Except as exhibited by some overly involved moms and dads of little league baseball players, we grow up hearing about the virtues of good sportsmanship, fair play, and being gracious losers. It is hard to argue with all of those traits. As we grow up, competition and passions run higher and the pressure to win becomes stronger. In the business world, competition is keen but we are also cautioned not to burn bridges after a loss in order to “fight another day.” Emotions may run high but responses need to be muted. All of these statements are true but they do not mean that you have to go quietly, retreating with your tail between your legs or hiding your head in shame. Instead, with every loss begin to sow the seeds for a future victory. There are a number of steps you can take to better understand what happened and what you can do in the future to avoid other negative outcomes. Specifically:
Meet with the customer after the announced loss. Make it clear you are not trying to reverse their decisions and really mean it. In no way put them on defense. Ask what you could have done differently; what shortcomings they felt were present with your offering; and what set your competitor apart and made them the preferred choice. Take notes, show genuine interest. Follow up with a handwritten thank you note.
Stay in Touch
Contract awards do not necessarily always result in contract executions. “Fine print”, unexpected nuisances, schedule and implementation misunderstandings can undo an apparently done deal. Keep your notes and stay in touch and emphasize that you are “standing at the ready” to step in if the situation changes. During heated contract negotiations, the customer may feel that they do not have an alternative; show them that they do.
Raise the Stakes After the Loss
If you lose or you sense a loss is inevitable, try to raise the stakes. Making suggestions such as: “Of course, they included ….” or “I am sure they took into account….”. If you lose, attempt to make the win very painful for your competitor. Do not be obvious, appear to have your customer’s best long-term interest at heart.
Rally the Troops
Quite often, especially in larger organizations, buying decisions are made by individuals and departments that are not directly involved in the day-to-day use or operation of the product or service being purchased. Those groups, generally labeled as operations, may not be empowered to say “yes” about the procurement but invariably, they are empowered to say “no”. The value of any product or service is not realized with its purchase. Value only occurs after it is in use which may be controlled by operations personnel. A selection of a low price, non-implemented product can be a political nightmare for the purchase decision maker. Enlist your customer’s operations people or end users to help you win. Their message may be subtle or quite vocal; sending the message that the purchase decision maker will be given “full credit” for the implementation failure of the system. This strategy only works before the final decision and implementation takes place. After that point, operations personnel can be accused of deliberately sabotaging the effort.
Orchestrate the Loss!
Your best winning strategy may be to lose! An axiom worth thinking about is: “There is only one thing worse than losing an order. It is receiving an order that you should have never pursued in the first place!” Unfortunately, these situations commonly only occur after-the-fact, when it is too late. Often, the transition from a worthwhile opportunity to a costly mistake can occur slowly and incrementally. A well-known example of this situation is described as: “You set the price, and then I’ll set the terms.” Many times, the agreement on a price is the major focus during vendor selection, but it only represents the starting point for true negotiations. Be willing to walk away.
The key to the effectiveness of any of the techniques listed above is to appear to be pursuing them in the best interest of the prospect. If your actions appear to be those of a sore loser, they may backfire and the prospect themselves may burn your bridges to the path of future success.