I must thank Steve Shu for passing on this Chinese proverb. For some reason I don’t fully understand, we learn more from our failures than from successes. Does anyone know why?
Whatever the reason, we can learn lot more by putting some effort into it, asking others who were involved in the sale, both clients and colleagues what happened. Here are just a few of the things I have learned over the years from lost sales:
- That how you look and what you do in a sales meeting is often more important than what you say. Specifically, the client informed me that our carefully selected team may have said that they worked well together, but sent a different nonverbal message. For the next sale we carefully programmed their appearance and actions, so that they exemplified teamwork, and we won.
- That a competitor was beating us by delivering a specific message more effectively than the firm I was with. Because I then knew what to look for, a month later, when I saw the competitor present at a conference I was able to identify a specific slide that delivered the message. Knowing what he was saying and how he was saying it allowed us to neutralize this advantage.
- That my little firm could compete with big ones. A near win and a follow-up debriefing with the client showed me that we could compete with firms much bigger and better established than ours. This helped me set my sights higher. Six months later, I had a big win with a big client, a sale which transformed the firm.
- How to interpret body language better. Early in my career, I came away from a meeting feeling it had been a big success. My boss, who had participated largely as an observer, told me that we would never hear from this client again and why. He was right. He had read the body language better than I had.
- That specific marketing materials were ineffective. They needed an update, which we quickly gave them . . . and then started to win more work.
- That debriefings after a loss may not always provide much insight, but doing them is worth it anyway. Perhaps one in five post mortem interviews with clients provided real insight, but that one gave me so much insight that was worth all time spent on those that didn’t.
- That a client expected things that we could not ethically provide and so we could walk away from the loss with our heads held high.
- That the client would like us to bid again on future work. The client had really liked us and wanted to find a way to work with us. We just weren’t right for the current assignment.
For more on this subject see my post, Learning from Loss. What have you learned by debriefing a client after a loss?