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January 31, 2024

Talkin’ Business at the Bar

3 Business Owners Agree on Their Top Sales & Marketing Challenges

Last week, while attending the CEO Summit in Florida (btw, great job Insights Association!), I had the chance one evening to talk a little business at the bar with three business owners. They each owned a research agency and had between 10 and 50 employees. As the evening wore on, two really interesting topics bubbled to the surface:

  • Differentiating their firm
  • Getting PMs to have ‘sales conversations’

It was fascinating.

On Differentiation

As the last of the three owners walked up, I introduced him to the others. He said “hi,” gave his name and his firm’s name and in describing his firm, literally said, “We’re a full-service boutique firm blah, blah, blah…” Those “blahs” showed that he recognized that his firm was eerily similar to the other two at the bar and frankly, almost everyone else at the Summit. He had no real point of differentiation. Nor do most firms. Why is that?

We discussed that topic for a while – and while we never reached a conclusion – I think there’s so much sameness in our industry for three reasons:

  • When firms started out, they were just happy to pick up any business – doing anything for anybody – and that strategy (or lack of one) just continued. And now, years later, it’s far too difficult to change direction.
  • No one wants to turn business away. Suppose your business specializes in serving the CPG industry. But then a technology company comes to you with a $100k tracker study. Do you say ‘no?’ The vast majority of firms will not… and will take on the project (especially if business is a little slow at the time). And the more that happens, the more your specialty is eroded and the more your firm becomes like all the others.
  • You think you’re different… but you’re really not. When I ask business owners what makes them unique, their responses are generally in the area of “We do great work,” or “We have a top-notch staff,” or “Our clients get senior-level involvement throughout the project” and so on and so on. And while those are all really good things, there’s nothing differentiating about them… because everyone says them.

Want to know if you’re truly unique, even just a little? It’s not difficult to find out… just ask your clients these two questions:

  • “Why did you hire us the very first time, when you had several other suppliers you were considering?”
  • “What, if anything, makes us unique in the marketplace?”

And while you might not like what you hear in response, at least you’ll know and may decide to do something about it.

On Selling

The second topic was about selling… getting their Project Managers to engage in selling conversations. And not prospecting for new business, but simply trying to maintain and expand the business with their existing clients. The clients they worked with every day. The clients they (presumably) had great relationships with.

And while we didn’t solve this crisis completely, the group did have some ideas about this issue:

  • For these PMs, words like ‘sales’ or ‘selling’ conjured up bad connotations. They didn’t want to “offend” their clients by trying to ‘sell’ to them. It was a mindset issue… the PMs didn’t understand that selling (done the right way) was not about trying to force someone to buy something, but instead, is all about helping their clients solve problems.
  • When it came to expanding their relationships within their clients (e.g., to other house brands), they didn’t have any other contacts besides the couple of folks they were already working with. They didn’t think to ask those simple questions about the other brands or getting introductions to other people. They didn’t recognize up-selling and cross-selling opportunities. The PMs focus was all about the project… period.
  • Selling was not part of the PM’s job description. And they weren’t compensated for it nor were they held accountable to it. Yet, their bosses wanted them to do it. That’s a big disconnect! When something is a part of the job description (even a minor part) – and you recruit for that position knowing that – you’ll end up hiring people with the skillset you need and maybe even the desire to do it. But that was not the case with these three firms.

So, what happened to these sales opportunities that the PMs balked on? In the case of my bar-buddies, the each took on the responsibility personally for selling to their existing clients. Which is fine in terms of revenue generation, but it also reinforces to the PMs that they don’t have to do any selling, that it’s going to be taken care of by someone else. And until that changes, these PMs will never sell. Why would they?


So, what did I learn last week? One, that gathering together with others – in whatever setting – is a great way to discuss important business challenges, hear others’ perspectives, brainstorm on ideas and maybe make some progress on solving those issues.

Two, you are not alone. As a business owner, you might feel like you are sometimes, but that fact is, most people in your position deal with the same kinds of problems you have. You are not alone. You are not the first to deal with an issue. And even your “frenemies” can be a valuable resource.

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