I was working with an agency this week, coaching them through rehearsals for a final meeting of an important new business pitch. At times my feedback had to do with weighty stuff like pitch strategy and meeting flow, but I was also struck by how many of my comments pertained to smaller gestures that are no less consequential.

Why does the small stuff matter?

When you bring two humans together in a high-stakes situation like a new business pitch–or interactions leading up to or following the pitch–both want something and neither is sure if the other can provide it.

Agencies want among other things the revenue, the morale-boost of a new client, the prestige if it’s a high-profile client. If revenue or morale is particularly low at the agency, the stakes are even higher. In worst cases, they translate into a sense of desperation on the part of the agency.

In the way dogs smell fear, marketers smell desperation and they tend not to respond well to it.

Plus, marketers have their own wants and needs. They’ve got myriad problems they’re expected to solve. They may welcome good solutions but is this agency enthusiastically clicking through its credentials slides going to provide those solutions? Or is it an unwelcome, irrelevant distraction that prolongs their having to deal with the problem?

Even the most receptive marketers are likely to have their guard up just a little bit. It’s simply our primal instinct to protect ourselves from unpleasant and difficult situations. And they’re probably  not going to give the agency the benefit of the doubt either–until it proves it can make it worth their while.

But, until you get the meeting, or an exploratory call, or an invitation to pitch the business, there are easy, small gestures you can make that have a big impact. Here are some of them:

  • Make it easy for a prospective client to schedule a meeting. After all you’ve done to get this person’s attention, don’t blow it with an exasperating back-and-forth comparing calendars. Give them a link to your online calendar, which is well-maintained and up-to-date, so they can choose a time that’s best for them. In fact, I like to give them an option to link to a calendar plus, for those who don’t want to sift through my schedule, a selection of three or four days and times they choose from.

  • Honor your scheduled meetings. True story: a prominent agency search consultant told me earlier this month that an agency that requested a meeting with him rescheduled the meeting seven times. I know stuff comes up–kids in the emergency room or natural disasters–but, come on, seven times?

  • Make it personal. When your ideal prospect lands on your website looking for contact information, supplement the contact form with an email address and phone number that goes directly to a real person of authority who will answer the inquiry and take charge. While you might watch for those inquiries like a hawk and would never allow a prospect to get lost in the shuffle, that prospective client doesn’t know that and there are plenty of them out there that can’t help feeling they’re shouting into a void when they fill out that form. (The same search consultant who had the agency cancel on him seven times also had a nightmare story about trying unsuccessfully to reach another agency through the contact form on its website).

  • On a related note, swap the “[email protected]” email address for a real one attached  to a real person, ideally a senior person. I see this a lot on agency contact pages but more recently I spotted it in an agency’s email newsletter. The email came from the CEO (👍) and, because I know and like this CEO, I wanted to reply and let her know how good I thought the newsletter was. But when I hit reply, I noticed the return email was the dreaded “info@”. Fortunately, I have her work email so I deleted the email address and forwarded it to her instead. But what if I was a CMO? What if her smart, timely message finally triggered me to reply and ask for a meeting? Realizing it was going to info@, which means it may or may not be read by anyone, would be enough to convince me to abort the mission.

Ah, those small but powerful gestures…

If you’ve been able to get a prospective client to say “yes” to an initial meeting:

  • Don’t overcrowd the room, whether a virtual or physical one. My goal for your initial meetings is to secure a one-on-one meeting with the top decision maker. You want this to be informative but also exploratory. This isn’t the time for a big dog and pony show. Bring the team back when you know more about the client’s challenges and how you’d solve them.

  • Be prepared with an agenda. Tell the client why you’re both here in this meeting and then–

  • Be prepared to listen. Ask questions and listen astutely to the answers.

  • Suggest a possible path forward. What would you like the client to do as a result of this meeting (for example, include you in their upcoming agency review; hire you for a test project; introduce you to a higher-level decision-maker like the CEO)? What do you commit to doing as an equal partner in the dance?

  • Follow through. I really hope that this is so obvious that stating it is completely unnecessary. However, I’ve witnessed plenty of situations where the ball is dropped. A first attempt may be made and then, if there’s not an immediate response from the client, it slips off the to-do list.

Let’s talk about pitch meetings, since it was prepping an agency for a pitch meeting that made me think about this topic.

  • Look good and sound good. I’m not going to launch into a harangue about all the things you must do to optimize your presence on Zoom. Thanks to COVID and #WFH you can choose from a plethora of videos and blog posts offering advice on everything from make-up tips to the optimal technology set-up. This article is about the small gestures, after all. Light yourself as well as possible–set up in front of a window for natural light (better than any expensive artificial light), or if that’s impossible, get yourself a decent ring light from Amazon. Find a room where the acoustics are halfway decent, for instance avoid a large open living room where your voice might reverberate. Or dig out your old corded ear buds which usually sound pretty good and are more reliable than wireless ones. And if you’re the agency owner, consider equipping your team with some of the basic equipment for lighting and audio in the same way you provide them with a laptop and a phone.

  • Smile! 😁 Be aware of your facial expressions and use them skillfully, both when you’re presenting and when you’re not. This is a smart move in any presentation, but it’s especially important on Zoom. The camera automatically subdues emotion and enthusiasm. I’m not advising that you try to be someone you’re not, but you might consider dialing up your natural presence to 11.

  • Know your lines. Back in the day when I was running agency pitch teams, my struggle was getting presenters to stop using their slides as a script they could conveniently read from during the presentation. Now with Zoom, the audience never has to know you’re reading from a script, right? Wrong. It’s obvious to your audience when you’re reading from a script. And while your intention may be to communicate the best information as thoroughly as possible, you may be perceived at best as uninteresting and at worst apathetic.

  • Show, don’t just tell. This is advice for every interaction, whether it’s the final pitch meeting or the first email. Every time you are tempted to state that you’re different from other agencies because of your people or your passion or process or your “immersive deep dives into the client’s business”,  ask yourself how you might substitute these vague statements with a demonstration of how you do these things.

Are there more? No doubt. And, as I think of them, perhaps I’ll include them in a sequel to this article.

And what about you? What small gesture did you perform in a new business pitch that had a positive, pitch-winning effect?