I recently lost an opportunity to another consultant.  It’s always painful.  Frankly it doesn’t happen all that often that we’re in direct competition with other advisors. Greater are the threats of the status quo, fear of change, and general complacency in the client organization. Our strongest competitors are the client acting alone, or worse, not acting at all.

Losing a new project opportunity, and more importantly a new relationship opportunity, always disappoints.  What’s more, I’m usually caught off guard – I just don’t see it coming.  (I know this doesn’t make sense. We’re not going to win them all, and we certainly can’t (and shouldn’t) take on every project that crosses our desk).  Still, in truth, I believe that I should get them all.  That’s because I believe in myself, our approach and results, and the many talented colleagues we partner with on challenging client assignments.  By the time I’ve delivered a new proposal, I’m usually convinced that we’re precisely the right advisor for the job. I wouldn’t want this any other way.

In this recent case the prospective client was really quite gracious.  She shared that she and her partners appreciated my experience, expertise, and proposed solution.  They simply felt that the other guy brought a more relevant background, and forged a better connection with them.  Not our approach.  Not our price.  But our connection.  Tough feedback, but good feedback.

Don’t get me wrong: I hate losing.  I’m very competitive, and very confident.  And yes, a part of me wants to shout out to the client “are you nuts?”

“Don’t you know that I’m the only certified consultant in this market – carrying the prestigious “CMC” imprimatur of the Institute of Management Consultants?  That I’m one of only a small few in this community who is a member of the National Speakers Association – a professional organization which requires its members to document each year the actual revenues they’ve earned in the business of professional speaking, training, and facilitation?  That I’m the only advisor who has both provided executive level consulting to the AEC industry, and worked as an executive in an AEC firm, and who worked for a Fortune 10 company and large customer to the AEC industry, and who worked as a scientist, sales manager, and technical general manager, and who founded two successful entrepreneurial start-up businesses, and … blah, blah, blah.

Of course, we know that none of these truths really matter, unless they matter to the prospect.  Only the client’s truth – their understandings, perceptions, and beliefs – really count.  And it’s not their responsibility to ensure they have the facts all right, it’s ours.  In the recent case, it looks like the other guy did a better job with the telling, selling, and proving than I.

So it’s a loss. I’m not one to support the common sentiment of “coming in a close second” (still a loss), but indeed there are still worse outcomes, such as: “John, we went with someone else, one of the firm’s principals has a college buddy who does this sort of thing,” or “John we loved your proposal, but these other folks are willing to do this work for half your price.”

In fact, here are some other positives that one may find (with reflection) in opportunities lost:

1)      Proof – When a prospect chooses another provider, they confirm that they are in fact a buyer.  Not all prospects are real buyers.  Keep in mind that the enemy of business development is not “no” but “maybe.”  Wasted effort, constant fiddling, rework and change, all for an uncommitted tire-kicker is far more costly than a straight up “no thank you” or “we’ve chosen someone else.”  Count this quick and decisive feedback as a blessing.  We do our best, learn from our mistakes, and move forward.  Professional sales gurus across the spectrum always agree that each ‘no’ leads us one step closer to ‘yes.’

2)      Patience – It’s one of my four laws of business development success:  “relationships first, projects second.”  For me (and you) it’s not about the next job as much as it’s about the next (long lasting) relationship.  Growing our capabilities, reach, leverage, and influence. A sustainable business.  Lasting legacy.  The longer arc of success.  Right? So we work always to stay positive, professional, and above the fray.  Perhaps we can help in some other way, collaborate with or support the new advisor, work on a different part of the project?  Or simply stay in touch, and see how things develop over time?  [Just a few years ago, and after awarding an engagement I’d sought to someone else, a prospective client invited me to speak to his association group (perhaps as a consolation prize, but still it was on a romantic cruise no less, my wife Megan joined me, and we had a super time).  That gig resulted in many new industry connections, led to follow up speaking engagements, and eventually landed us a large project with the original client firm].

3)      Pressure – Competition helps in several ways, and both increases and dissipates stresses in the organization. Heightened competitive pressures force the firm to think and innovate, to continuously improve, and to commit and persist.  But competition also helps clients in the marketplace to better calibrate their own expectations.  Without competitors, a sole-source firm may find itself competing against the customer’s absolute expectations of perfection.  Competition usually results in a more realistic and relativeassessment of capability and performance (“we’ve got a good deal more experience in this area than the other guys,” or “our response time is 42% faster than the next best provider.”)  Unless you’re perfect, competition and relative assessment is a good thing for both parties.

4)      Persistence – The anguish we sometimes experience in losing an opportunity (especially one we’re convinced we’d excel with) is in fact the very obstacle that keeps most – more than 90% – of others from ever even trying.  The reality (or fear) of rejection stops most would-be advisors, services providers, business developers, and aspiring entrepreneurs from action.  The ability to get up after being knocked down, to start anew after failing (often multiple times), to recover from costly mistakes and continue to marshal on – these are important skills, and precious gifts – in business and life.  As writer Woody Allen suggested, “ninety percent of life is just showing up.”  Or the author of Ecclesiastes, who extols all to “accept his lot and rejoice in his toil (because this) is the gift of God.”  Commitment, focus, persistence, stick-to-it-ness.  These factors loom large in the mathematics of success.

Don’t be fooled by the siren of the easy.  Sustained professional success is rewarding – but difficult.  All successful professionals struggle at times with the ever-present challenges of business development, the emotional efforts of the business roller coaster, and (yes) the pain and disappointment of opportunities lost.  That’s human.  [Lack of caring about the outcome of each and every prospect is I think a far greater issue for both the individual and the firm].  But true professionals learn, develop, grow, and persist.  They set their sights on important priorities, valuable contributions, the longer journey.

In business, experience and expertise wins.  Talent and team wins.  Passion and dedication wins.  No, not in every battle, but yes, in every war.

That’s my take.  What’s yours?



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