7 THINGS TO ASK WHEN YOU LOSE A PITCH: The Post-Decision Interview

I hate to lose.

But if you are in sales – and we are all in sales – losing is inevitable.

Someone once said that if you get into a boxing ring, it’s not a question if you’re going to get hit. It’s what you do after you get hit that makes the difference.

The same is true with losing a pitch.

The most important thing you can do when you lose is follow up with the prospect and learn why. I wrote a blog recently about selling the why and why it ain’t so. You might find it interesting related to this topic,

But, learning why isn’t easy. If you’ve been in the business awhile like us (30 years), we’ve learned prospects (even clients) aren’t always upfront with the real reasons about deciding against you.

Perhaps they’re embarrassed. Maybe they themselves don’t really know why. Was the fix in? Was there a vote?

You can only understand why you lost with the post-decision interview.

The Post-Decision Interview

One time we pitched a research project and lost. I called the prospect. She said  and was told we had the most comprehensive proposal, we were competitively priced, but we still lost to another company. I asked why, and the prospect said, “We wanted something more superficial.” I hung up the phone, saying thank you, and was relieved because we don’t do superficial. So in losing, you could actually win.

Here are 7 things we’ve learned over the years to ask if you don’t get the account.

  1. Identify who you pitched against. This is very important because you want to know the nature of the competitors you were up against. Who your prospect considers reveals something about their thinking. Are they in the same industry you are? Do they have similar clients? Visit their websites. Ask yourself: is there anything on the website that attracted your prospect? Examining the websites carefully in relationship to your own can help you understand their decision.
  2. Find out all the details of work awarded. Sometimes a project or account RFP changes midstream. Ask in the post-decision interview what happened. Was the entire RFP awarded? Did it split between multiple companies? Sometimes the RFP evaporates because the presentations show the company they haven’t thought the project or details through. For example, instead of awarding the work to one or more companies, they decide to kill the project or handle it internally. That’s something you should know.
  3. Listen carefully when you are being told details about the decision. Recently a long-time client said to me, “You are one of the very few people who really listen when people talk.” I was a little surprised, but not too much because listening – really listening – has always been one of my strengths. Despite what people say, people hear only what they want to hear. During the post-decision interview, don’t depend just on your listening skills: write down what you hear. The art of listening (hearing what is really being said and not necessarily what you want to hear) comes from practicing.  This is especially true when trying to figure out a loss.For example, one time I learned during the post-interview that all presenters were treated the same. However, upon probing, I discovered that wasn’t true. Part of the routine for this particular pitch was sending the presenters out of the room and then calling them back. This was true when the others were called back, “we asked them questions and they had some good answers.” When I was called back, they had no questions. Was our presentation too thorough? Not thorough enough? These differences can help you understand the reason for a decision not to use your services.
  4. Learn as much as you can about why the winner was picked. Ask questions, like, “What was it about their presentation that convinced you they were the best choice?” Such questions almost always produce responses that will help you figure out the truth behind a decision. In one case, we were told the winner knew more about the target market than any of the other companies who presented, which was in our opinion a clear mis-perception. Did we cause that? Should we have emphasized our knowledge more? Reviewing your presentation in light of such comments will help you clarify such perceptions. That helps you correct them before they become mis-perceptions.
  5. Ask about the process they followed in making their decision. Was there a single decision maker? Was it vote by committee? Did only the people who heard the presentation influence the decision? Or, were there other, hidden influences who played a role? Increasingly in this marketing climate, decisions are made by committee and such decisions often are totally out of anyone’s control. For example, someone has a friend or someone else is new to the job and wants to make their mark. You’ll never know the variables unless you understand the players (or player) who made the decision. In fact, even when you are told it was a group decision, it was probably one person in the group that influenced the outcome.
  6. Ask what you could have done differently. Many times this is a difficult one to answer because it is uncomfortable, especially if the reason isn’t solid. Early in my career I pitched a major brand of paint as a private label for what is now one of the largest big-box stores in the country. We had six campaigns of what I considered some of our best creative work, including featuring the company’s animated spokesperson they called “Homer.” We didn’t get the business and my boss never asked why. I did some back-end investigations and found out that the fix was in: the agency incumbent who received the work was connected via marriage to the prospect we were pitching. That eased my pain.Without probing in the post-decision interview, you’d never find this out.In another case, one of the comments we received was that our recommendations looked a lot like work we had done for another client. Normally, bringing in your experience that relates to the target – especially if it has been successful – is a plus. Prospects like to see success stories from their industry so they can expect success with what you’re pitching. When we heard this comment, we quickly realized there’s something else going on. Probing further helped us realize that the prospect just wanted to change things up.By the way, we don’t consider that a waste of time when we find this out. We not only learn more, we can use what we learn on the next pitch.
  7. Thank the prospect for the explanation. Finally, thank the person you’re post-decision interviewing for sharing their thoughts. Part of business relationships is being professional – always. Besides, one of the things we believe is that losing and winning are the same. There are only two answers: “yes” or “no.” One hurts more, but they are just data points. Besides, like Theodore Roosevelt said, “The only man who never makes a mistake is the man who never does anything.”

Balancing feelings with cold hard facts is important in business, and the cold hard facts about losing a pitch are that there are always reasons. Only a post-pitch interview will get you a chance to find out the main one. Only post interviews will help shape your future pitches so you end up winning more than you lose. Like us.

So, thank your prospect when you lose. Hold up your head, sharpen your creative juices and go on to the next one.

Good luck, and let us hear from you on your pitches.



For more insights follow interlinejim@twitter

3 thoughts on “7 THINGS TO ASK WHEN YOU LOSE A PITCH: The Post-Decision Interview

  1. Jim, you are right on the money. I have been using this technique for more than 30 years and it has always yielded good results. Many times even though you lose the current project, the intel you gain helps you to win the next one. More importantly, it allows you to star a dialog with the customer and so long as you continue to leverage that contact, sooner or later you will get business from them. I have chased customers for 2-3 years before I won a project, but once I did usually they became best customers that I was able to work with for years and years. Sales is not a spring, it is a long distance run. This is what creates relationships and relationships is the foundation of any sale. Just my two-cents worth.

    1. Bill, thanks for the comment and for reading the blog post. Like you, I’ve worked on deals for years, and those clients turn out to be a great client!

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