Client Engagement – When dealing with clients, don’t take “Yes” for an answer

I wrote a post recently called Architects – Don’t take “Yes” for an answer which was based on observation of many client engagements – and their outcomes. That is winning and losing in competitive bids.
But yesterday I spend a day with a mixed team of constructors, Fm, finance and bid specialists and I started to realise how it applied to everyone.

In my world, which is mostly spent helping clients win new business (or sales if you like simple language) I have come to the conclusion the most dangerous word is “Yes.”

Some context. We work on big projects.

We have worked on many PFI (Private Finance Initiative) schemes. These take 6 months to 2 years to negotiate and are the ultimate example of competitive dialogue. For those who have never experienced it, it involves developing designs and services through many, many meetings to a very high level of complexity while knowing these may never happen if you lose…..

Excluding the obvious, like value for money, the bid is usually won and lost in those meetings. But, at the end of the process it is usual that neither side knows if they have won or lost with any degree of certainty. For the clients team, not revealing what you are really thinking is a vital skill.

And I don’t think this situation only applies to competitive dialogue. It seems a core characteristic of humans that we like to retain stuff. We like secrets. We don’t want people to know everything there is to know. We like some cards to play close to our chests.

So if you find yourself in a meeting and the client says “No”. you should be pleased. No is easy.

One of our catchphrases is, “Leave your ego outside”. So when the client says they hate something you think is great and spent weeks working on, you say, “That’s great. Thanks for that. You’ve been very clear.”

So “No” while painful, at least moves you forward.

What is dangerous is “Yes”.

“Do you like this idea?”

Brilliant, fantastic, they love it! Let’s rush back to the office and put in another 1000 hours of work. This is going to be great!

Now we as humans have a bunch of ingrained biases, that can lead us astray.

We are optimistic. We think more of ourselves than others. And we really want to be admired. So when people say nice things we tend to believe them. Who wouldn’t? And we really hate being told off or scolded. So we try really hard to avoid hearing about stuff we haven’t done well.

But imagine a follow-up question.

“Do you like this idea?”
“Is there any part where you feel we can do better?”
“Yes. I think it goes some of the way but doesn’t meet several of our key needs.”
“So you hate it?”
“No. I just think it could be better.”

Now I’m sure you are all thinking you do that already. You are geniuses in asking open questions and appreciative enquiry, and all that.

So answer this question:

How is it possible to get to the end of a bidding process and not know that the client liked the other set of proposals much more? Because that happens. Quite a lot.

As I said at the beginning, in engagement, dealing with “Yes” is the hardest thing you do. Because it’s exactly what you want to hear. But our advice is ask, “Yes, but……”

Please leave a comment if you think I wrong, or if you think I’m right.