1099 is no longer being updated, but please enjoy our archives.



Columns by Nancy K. Austin:

Mission to Mars

Everyone's a Critic... Even You

Big Brothers Big Sisters

Follow the Headhunter



List all of Nancy's columns


Visit our other Getting Work Columnist


Add Feedback

View Feedback

Hot Tips

What They Say About You After You Leave the Room

As monster marketing opportunities go, the client pitch meeting is a veritable Godzilla. It's the last great frontier before contracts get signed (or not). It's your only remaining chance to make the kind of indelible impression that seals the deal, even if your press kit, handouts, networking, and targeted mailings worked like a charm. Landing a would-be client almost always requires one more component from your marketing toolkit: a personal meeting. This is no cutesy conversation, either. It's a serious marketing pitch, and to pull it off, you'd better know how to present yourself.

I can help with this. Thanks to my past history as a card-carrying member of the corporate elite (Ernst & Young, 1978-1979; Hewlett-Packard, 1979-1983), I know what the folks on the other side of the table are thinking. I've been there, after those pitch meetings, when people drop their game faces and start speaking their minds. Truth is, it wasn't all that nice. Entre nous, even before some of the pitchmeisters stopped talking, our brain-spaces were filling up with incredibly baroque reasons to write them off. Why? In their amped-up eagerness to wow a big-name company, some IPs didn't pause to consider what we could be thinking about them -- what we would be saying about them any minute -- when they were safely out of earshot.

Don't you make the same mistake. The following stories will give you a sense of just what potential clients don't want to hear or see. If you pay close attention, they'll help you avoid delivering an imperfect pitch.

No one gossips about other people's secret virtues.
-- Bertrand Russell

Andrew, an independent management consultant with academic ties to Stanford, had been pestering us for weeks. An accounting professor over there lit a fire under him. We, of course, were not about to let good old Andy fox-trot right past our bureaucratic barricade. He was going to have to work for it, Stanford or not. Did he think he would snap his fingers and we'd slobber all over him? What did he think we were, pantywaists? On ever-dogged Andy's fifth attempt, though, we finally relented. (Big of us.) Only way to get rid of him was to see him and get it over with, so we settled on one afternoon the next week. Three o'clock.

He was too early, 20 minutes or so, an infraction worth at least a few conduct demerits. But what I remember best about that meeting is that he brought homemade props -- stubby pieces of two-by-four, maybe five or six of them, each one glossily painted in a different primary color. As he argued his case for the expensive training program he wanted us to buy, he clacked the blocks around on the conference room table as if they were giant Legos. He was apparently building some kind of pyramidal model. "So you see, your managers don't have" -- Thwack! -- "the conflict resolution skills they're gonna need to lead a company that's growing as fast as this one!" Brrrack! "But thanks to my seminars, they will." Rattletybang-bam! I've never seen (or heard) anything like it. Somehow Andy'd gotten it into his head that every time he got to a big point, he'd be sure we knew it by making a colossal clattery racket with those infernal things.

We could hardly wait to hustle him out of there. We were looking relentlessly for any excuse to scratch Andy off our To-Do list, and he gave it to us with those blocks. His little bit of extreme marketing was worse than a distraction; it smothered his real capabilities and obscured his successes, achievements he should have been able to put to good marketing use. As it was, he never had a chance.

Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.
-- Gore Vidal

This isn't something you talk about at parties, and it's not pretty, but clients can get insanely jealous of IPs. Sometimes just being independent is enough to set them off, but it's worse when IPs are successful. Professional envy shows up in particularly nasty ways, all of them designed to take a full-of-himself IP down a couple of notches. For example, a client might forget that a project review was moved up an hour, or a crucial piece of information might get twisted around. Of course, jealousy often lies underneath simple scapegoating. Outsiders are, hands down, the very best blame magnets a corporate executive could wish for: why claim responsibility for an unpopular decision when you can say the consultant made you do it? Besides, outsiders who know their stuff upset everything, and so their presence triggers all sorts of ugly maneuvers in the halls of commerce, the main goal being to pile all the bad stuff on the IP, leaving the corporate brass clean and sparkling.

One tried-and-true strategy is a quick-and-dirty discrediting of the IP. A famous and simply brilliant consultant, for instance, used to like to show up for meetings in ratty Bermuda shorts. Sure, he was pushing it, and he knew it. The company execs were, of course, always dressed to the teeth, and they took this fashion statement as a disparagement, a rude shot across their buttoned-down corporate bow. They lost no time in floating a rumor that the IP was more sail than ballast, an "empty envelope," they liked to call him -- likely hooked on antidepressants and God knows what else. Even I was shocked at how fast that tittle-tattle traveled. But this time, the IP prevailed. He had a tin ear where weird rumors were concerned and simply tuned them out, a feat that required enormous discipline or a completely befuddled nature. And then he was wicked-smart -- so smart that clients willingly put up with his little "eccentricities" because they wanted his brain.

You lose it if you talk about it.
-- Ernest Hemingway

There are certain IPs who, when they walk into a room, are just so full of themselves that potential clients can't stand it. Soon as they open their mouths, it's "I did it all," or "I saved this company from death at the last possible minute!" Somewhere along the line, the suits tell themselves, this IP took his ego out for a joyride and never came back.

So when Wesley (not his real name) strutted into our corporate headquarters office, we knew right off we had a problem. He swaggered on over to the top-of-the-heap conference room, settled himself in the Herman Miller chair, and instantly launched into his charmless spiel: I'm what you need, I'm the best at this kind of project, ask anyone, I'm the top, you'll regret it if you don't agree. Talk, talk, talk. Me, me, me. Instead of delivering the kind of focused pitch that would strengthen his position and make him an attractive choice, he sunk himself with severe overuse of the first person singular. After he left, we clobbered him; it's embarrassing to recall. What was he hiding, if he had to sell himself so hard? We had a hunch he'd embellished his resume and embroidered certain other details, so we checked. Turns out he'd inflated the impact of a project or two, nothing serious. All the same, we passed on the guy. He might be smart, but nobody wanted to spend two minutes around him.

Unfair? You bet. But remember this: perception really is all there is. Your potential clients are talking you up (or down) right this minute -- and the conversational direction is directly related to the impression your pitch made.

We'd love to hear your feedback about this column, or put you in touch with Nancy K. Austin if you like. You may also like to see her biography.

Go to top of this page

Entire contents Copyright © 2000 1099 Magazine. All rights reserved.
The 1099 name and logo are trademarks of 1099 Magazine.