Learning From Losing

losing“If you learn from a loss you have not lost.”

I’m not sure I fully agree with Austin O’Malley’s quote. Truth is, if you’ve lost you’ve lost. Losing stinks. But I agree directionally with his point that there is much to learn from a loss, and if that learning is really gained, internalized, and behavior changes as a result, the chances of success are greater in the future.

Unfortunately in business and in life we rarely learn from our losses. In business, I was an ad agency head for many years in the 80s and 90s and pitching new business was a way of life. Pitching an important account is an emotional experience for an ad agency and there is great joy in winning and conversely sorrow and often bitterness in losing.

Today I am amazed by agencies which defensively claim in defeat:

“I’m glad we didn’t win. They didn’t deserve us”

“It wasn’t a level playing field”

“They’d have made a lousy client”

If you felt that way, why did you pitch in the first place? Needed practice in presenting? Wanted to increase the late night Chinese food take out and pizza delivery orders? Was the staff clamoring for needless late night and weekend work?

However, if a firm is wise enough to put its ego aside and look at itself honestly, there is much to be learned from losing. This is really important. The company which is giving the bad news, delivers it softly saying things like, “You did a great job. This was such a tough decision and were a close second. Your ideas were terrific”, while they may be thinking, “Your agency was awful. Your presenters were weak and ideas mundane.” Meanwhile the agency head often delivers the bad news equally softly to the firm with no learning. Worse yet, without an honest assessment, he/she allows the firm to make the same mistakes again and again. Ever wonder why some agencies lose almost all the time while others win regularly?

So what do you need to do to get serious learning from a loss? Start by really interviewing the company, either done by the firm’s head or even better, an independent party who is skilled at interviewing and probing. It’s the follow up questions that always yield the greatest insight.

Start the dialog by saying, “I know you are very gracious and it is difficult to deliver disappointing news, but if you really want to be kind, we need to honestly understand the unvarnished opinion of our performance. Hearing negatives and issues are far more helpful soft complements”. Then discuss all aspects of the pitch including:

Impressions of and presentations skills of all presenters (that includes Mr./Ms. Big)



Did presentation hang together?

Was it compelling?

Likability of presentation team (this is critical)

Ask specific questions and follow up. Listen for negatives and probe deeply.

Notice that money was not part of the questions. Don’t get snookered into believing that cost alone was the reason you weren’t hired, even if that’s what is stated. Indeed, cost may be a factor, but companies choose who they want to work with and negotiate the terms that work for them (and the agency does likewise). They didn’t like you enough in the first place if you lost. Cost was merely one of the rationalizations.

Conversely there are 4 key things you can do to dramatically increase your odds of success, which an earlier Struming reviewed, 4 Keys to Success in Winning New Business. They are:

1. Meet and speak with the prospect many times before the pitch

2. Few people at the meeting

3. Formal presentation less than an hour–no exceptions

4. Use a presentation consultant & practice like crazy

Follow the above steps and you will win often (more than 50% of the time). But if you don’t win, then it’s really critical to find out why you lost, and most importantly, do something about it in the future.

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  1. Nick Vitale says:

    The Strumings articles are insightful, greatly appreciated and just fun to read. Keep them coming!

    Nick Vitale

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