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Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Pitch battles

Have you ever been involved in pitching for new business? I mean really, have you? Is there any more soul destroying and irritating event in business life, except of course for the annual Christmas party or IT installing a new company wide system and stating 'it will all work without problems we promise' whilst keeping their fingers crossed behind their backs and hoping you don't notice?

When I was self employed I found that the search for new business actually took 3 out of the 5 working days a week. There are actually creatures who can noticeably evolve faster in the time that it takes some potential clients to make up their minds about who to use to create the advertising for their new range of rubber bands or multi-coloured what-nots. I found I was compelled to start charging my actual clients a new tax, on top of the agreed daily rate, called the 'dithering tax', a variable sum of money necessary because of the amount of time it took for some people to make up their minds whilst I subsidised their inability to make a decision - and I mean both yes or no. Because, whilst they dithered, they also expected you to reserve the time in your diary so that, in the forlorn hope they actually came to a decision, you would then start immediately on the project, notwithstanding that they'd taken six months to come to a decision in the first place. No, continents could come together and move off again in the time it took to decide to spend £115 on a new leaflet design that would go straight into every recipient's bin without a glance. I believe my all time longest gestation period for a decision was just over two years. Yes folks, two years after submitting the pitch the potential client replied that they would like to go ahead with my proposal if I could please start tomorrow. By that time I had actually been in a new job (full time, I just about remember what that feels like) for 18 months. And then they asked plaintively 'What would they do now I'd turned them down.' I almost told them.

Just as bad as those not so potential clients who are just using you to pick your brains for good ideas and have no intention of ever using employing your talent. I call them the...oh no better not, keep it clean. After bitter experience I can now recognise the symptoms. A brief that is quite vague except for precise phrases such as 'How can we reduce our overall operating costs by 25.63% in five months - be totally specific and name names for the big chop.' A client who, when you submit your business proposal passes it back to you and asks 'but how exactly would you do this'. I was in an interview once and had got quite tired of this line of questioning after answering in a general fashion and eventually replied 'well you could employ me and then I'd tell you' but got the big glare but not the job. I now use the 'sell not tell' technique as, if you are too specific there go your ideas, floating by in Powerpoint, presented to the big boss as someone elses's big answer to the giant problem.

The worst example of this was - no can't name names once again. Anyway they wanted the organisation I was working for to come up with a way of changing a process. We were 'the only bidder' (how they must have chortled) and therefore they wanted us to be fully specific about the process, the costs, the project timing, the colour of the walls and the name of the office cat. So we did. In good faith all this was produced, including an animated 'fly through' of the process. I constructed spreadsheets of such complexity you could calculate the effect of buying one extra biro on operating costs and profits. We presented the information, we recalculated it, we coloured it in in crayon without going over the lines, we presented it to anyone who would listen. And then they took our plans, gave them to one of their subsidiaries, 'we didn't have any budget in the first place', and took the work we had been doing away from us. And imagine how pleased they were when we asked for the costs of the project to be repaid (estimated at £30,000), oh the outrage, the huffing and puffing, the 'do you not consider yourselves partners of ours, oh how ashamed you must be to have asked such a question.'

And it doesn't change. Just a few days ago I spent four days responding to a client's pitch that was urgently required so I could start the project at the beginning of September, please hurry up with your detailed response. Now they've asked me to completely rewrite it as, as they've had a little think, it wasn't what they wanted after all, and I could possibly start in late October or even November, possibly.

So what do I make of all of this? It's hard to say as maybe it's just the way of the world. But yesterday I did go for an interview where they said 'a decision will be made on the day'. I'm still waiting to hear that decision - they didn't say what day though.