How to lose a sale successfully

Photo: Glengarry Glen Ross

When you pitch business, what do you do when you lose? I make sure that every sale I lose is a win.

This question came up again this week when a lead — a guy who heard about me on a podcast — contacted me about improving some prominently placed copy on his Web site. Our call reviewing his needs went well, and I quoted him a price that reflected my assessment of the discovery work involved, the need to work quickly during a holiday week, and the other demands on my time coming up.

He turned me down.

It was not the first time I’ve been turned down. I get turned down because my price is too high or my background isn’t a great fit for what clients are looking for. I also walk away from business when it’s not right for me, or when my instincts tell me the engagement will go badly. I will not edit your memoir — that’s not what I’m best at. I will not ghostwrite your book on politics. I will not tutor your grandson.

Here’s what I don’t do when I get turned down.

  • I don’t come back with a hard sell. I already made my  best case in my proposal.
  • I don’t lower my price. The price is the price.
  • I don’t send a nastygram or badmouth the buyer. What would that accomplish?

Instead, I do two things:

  • If it’s not already clear, I ask what the buyer was looking for that was missing. This is not an invitation to re-engage, it is for my own information.
  • With the buyer’s permission, I refer him to somebody else who can do the work.

For example, if my price for editing is too high, I will refer you to an editor who is very good and works for less than I do. If you need a ghostwriter for a job I’m not right for or don’t have time for, I will refer you to an agency that is full of great ghostwriters. If you seem to need copy but what you really need is PR and positioning work, I will refer you to a great agency.

Why I refer you to my “competitors”

Here’s where I’m coming from: As a sole practitioner, I believe I have a unique set of skills. In my view, there is no one better than me at writing and editing books and other materials for technology-focused companies and aspiring thought leaders. This expertise is expensive, as it reflects decades of experience.

It’s also very specific.

This is why I do not think of others who do editing, writing, and coaching well as my competitors. Instead, I see us all as part of a mutually supporting collective of people trying to help out clients.

If you need something other than me — something cheaper, or someone with a different specialization — you should get what you need. It doesn’t hurt me at all if you get it from someone else, because you (or I) have already decided you are not going to get it from me.

Two things happen when I refer you to another provider, somebody who I know does good work.

First, you are going to continue to feel good about me. You will respect me. There may come a time that you need and want to pay for what I do. More likely, you may come upon somebody else who needs what I do. At that moment, you or your contact will come to me and we’ll probably work well together. I want to maximize the chance that that will happen, which means doing what I can to make you happy now, even with another provider.

Second, the person to whom I referred you, the “competitor,” will be very happy for the referral. He or she will get to do good work with this particular client. But that “competitor” may be in the position to send business my way in the future, or to mention me in his newsletter, or to write positively about my new book, or to help me in some other way. I love having friends like this.

Authors in particular never compete. We may feel competitive, but in the end, we’re going to be on the same panels, we’ll be writing about the same issues, and we’ll be consulting with the same companies. We’re better off if there are two books on the same topic than one, because that makes it a “trend.”

I send business your way because it’s a nice thing to do. It leaves happier people in my wake. That not only makes me feel good, it tends to come around as something good for me in the future.

Why don’t salespeople behave this way?

I have worked with many people in sales. A lot of them are awesome folks. They tend to be very enthusiastic and very competitive. Especially when they work for big companies, they don’t tend to send business away.

I have seen salespeople lie about their capabilities, lie about their competitors, threaten, engage in underhanded politics, coerce, and many more behaviors that I thought were shameful. This behavior is not typical, but it does happen. And I have always wondered about it.

The salesperson is defending their livelihood. Unless they hit the quota, they don’t get the commission. I understand: because if I don’t close the sale, I don’t get any money at all. I understand the drive, the need to close. It’s especially hard when you are surrounded by a bunch of other salespeople all striving to close that sale.

After the sale is done, often, the relationship becomes the problem of somebody else at the company. When you specialize in closing, you may not get the chance to maintain that relationship over time.

If the job is to close the sale, you will have done your job.

But if the job is to make the client happy, you might be better off sending her to someone else.

My way won’t get you promoted in your sales organization. But if you are in small organization, where selling and delivering are intimately connected, you might find that my way grows loyalty, business, and leads over the long run.

So try it. Send the ones you can’t close to a “competitor” that is going to make them happy. See what happens next.

They already got away. What have you got to lose?

Don’t ghost me

There are a lot of people who think as I do about business, including many independent consultants.

Sometimes we talk to you, and sometimes we aren’t right for you.

All of us sole proprietors have experienced the prospect who seems interested and then just stops responding.

If you are that prospect — if you are worried about that conversation in which you say “I don’t think this is right for me,” please let us know.

We’ll stop pestering you. We’ll stop wasting our time and yours. We lose business all the time, we can handle it.

And could help you find what you’re looking for.

So give us the courtesy of a rejection. It just might work out for you.

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  1. Josh, I loved this. It really resonated with me. True, ‘sales management’ often does not agree. Very short-term thinking.

    But if you treat clients this way, with respect and integrity, it is fulfilling on many levels, and works so well for everyone in the long run.

  2. Referring potential clients to a “competitor”… That was the trick in the 1947 classic Miracle on 34th Street. We can still learn from Kris Kringle.

  3. Josh, GREAT POST ! when we shoot for the long term, for the return of investment with people, we can’t lose. And some markets have specificities… you are right.

    Have a great day !