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Is this you? A potential client approaches you for a new project. You have an initial conversation. You’re excited! They seem excited. Everything appears to be going smoothly; you have the “cat in the bag,” as the saying goes.

You work up the scope and create what might just be the greatest proposal you’ve ever crafted. This thing is a slam dunk!

Then comes presentation day. In all your life, you have never had such a smooth presentation! The client was putty in your hands, with no objections. They loved your process. Your price was right in their target. They even commented on how they’d never been in an agency presentation as thorough as yours. All that is left for you to do is wait for the greenlight email, which they said would be coming in the next couple of days.

One day passes.
Two days pass.
Three days have passed.
You’re not too nervous…because, you know…the cat.

You’re out to lunch, checking your email every 14 seconds (as one does), and you see the bold-lettered incoming message summary. The client finally replied with the greenlight you’ve been waiting for! You hastily click the message only to find the dreaded response we’ve all received more times than we would like to admit.

“We decided to go in another direction.”

All of a sudden, your cheeseburger doesn’t taste as delicious as it did a few seconds ago. In fact, your appetite is gone completely. “What happened?” you think to yourself. You thought you had this one locked.

At this point, you really have two choices.

Option 01: Thanks for the Opportunity

Most young creative entrepreneurs choose option number one. (This was my approach for many years until my business savvy got sharp enough to figure out a better way.) After your anxiety subsides, you reply to the client with a nice message like this:

“Thanks so much for considering us. We are disappointed that we won’t be working with you and hope we can help support your business in the future.”

There’s nothing wrong with this reply. But c’mon…stop being such a wimp…don’t just put your tail between your legs and accept defeat without getting something from the effort you put in. My recommendation is that you stop using option number one.

Option 02: What the Flip?

Over the course of my agency run, we won 61% of our opportunities. Which, of course, means that 39% of the time, I was a loser. I learned so much from those losses. I improved my pricing, sales presentations, follow-ups, case studies, relationship building…oh man…everything got better with time because I started doing option number two: Ask the client why you lost.

“I’m always looking to improve my business, and rejections are a great opportunity to learn. If you don’t mind me asking, what were the determining factors in your decision to choose the other agency? We really appreciate any insights you could share to help us improve our business.”

There is pure magic in this question! A defeat can turn into a success if you at least learn something from the experience. And you’ll never learn something if you don’t start asking your client why you lost.

Track the Reasons and Make Improvements

Now that you are convinced you need to start asking why you lost, the final step is to start tracking the reasons and making systematic improvements in your business. Create a simple spreadsheet with columns for project proposal number, date, client name, project type, won/lost, and notes. It should look something like this:

In the notes column, record the “reason you lost” response from the client. Then start asking yourself, “How can I do better next time?”

  • What questions should you be asking in your qualification process?
  • Are your leads coming from the right place?
  • Do you need to add more info to your proposal?
  • Is your proposal presentation too long and boring for the client? How can you spruce it up?
  • Are your prices out of harmony with client expectations?

Ask yourself the tough questions and be honest in your response. Then make changes to your business.

What If They Won’t Tell Me?

It’s true, some clients won’t give you any insights as to why you lost. Big deal. It doesn’t hurt to ask. After all, you spent time and effort discussing the project and crafting a proposal; in my opinion, the client at least owes you some insights as to why they chose someone over you.

During my agency run, we won almost 2,000 projects, and at our 61% win rate, it means we pitched roughly 3,278 projects. That is 1,278 opportunities to ask the client, “Why the heck did you choose someone else?” Even if only 10% of them gave us a reason, that is still 127.8 learning opportunities! Imagine what you can learn from 127 explanations why you lost.

It Isn’t Always the Freakin’ Money

When we lose an opportunity, it is easy to default to the excuse that the client was too cheap. Au contraire, mon frère. If they believed you were worth the price you proposed, the money would not have been a problem.

It isn’t always that they are “cheap.” More often, it is that they don’t see the value in using you over a cheaper option. Stop believing your own lie and fix your business! Help them see the value in spending more to use you over a cheaper options.

Let’s wrap this up with a brief summary:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask why you lost an opportunity.
  • You spent time creating a proposal and discussion the project for the client; it’s okay to ask for something in return.
  • Some clients won’t tell you. Ask anyway.
  • Track the responses and make improvements in your business.
  • They aren’t always “cheap”; they just don’t see the value in you.
Michael Janda

I am Michael Janda, an executive level creative leader with more than 25 years of experience in both in-house creative departments and agencies working with some of the greatest brands in the world including Disney, Google, Fox, ABC and NBC. I create books, courses, workshops, lectures and other training materials to help creative entrepreneurs run successful businesses.