I’ve been running my own business for over five years now. That’s enough time to have a few lessons pounded into my head. When I see people making mistakes with their businesses or having bad luck, I don’t laugh at them and say “What an idiot” I think “Ha, I used to be there, I know what they’re going through.”
We all make mistakes, and hopefully we all learn from them. Sometimes our mistakes cost us money, such as when we say or do something wrong while trying to sell our services or product and because of a simple slip-up we lose the deal. Within the last year, my advertising firm has lost deals (Stampin’ Up, Hugger Mugger, Spring Communications). We’ve also won deals (Workers Compensation Fund, Bank of American Fork, Hogle Zoo, California Pools). And sometimes we’ve lost deals or clients but then they’ve come back later (Speaking Roses, Chapman Innovations).
Sometimes it’s obvious what we did to lose or win a job. Most of the time it isn’t. But what has been obvious to me, at least in a few cases, is why our competitors lost against us, and that’s what this posting is about.
About a year ago we were bidding on the website redesign of a large organization’s website. Winning the deal would mean prestige, exposure, and most importantly, revenue, not to mention the possibility of other projects down the road.
We were competing against 10 other firms to get this deal. It was narrowed down to us and one other firm, and then we won. After we won, we were told we won because we put forth the best presentation, and the client liked that we actually brought the designer with us who had done a lot of our past work and who would be working on this project if we were to win it.
This is valuable information because you start thinking “Hmmm, maybe I’ll bring the designer to other sales meetings in the future…” Whether or not that’s always correct, at least you know it helps sometimes.
But what was most interesting was something else the client told us. They told us they were able to eliminate four or five of the firms that were bidding on the project for one reason–they bad-mouthed our firm. I had to laugh after I heard this due to the irony. These other firms acted in a certain way in order to win the business, and that exact action led them to lose the business. Not only did they lose the business, but they lost the business to the firm that was the target of their negativity.
I was flattered by this experience. I didn’t think most of our competitors even knew who we were. It was also interesting to hear some of the things they said about us. One competitor told the client they shouldn’t work with us because we were too big. We were a big agency with multiple offices and a hundred employees and the client would feel like a small fish. Evidently our attempts to look large and established had worked, because in fact we were half the size of the company saying this.
One thing I just remembered about this deal is that the client remembered that we had spoken positively about our competitor when it came down to just us and them.
The next experience happened just a month ago. We had been working on a proposal for another sizable Utah institution. This was a deal we really wanted to get. Like the first, this started out with multiple competitors, it was whittled down to us and one other, and then we won. What was interesting here was the reaction of one of our competitors who didn’t make it to the final round.
After finding out that we had won, the competitor’s CEO/owner sent an email to the client trashing us, and I do mean trashing. This wasn’t just a case of someone trying to win the job, this was a case of them trying to hurt our chances of getting it, even though we already had it.
This changed my mind about what the possible motives might be for companies hating on each other. I had assumed it was for business reasons, i.e. “If I put this firm down, that makes me look better and I’ll win the work.” But what I was seeing was that maybe the motive was more emotional than that, something more along the lines of “I can’t believe I lost and I’m going to take that firm down because I hate them. They’ll pay big time for messing with me. How dare they. Don’t they know who I am?” and so forth.
I’ve become further convinced these responses are more emotional than rational when I’ve seen the consequences. Not only have the firms doing the bad-mouthing lost the deals, but they’ve essentially lost any chance of being invited back to the table for a shot at future work. Even if everything they said about us were true, and we ruined the project and our client had to find a new firm to fix it, our client wouldn’t go back to the firms that did the jive talking, because the negativity left a bad taste in their mouth.
The latest situation occurred today, and I’m still laughing about it. I don’t think our competitors understand that when they talk bad about us it’s flattering, especially when they pick us out of eight or nine other firms they’re competing against. We must be the one they’re the most scared of, and that makes me feel like I’m doing something right. Other times the things they say are just plain humorous, as in this case.
In this situation, someone who I’ll call our “liason” came to us and for various reasons asked us to take over a web development project he had been working on. As part of this arrangement he wanted us to work with a designer he had already put on the project. This is nothing new to us, it happens all the time. A client comes to us and they already have an agency they’ve worked with to design a site, but they need it programmed and their agency doesn’t do that. Or they have a site already programmed, but they want us put a nice design on it. We’re always happy to acommodate, but we also let our opinion be known if we think the design or programming has been done poorly.
In this case, we let our liason know that we thought the design that had been provided wasn’t what we considered professional or good. We told him that if he was already committed to this designer then we would understand if he wanted to take his project to someone else to finish up, but that we wouldn’t feel comfortable working with his designer.
There was no malice and no competitiveness here. We wouldn’t mind picking up the additional design work, but we don’t need it either. What we don’t want to do is complete a project that has a weak design on it and then have the client telling other people that we did that website for them.
These points were written up in an email and sent by myself to our liason. Somehow our email ended up in the hands of the designer, and this was his reaction (the only editing was to the swearing, cause we’ve got to keep it clean for the kids):
Hey cowboy, I know you have a need to think your all that good, but you might want to do someting different. Your designs are predictable and old. Smell me, my clients love what I do…maybe because I listen to them and know something about thier demographics. I dont tend to walk out on my clients because they dont surcome to your $@#$. My work is better than your self absorbed concious of good design. Kiss my @#%…better luck next time building your relationships.
I’m not sure what he’s talking about with half of this, and whether he has a point with any of the parts isn’t the point. The point is that anytime somebody says “smell me” in the middle of an angry email, it’s hilarious. But seriously, what I find interesting about the response is that it’s all emotion. There’s no rational explanation I can think of for this kind of response. All this response has done was confirm my first impression of not wanting to work with this individual, and now I have a negative view of him on a personal level, whereas before I just didn’t think he did very good design. Certainly any chance that may have existed of there being a mutually beneficial relationship between us has evaporated.
And of course I felt I needed to forward his response back to my liason so that he would know how this guy he was recommending reacted because that reflects on him, and this will probably have a negative effect on their relationship as well.
I don’t bear any ill will towards any of the people or companies I have referred to in this posting. Some of the actions and reactions I find humorous, but some of it is sad, really. I’m truly sorry if people have any bitterness in them, regardless of the object of that bitterness.
What I’ve learned from these experiences is the following:
1. Don’t badmouth the competition. You might resist it just because you don’t want to be that way, but if not for that reason, then don’t do it for selfish reasons, because in the long run it doesn’t help you. Am I perfect at this? No, sometimes I say things I later regret. But I’m trying to get better at it, and I think I do a darn good job compared to all the other idiots out there.
2. Follow the Bambi rule. If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. If we are asked what we think of a certain competitor, we’ll say something positive about them if we know of something positive. For example, one of our competitors is Axis41. Whenever we’re up against them on a bid I always tell people that they’re one of the firms I admire, as far as the work they produce (I don’t know much about them other than that). That’s why over the past three years I’ve hired three of their employees (sorry guys, I couldn’t resist). If I don’t like a company, or I think they stink, or I don’t know enough to judge, then I try to just say “I really can’t say much about them.”
3. Talk up your competition, talk yourself up more. You don’t have to put someone down to bring yourself up. It’s not fun, it makes you a bitter person, and clients don’t like it. Be positive. Speak well of your competitors. This makes you look good in the client’s eyes, not bad. Then talk yourself up even more. “So and so is really good at such and such, they do awesome work. What I believe sets us apart from our competitors is that not only can we do great design, but we are experts at back-end programming and building this type of content management system. With us, not only are you going to get a great looking site, but we’re going to get the functional aspects correct as well which is going to save you time and money, and by getting it all from one firm who has done this before it’s going to make your life easier.”
See, that’s all positive, right?
4. Nice guys get behind, but they don’t finish last. That’s another way of saying “keep a long-term perspective”. I met a guy once who ran long-distance in the Sydney Olympics. He told me that the winner generally isn’t the guy who runs most of the race out front. If you want to win you stay a little behind, and let the guy in front wear himself out maintaining his place. Then in the last bit you give it all you’ve got.
For the purpose of this analogy you can ignore the last half, the point is that just because you’re behind part of the way doesn’t mean you’re going to lose. And of course in life you’re not competing against anyone but yourself.
Now there are some times when there might be some “exceptions”, although they really aren’t. There’s a difference between badmouthing someone and objectively critical. What I’ve been trying to do in this posting is be objectively or constructively critical. I’m not using names nor making it easy for you to figure out who I’m talking about. My motivation isn’t emotional and I’m not out to make anybody look bad or feel bad, I just find this stuff interesting and hopefully educational for others. If I were a business professor I might use these examples in the classroom, or if I were mentoring a younger entrepreneur I might use these examples to help them avoid making mistakes.
And my comments here shouldn’t necessarily be taken outside of their context, which is in the competitive realm of business dealings. While I’m not critical of my competitors when I’m talking to a potential client, that doesn’t mean I’m going to avoid saying something negative about Totally Awesome Computers after having a bad experience with them. I don’t think that’s badmouthing, I think it’s exposing the facts, like that Gephardt guy. When I’ve found out about my firm being badmouthed by the competition they’ve almost always said things that were entirely untrue, or they’ve twisted the truth in such a way that it might as well be a lie. And their motivations haven’t been to help anyone but themselves.
The more experience I get, the more I firmly believe that the people who are nice win in the end. If you don’t believe me, just try my four-point plan for one month and see what happens. I promise results or double your money back.