All prospects have a unique approach when selecting an agency — a “secret sauce” he or she uses to evaluate potential partners.

Surprised by this?

So were we. We just completed a study in which we talked to 500 CMOs and business owners about their decision-making processes when hiring and firing agencies. Not only did we learn more about what a secret sauce for agency selection is, but we also learned the personal recipes of 92% of respondents. And what we learned will dramatically change the way your agency pitches new clients.

Why You Need to Know the Secret Sauce

If you don’t know your prospect’s secret sauce, you put yourself at a disadvantage from the start. You don’t know what’s important to your prospect or what the client’s hot buttons are, so you never know which wrong step will set off a land mine.

Why invest time and effort into a pitch you have no chance of winning? It’s better to know a prospect’s secret sauce and decline the interview than to not know, spend weeks perfecting a pitch, and find out that you wasted valuable business hours.

Knowing your prospect’s secret sauce allows you to tailor your message to her needs and avoid the strategies or subjects that will strike you off the list. You’re competing with several other agencies that can provide similar services, and to your prospect, you all look more or less the same. Understanding the secret sauce helps you differentiate your business through a deeper connection with your prospect and, in some cases, through preparation for an unusual vetting process.

Discovering the Recipe

Some prospects scour LinkedIn and other social networks for agency employees and examine their behavior. Some hunt down former clients and talk to them about their interactions with your company. One group told us that it takes a Hunger Games approach and lets agencies battle for its business until only one remains. Every prospect is different. Wouldn’t you like to know what you’re up against from the start?

Discovering the ingredients of your prospect’s secret sauce can be tricky. Prospects don’t want to tell you exactly how they choose an agency; they want to maintain the knowledge advantage as they make their decisions. Thankfully, there are a few questions you can ask prospects to learn what goes into their decisions:

1) If you could have changed one thing about your last agency, what would it have been?

There’s a reason this prospect is looking for a new agency. Find it.

2) How do you screen employees? What do you look for, and where do you look?

Learn how your prospect investigates potential employees, and you’ll probably learn how he or she will investigate you, too.

3) Beyond its ability to help you meet your KPIs, what do you value most in an agency?

Some people want an agency with employees they can kick back and have a beer with. Others want people with decades of experience. Learn what your client likes, and tailor your image to match.

4) Every client has a list of things that irritate him or her and a list of must-haves for agency partners. What’s on your list?

You don’t know what the prospect’s hot buttons are, so you could step on the land mine at any time. There’s nothing wrong with asking directly. The selection process is a bit of a game, but every prospect ultimately wants to work with an agency that will improve his or her business.

Learning the ingredients in your prospect’s secret sauce takes effort, but the rewards are worth it. Don’t go in blind again — do your research and ask the right questions so you can make your next pitch with confidence.

This article was written by Drew McLellan and first published on HubSpot.