What role does confidence play in winning new business?

I’m not referring to swagger or arrogance (two qualities that may do more harm than good). I’m talking about stepping into a pitch situation with the confidence of an expert.

Oren Klaff, an investment-banker-turned-author who wrote Pitch Anything: An Innovative Method for Presenting, Persuading, and Winning the Deal might argue confidence is everything.

Pitch Anything is required reading for any agency leader who routinely pitches, whether it’s for new business or to sell through campaign ideas. Klaff offers a perspective on pitching that is entirely different from the way most agencies treat new business. His premise is both simple and complex and I freely admit I won’t be able to do justice to all he has to offer.

But I would like to focus on one of his key messages: Alphas win.

"If you hold high social status, even on a temporary basis, your power to convince others will be strong, and your pitch will go easily.”

Every social situation is ruled by hierarchy and your position in that hierarchy is based on things like wealth, popularity and authority. As Klaff points out, it’s an artificial measure of your worth, for sure, but it’s inevitable. We quickly and subconsciously identify the alpha in the room and then the rest of the betas fall into line. If there’s more than one, the alphas will try to outdo one another to vie for the top spot.

In a pitch situation, the client takes on the alpha role by default. She and her team establish authority by setting the rules and dictating things like the time, place, duration and even the content of your pitch. However, your chances of winning the pitch dramatically increase if you can unseat the alpha and secure that role for yourself.

As Klaff says, “if you hold high social status, even on a temporary basis, your power to convince others will be strong, and your pitch will go easily.”

Those of you who think your killer instincts are about as sharp as kindergarten scissors may feel dismayed after reading this. But don’t be. As I mentioned above, one way to assert the top spot in the hierarchy is through authority, which we wield through the power of our expertise.

Here’s an example unrelated to our world of marketing and advertising:

My life partner, R, is an expert in sailboats and sailboat racing. He runs his own business that offers services around those things to boat owners in the Hamptons on Long Island where we live. The Hamptons is known as a summer playground for the rich and famous. We are overrun with alphas out here. Show up at a hot new restaurant on a Saturday night in July and you will see them in action, vying for the top spot and the best table.

R does not possess the vast financial wealth, social status or fame of his clients. However, what he does possess is situational status. His clients seek him out and cultivate relationships with him because he has the expertise to enhance their time out on the water (and maybe even win a regatta). In this situation, R is the alpha; they are the betas.

As Klaff points out, by changing the domain (a boardroom for a sailboat), the roles reverse, and situational status takes over.

You can engineer the same situational status for yourself. How? By wielding the power of your expertise. Here are three things you can do right away:

1. Be clear about what you do best.

At moments of self-reflection, an agency owner may confess that “we sound just like our competition.” That’s because, in most cases, the leaders describe their agency as broadly as possible. It opens the doors to infinite possibilities, right?  

Of course, in reality, the opposite is true.

If you sound like everyone else, by what criteria does a marketer select you as best? Sometimes the criteria are subjective, such as spec work. Other times it comes down to which agency compromised the most on fees.

In both those cases, the client is firmly in the alpha role. She says, “jump” and you say, “how high?”

Do yourself and the client a favor and be clear—and confident—about what your agency does best.

2. Stay focused on the problems the clients must solve

Most agencies I talk to deeply understand their clients’ businesses and the challenges they face. And yet, when they pitch, they don’t always touch on that depth of knowledge and instead default to the generalizations that cause them to sound just like their competitors.

Don’t take this knowledge for granted or assume the client will understand it through osmosis. Instead, shift away from messages that center around you to messages that center around them. Demonstrate how you’re already an expert in solving the problems they routinely face.

By doing so, you’re telling them in essence, “we have the power to save you time, make you money, and get you the praise and glory you deserve.” Who can resist a pitch like that?

3.    Set positive expectations well in advance

Don’t wait until the pitch meeting to assert your situational status. Use the marketing tools at your disposal to prequalify and prime your prospects. That means a website that tells an effective story (and also makes it easy for your prospects to reach you); thought leadership that showcases your expertise and insights; case studies that demonstrate you’ve got a process that leads to repeatable success; and social proof through endorsements by clients and influencers like journalists.

The desired result: by the time a prospect makes contact with you, you have little to prove. You’re initiating your relationship with your situational status already at a high level.

In my experience (anecdotal as it may be), we in the agency business tend to put too much stock in the belief that the client is always right. That belief has an insidious effect on how you approach a pitch because it undercuts confidence in your authority and expertise. As I said above, I’m not advocating swagger or arrogance. Instead, I’m suggesting you take a moment to survey your qualifications with an objective eye and see if you can’t be taking better advantage of your situational status with marketers who need what you do best.