It doesn’t take long for most of us to buy a pack of gum. It can be a matter of minutes from the moment we feel the need arise to the moment we become 100% owners of that gum and pop a piece in our mouths.

There was little deliberation or weighing of options. It was a low-cost, low-risk purchase—if the gum-chewing experience turns out to be unsatisfactory, it’s pretty cheap and easy to reinvest in a different option.

Obviously that’s not the case with buying agency services, which is a complex, time consuming process involving multiple stakeholders with different personal and professional agendas and their human idiosyncrasies. When a marketer shops for agency services, it’s embarking on a journey. And at each step you have the opportunity, perhaps more than you realize, to exert some control over the journey and affect the outcome (ideally in your favor).

Each buyer’s journey is unique but here are five common situations in which I see agencies relinquishing control when they should be asserting it.

Client says “just email us a proposal”

It sounds promising when a client asks you to submit a proposal. And many times it is, but only under the right circumstances.

This is where formal agency reviews, while far from perfect, offer some structural benefits for agencies:

  • There’s usually a defined step-by-step process, sometimes designed and managed by an experienced search consultant.

  • There are opportunities to exchange important information. At the very least, the marketer provides a brief of an RFP in exchange for the agency’s response.

  • The client sets ground rules that all are expected to follow.

But when you’re operating outside the confines of a formal agency review, as you are when you proactively pitch a client, it’s in your best interest to take the lead in defining that process.

Here’s what I see happening a lot. Your outreach sparks the attention of a prospective client.  Maybe they agree to a meeting or simply engage in an introductory email exchange. After this promising start, they suggest you “just send a proposal” as a next step.

Exciting! You comply… and then never hear from them again.

A proposal should be a summary of what you and the client have mutually agreed is the right solution you can provide to their problem. It’s the culmination of a meaningful exchange often over the course of weeks, if not months.

But when it comes as a casual request after the initial intro meeting, then it’s likely one of two scenarios

  • They don’t really have the authority to make the decision but might like your ideas enough to try to get their bosses to say “OK”

  • They’re not interested in your services but it’s easier to ask you for a proposal and then ignore it than hurt your feelings by telling you how they really feel.

This is when you need to exert some control and seek information. Do you know enough about the client to respond with a thoughtful proposal? Have you had conversations in which the client has agreed to a scope of work and price? Are you talking to the decision-makers? What’s the purchase process on the client’s side?

Serious clients will not only allow you to ask questions like this, they’ll encourage it because they understand it’s in their best interests too.

The decision-maker doesn’t show up to the meeting

Here’s another scenario:

You’re actively discussing an opportunity with a prospective client and you’ve both decided you need a meeting to discuss scope or for you to present your proposal. Great news – except you’ve been told that the key decision-maker won’t be there, but the rest of the client team “would like to have the meeting anyway.”

In most cases, the right answer isn’t to say “ok”. How is having the meeting without the decision-maker going to benefit you as the agency? Not only that, how is it going to benefit the client?

Better to exert some control and request that the meeting get rescheduled.

Perhaps you fear this will irk the client and perhaps it will. But if the client’s intentions are serious, then it’s likely they’ll comply.

This very situation happened to one of my client’s recently. They were pitching a big nonprofit and when they learned that a key decision maker wasn’t going to be in the meeting. I pushed my clients to cancel the meeting. I also recommended that they be diplomatic and gracious  about it, and to  explain to the client why it’s important for all concerned to have everyone present. And you know what? The client agreed and rescheduled.

You assume clients know exactly what they’re doing and how to do it

Sometimes I see agencies assume that just because the client has issued a pitch brief or RFP they’re confident in their process for hiring a new agency.

We on the agency side love to complain about poor client behavior but let’s give the client the benefit of the doubt for a moment. It’s not easy to do a fair and thorough agency review! It’s a project that adds to their already busy workload and siphons attention away from other responsibilities. For the person running the review, it entails a soul-sucking amount of scheduling and coordination. And it asks the participants to act objectively in making an often emotional, subjective decision.

They do their best, borrowing from what worked the last time they hired an agency. Or delegating the responsibility to an agency search consultant who has a defined process.

When an agency recognizes a way to improve the process, they are wise to express it. It’s another opportunity to constructively exert control in a way that’s in everyone’s best interest

Recently in another article I talked about the “5 whys” technique and how it helps you write better case studies. It is equally valuable in helping you get to the root of the client’s problem in a pitch situation.

I describe it as “going beyond BANT”. BANT is an acronym that reminds you to find out what the budget is, identify who’s in the position of authority to say “yes”, what the client’s needs are, and what the timeline is to put a solution in place. It’s a handy device, but it doesn’t encourage you to challenge the client or probe beneath the surface, which is often key in gaining the inside track in a pitch.

I’ll give you two recent examples from two different agencies pertaining to the budget.

In both situations the client’s budget  was insufficient for the job they wanted to get done. By all other accounts, these marketers fit the agencies’ definition of an ideal client so I was surprised when my clients initially told me they were going to turn down the opportunities. It’s not that I don’t agree that agencies should walk away from badly funded projects; I just thought it was a mistake not to do a little investigation first.

In both cases I advised them to ask their prospective clients for a conversation before they turned down the opportunity outright. Their clients complied and the conversations were very constructive. In fact they were so constructive that both agencies not only pitched for the respective pieces of business but they won them!

By  exerting a bit of healthy control my clients were able to offer sensible alternatives that, while at a higher price point, would increase the likelihood that these marketers would reach their goals and actually get what they want.

When the client is in control, you see them as an adversary and not an ally

Something else I see is the tendency to assume the client has a hidden agenda that doesn’t favor the agency. I think that’s a direct result of a belief that the client has all the control and you have none. If you think the client is acting unilaterally, it’s easy to see them as an adversary, not an ally.

We’re always quick to say that the agency business is a people business, but sometimes we forget that when it comes to new business.

Consider the humanity of the individuals on the other side of the proverbial table. Assume they’re doing their best and with the best of intentions. How can you help them do it better?

Here’s another real-world example. In this case, the agency owner had some inaccurate and unconstructive preconceptions about the motivations of someone on the client team. To his credit he was basing it on precedent, another pitch with a different client that didn’t turn out well.

He asked me to consult with him about it and I encouraged him to look at the situation a little more broadly and consider other possibilities. The person in question was not the decision-maker but he was pivotal nonetheless and my client believed he had the capacity to undermine the whole deal.

“Talk to the guy!”, I said. “Assume he’s an ally until he treats you otherwise.”

The conversation he ended up having with his prospective client was transformational. He learned so much about the client’s actual situation and now is in a better position to respond. Plus, the prospect truly appreciated my client taking the time to reach out and offer support. As of this writing the pitch is still underway, but my client now has some sharper tools in his toolkit for managing his client’s buyer’s journey.

You assume it’s easy for the client to walk away

The last situation I’ll share on this very incomplete list happens at the end of the buyer’s journey, when the deal is all but done and you are negotiating the final contract. It’s natural to want to do everything possible to close the deal, even if it means compromising on scope, budget, and policies. You fool yourself into thinking that exerting control will alienate your client and make it easy for them to drop you for another agency.

Get out of your own head for a minute and think about the client’s situation.

Like you, they’ve made an investment in time, resources and even emotion to choose you over others. What’s the likelihood that they’ll walk away from that investment because you’re holding firm to reasonable requests?

You will never be in a stronger position than at the point when the client has agreed to hire you. The moment you do work for that client without a signed contract, you go from a position of greatest strength to a position of greatest weakness. The fall is quick and absolute.

It’s unfortunate that so many agency leaders unnecessarily relinquish control of the buying process. But once they see themselves as co-pilots of that journey, they can start to insert themselves in meaningful ways and the clients see them as more of a partner and less an order taker.

Learn to recognize how and when you can exert control. Be the co-pilot in your buyer’s journey.