If there’s a single secret to winning new business, it’s empathy. And now’s the perfect time to be more client-centric and do the right thing.

winning new business

Without downplaying the severity of the COVID-19 crisis, keeping spirits up is important.

So I was heartened by some reassuringly British piss-taking on the socials; a friend sarcastically praised the heavens for finally finding that ‘guide to working from home’ that we’ve all been sorely lacking. 

In fairness, the agency that produced it was probably well-meaning, if a little late to the party. 

It’s certainly way more defensible than idiots failing to switch off their automated spam sequences (‘Hi Robin, I know you’ve ignored my first five emails, but who at Co:definery is responsible for sock purchase and sock repair?’). 

And of course the COVID-crassness award must be reserved for any tone-deaf bellends trying to self-servingly newsjack the horror. No, I don’t want to read ‘why a pandemic is the perfect time to invest in branded pens’. 

Anyway, all this highlights an important question for agencies – how should you be doing new-business right now? 

A risky time to sell 

There’s a fine line between welcome help and unsavoury opportunism. And given that we’re all a bit frazzled, if even slightly badly expressed, a genuine motive can easily be misconstrued. 

So the stakes are high, with plenty of jeopardy. Looking like an arse is one thing, but it’s far worse to add yet more stress to another human being. 

That’s why my best advice is to pause and reflect. Ask yourself if you’re truly helping. Do you have genuine permission and authority to offer this? Would you welcome your approach if you were in your prospect’s shoes?

Measure twice, cut once. 

Have permission to help 

The easy win here is relevance. Stuck at home, we’re all doubly dependent on Ocado, Amazon, Netflix etc. And it’s the same in business – unprecedented times are creating acute demands. 

So if you have authority to help, then do it – just choose your words carefully. 

Good examples I’ve seen include leadership mentoring, free resources for performance coaching and guidance on making complex decisions

This movie matchmaking service is another empathetic idea that meets simple human needs – be that combating loneliness or just entertaining your kids. 

Another practical tip is to start with your current clients. It’s a great opportunity – not just to be useful, but also to learn how to be useful. 

They already trust you, there’s rapport in place and you know their priorities. So as well as being at less risk of being misinterpreted, you can also offer softer support. 

But don’t email – give them a ring. 

Running a remote pitch

Another question I’m being asked is how to run a pitch when the world’s in lockdown. If you’re lucky and demand remains, then this is a great problem to have. 

Firstly, remember that the principles of mobilising, briefing and rehearsing your team haven’t changed. Your existing process, milestones and performance indicators still apply. 

Of course you’ll need to make nuanced changes. Developing your response and, in particular, discussing subjective feedback will take longer when you’re not face to face. Lacking so much body language means you should check and double-check that your precise intention has come across. 

As George Bernard Shaw said, ‘the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place’.

Presenting in unfamiliar conditions 

When it comes to pitch day, there are obvious challenges. For example, reading the room is way trickier via video conference. Even knowing who’s speaking can be a challenge, depending on the software in play – especially if you’re suddenly having to use the client’s platform (pro-tip: don’t). 

So the old cliché of ‘failing to prepare means preparing to fail’ has never been more true. You’d like to think the client would forgive some clunkiness, but anticipate and prepare like never before. 

Case in point, rehearse like mad. Do a dry run with a remote audience. Think about stage management. Who’s handling client questions? How will you avoid multiple voices weighing in and a cacophony of ‘no-sorry-after-yous’? 

Appoint someone to lead on the new playing conditions. It’s their job to learn how remote presentation experts do it. Adopting a few novel gestures and conventions could differentiate your pitch, remove awkwardness and help you perform well.  

How to NOT pitch remotely 

Beyond the practicalities of running a WFH pitch process, don’t forget that it’s still one big diagnostic. The client’s weighing you up and you’re assessing them too – not least to infer your chances of success. 

For example, walking away when you’re not going to win is something few agencies find easy. We’ve all heard the immortal line ‘I know we won’t win, but we’ve come this far…’. Now is the perfect time to develop this skill. 

Yes, a win would be doubly valuable right now. But there’s also more risk. From protecting fragile morale, to the unique opportunity cost of wasting this relatively free time, think extra hard about whether the client is serious – about the process, but particularly about your agency. 

Ring them. Will they take your call? Are they definitely going ahead with the work? How clearly can they articulate your potential fit? Are they willing to discuss adaptations to the process, like extending deadlines or adopting different formats? 

This kind of probing should already be second nature, but if you’re ever going to raise your threshold for agreeing to competitive pitching, then do it now. 

Use your time well 

I mentioned time – all of a sudden, it’s at far less of a premium. Many of us haven’t been this unburdened by deadlines since…. ever. 

It’s a massive opportunity to invest in your future, nurture your soul and do some good. 

What’s that article you’ve been meaning to write? Maybe finish reading that business book? Perhaps finally plan that thought leadership initiative? 

Can you support your local pub like Lucky Generals? Maybe set-up a WhatsApp group to tell your neighbours when Sainsbury’s have got eggs in. 

It sounds trite, but get a hobby. Don’t sit hunched over your screen fretting 24/7 – I’ve just started drawing again for the first time in 30 years (am no better, sadly). 

Help your fellow agency leaders too. The likes of Agency Hackers, MAAG, BIMA and Agency Collective are facilitating free-of-charge spaces where agency communities can talk, joke, commiserate, learn and share. 

None of this is rocket science, but it’s all productive. And more importantly, it will help you adapt to the new normal when we get past the immediate crisis. 

Selling is helping 

For now, obviously the most important thing is everyone’s health. And hopefully the Government’s measures will help us all weather the economic storm. 

But at the same time, despite these unprecedented (definitely word of the year) events, you can keep the sales and marketing engine running – as long as you proceed with caution. 

By picking up the phone, carefully testing your offer and maintaining a complete focus on your audience’s needs, you can – and should – keep on ‘selling’. 

And once this crisis passes, perhaps agencies will realise two things – firstly, in difficult times, selling is helping. And secondly, it always was. 

Of course being compelling and persuasive is important, but fundamentally you’re just helping get clients from A to B. And that is built on empathy. 

So good luck for now. And if you want to stick the kettle on and call for a natter, just shout. I’ve got a brilliant guide to remote working that I can share.

Image: Medical News Today