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What I Learned From Losing My First Client

Do you know what Thomas Edison thought about failure?

Or more importantly, do you know what Edison’s peers said about his thoughts on failure?

They were annoyed with him.

Wanted to throw him out on the street every time he failed.

But not because he was a failure. But because of Edison’s reaction to his failures.

He was elated everytime he failed. Why? Because Edison knew he was one step closer to success.

Concluding, “Welp. Now we know that didn’t work. Let’s move on.”

I lost my first client. And I’m taking an Edison approach to this “failure.” Let me share with you what I learned from it and how you can ensure success by heeding the warning signs.

If You Can’t Turn Yourself Into Your Customer, You Probably Shouldn’t Be in Business at All

I took on a new client in the technology sector. An established company. We instantly connected. I thought we were a good fit.

As I began working inside the company, things were a little chaotic. No big deal. That’s a typical rhythm when projects start. I started our Assessment Checklist all new clients must complete. One of the necessary to-do’s is the creation of the ideal customer profile – which is used as input to build a targeted list of prospective companies who want, need, or are interested in what you have to offer.

They stalled.

Deer in the headlights stuff. We couldn’t get agreement on where to put our stake in the sand. Everybody had different opinions. From the CEO on down the line. And nobody was really willing to pull the trigger on who this mysterious ideal client was.

If you think you know your ideal customer profile, but really don’t, you have a big problem. A slippery slope leading to…

  • Missing your mark on targeting your best prospects
  • Trouble obtaining or sourcing new lists of prospects
  • Fumbling conversations
  • Creating wrong appeals in your e-mails
  • Suffering through dismal e-mail response and open rates
  • Low number of qualified opportunities
  • Little or no sales

Even though I was brought in specifically to act as the catalyst for change, the company refused to be flexible and remained stuck. The whole experience was one big fat hurry up and wait.

Stressing to me one of the most important mantras in business – if you can’t turn yourself into your customer, you probably shouldn’t be in business at all.

Heed The Warning Signs

Now that I live in the Midwest, I understand the importance of warning signs more than ever. When the tornado siren rings here in Des Moines, Iowa, we [been-through-earthquakes] Californians take cover.

Could you imagine if I was outside gardening, the tornado siren rings, and I decide it’s a good time to spread some fertilizer instead of grabbing my family and heading into the basement?

That’s exactly what happened to my client when I showed him the warning signs.

In the Assessment phase, I create activity statistics for every step of the sales pipeline. When I reported the alarming numbers I calculated, my project sponsor put blinders on. Continuing down the path of what he thought was fertilizing his business. Not realizing a devastating tornado was barreling towards his bottom line.

Three Vital Characteristics of Success

Below are 3 concepts to take in, think about, apply, and test:

1. Know thy customer

Your greatest asset is a list of qualified prospects who want, need or are interested in what you are selling.

Put yourself in your ideal customer’s shoes. Know everything you can about him, what his needs are, and why he buys from you.

For our purposes, add to your checklist those prospects who have the highest likelihood of buying in the fastest possible time.

2. Create a measurable and actionable pipeline dashboard.

Create a simple worksheet and track the following metrics:

  • Cold Contacts
    • Number of emails sent
    • Number of responses
    • Number of find-the-right-person calls
  • Working Accounts
    • Number of meaningful, are-we-a-fit or qualification conversations
    • Number of sales qualified leads generated
  • Escalated Accounts
    • Number of sales qualified leads accepted as an opportunity
    • Number of opportunities closed
  • Pipeline Lag/Leaks
    • Length of time from your original e-mail or find-the-right-person call to a closed deal

Putting this dashboard in place, you’re able to see the warning signs so you can be fluid and shift course accordingly. It also tells you when to turn-up the activity volume.

3. Be willing and agile. Be nimble and quick.

This is a must, as change can be difficult. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “the only thing constant in life, is change”.

That my friend, dear reader, is how our business development life rolls. Change and action.

Be flexible in the following areas:

  • Take info and ideas from your team and outside sources.
  • Test all ideas, strategies, and tactics.
  • Act immediately to find what works and what doesn’t.
  • Test again.
  • Get on with it – never give up.

When you’re flexible in these 3 areas, you “fail forward” and keep moving one step closer to success.

Just like Edison.
Have a comment or question? Leave one below!

In Category: Contact, Lead Generation, Sales Steps

Marylou Tyler

Process expert, speaker, co-author of top-10 business e-book - Predictable Revenue - Turn Your Business Into a Sales Machine. Create predictability in your sales pipeline by systematizing the steps from initial conversation through qualified opportunity

Show 2 Comments
  • Mark Martin April 16, 2014, 11:01 pm Link Reply

    Having been part of this project as a key stakeholder, I completely validate Marylou’s conclusions and give her kudos for trying her best to help this client. Given the client’s lack of knowing who they truly did business with and why, this project was doomed from the start.

    First, any company, especially one with $80M in annual revenue that is undifferentiated and adrift in an ocean of like-sized competitors, should know their ideal customer profile. Instead, management spent their time comparing themselves to behemoths in the space and considered them their main competition. I’m fairly certain that the two large firms with annual combined sales of $8.2B didn’t consider Marylou’s client in the same universe. That was the first warning signal.

    Secondly, this firm had failed so profoundly from a marketing perspective, that a revolving carousel of marketing VPs and directors had cycled through at an alarming rate over the last three years. Each trying to make sense of the dichotomy between the C-level perspective and reality. In fact, during the course of three months when the project took flight, yet another marketing director was fired and a new one hired to replace her.

    Third, the C-level at this firm believes that once they’ve read a book on any subject, they are now subject matter experts and can deftly reject any sane and well-reasoned dissent. So, even though they hired competent and seasoned people to manage and consult, the enormous burden of constantly telling the emperor he had no clothes quickly wore out their welcome.

    I look at the failure of this project as a learning experience. I know that the next time a company comes courting for my business development and strategic selling experience, I will be asking deeper questions about who they are and what their ideal customer looks like.

    • Marylou Tyler April 22, 2014, 12:15 pm Link Reply


      Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this post. This experience was a tough one for me, but as you say, we both learned a great deal from it. We come away from this with a keen understanding and respect for the importance of taking time and developing a thorough understanding of who you are, who you serve, and why you matter.


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