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Q & A: Where Business is won or lost

Years ago when I was a “yute” in the business, I was involved in a pitch for one of the largest advertisers in the country. Their headquarters was in a Midwestern state. The pitch was brilliant. Flawless, well rehearsed. And our agency’s leader was at his best. He was always impressive, but I’ve never seen him present better. He had the prospective clients eating out of his hand. I smelled victory.

I was a member of the presentation team that day. Though I was a supporting member, I was strong  in my own part as was the entire team, but one of my jobs was also to read the room, anticipate questions, and help orchestrate the overall presentation. As we completed the presentation, I sensed victory & I smelled money. For the agency and for yours truly. This was going to be a good day.

We had been a given rigid time frame for our presentation. A hard stop. We did not exceed our time limit, which was important in showing our focus and discipline. Our formal presentation was incredibly well orchestrated and powerful, and it ended on a note of genuine levity & warmth by our leader. Not forced. Human. Connecting. He was brilliant. In presentations if you are REALLY honest with yourself, you know when you’re on. Our team was at its best.

Then the Q & A followed, starting with a few innocuous questions and appropriate answers by us. We were cruising to the finish line. I felt so good that I knew if we left soon, that victory would be ours.

Then we asked a question: “Why were you inquiring about possibility of servicing some of the account from one of our Midwestern offices”, our leader asked. (Answer: Because the client was located there!).  Our leader either did not know that or did not remember that the client was based in the Midwest. Ugh! We lost the account at the moment he asked the question. The veil had been lifted. All the practice, presentation coaching, hours and hours of hard work, were nullified by an unnecessary question. Worse yet, it was a question that demonstrated a lack of knowledge. We snatched defeat from the jaws of victory at that moment.  I felt like someone hit me in the gut.

That day I learned the hard way the importance of Q & A. Accounts are often won and lost in the Q & A. But Q & A gets little prep time in rehearsals, yet it deserves as much “rehearsal time” as the formal presentation. What’s necessary is an impartial non-presenter needs to play the role of client and ask questions—hard ones, not soft ones. You need to anticipate the hard ones–the ones that will make you squeamish.  

And here’s the one that freaks most agencies out. If there’s a really critical question about the agency you know they must be thinking but that hasn’t been asked, the proverbial 500 pound elephant in the room, ask it forthrightly yourself. Say something like, you might have been thinking blah, blah blah. I know I would be if I were in your shoes, and here’s the story. Most agencies don’t have the courage to do this. They play it “safe”. Safe is a strategy to second place.

My strong recommendation to every professional service organization which is pitching a major piece of business is to hire a sage outsider to review the presentation, coach the presenters, and then PRACTICE questions and answers. Your success will be dramatically increased if you do.

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