in command of the equipment.
“We used to be hi-tech but we’ve shifted our focus,” Greteman says. “Low tech allows us to connect with the people in the room on a personal level rather than having them look at the back of our heads while we’re tapping keys. We’re much more spontaneous and lively without it. And we didn’t win nearly as many presentations when we used PowerPoint.” Instead, Greteman displays her company’s work on boards, shows recent samples and leaves a wire-bound capabilities piece with the client following the meeting.
Truitt, too, has abandoned PowerPoint in his large-group presentations. “I’m liberated when I’m not apologizing for the colors being wrong or some dysfunction with my screen.”
9. Be true to yourself and your firm. When trying to win new clients, many creative professionals—especially the inexperienced—try to be what they perceive the client wants. “We used to spend lots of energy trying to figure out what they wanted and then trying to be that,” Greteman says. “You end up losing projects, or you wind up with clients you don’t really want in the first place.”
Honesty is the best policy, she’s learned. “I have this wild red hair, and I like to wear hats. It’s who I am. I’ve learned to be myself and just enjoy the process. And I think clients appreciate that. They always comment that our presentations have a great energy to them.” And it must work: Greteman says her company wins three out of four presentations.
“The firms that win presentations are the ones that go with their instincts and enjoy being themselves,” Truitt says. Never change your presentation strategies based on second-guessing what the client wants. “Know what your strengths are and lead with them,” he says. “Nothing sells like sincerity and confidence.”