How to Land A Big Client . . . NOT.

Posted October 6, 2010

Dear Howard,

I’ve been trying to get my foot in the door with a big corporate client who does a ton of major events, including many big product launches, which are right up our alley.  I’ve been calling on them for almost two years, and have even been in to pitch them in person.  Finally they gave me an event to work on, only its so low end I don’t know if I should take it.  It’s a retirement cocktail party for 50 people for a low-level executive, with a budget that is paltry.  On the one hand the client says it’s a way to get into the organization.  On the other hand, I’m concerned that if accept this job I’ll be pigeon-holed into more small gigs.  What should I do?

Sincerely,

Confused About My Client

Dear Confused, (OK, the person who emailed this to me signed it with their real name, not “confused”.  But it sounds better this way doesn’t it?)

Though you can find people who’ll argue the opposite, my advice is to turn it down.  In my 20+ years of running an event company rarely – scratch that, never – have I seen this strategy work.  Why?  Let’s say you’re the client’s boss and you’re given two companies to choose for a major product launch: a company that focuses mainly on product launches and other similar events, and a company that did a kick-ass job on the retirement party of some VP.  If you’re job is on the line, would you hire you?  No way.  The safe bet is the other firm.

Here’s another analogy.  Let’s say you do get the job and you need to hire a caterer.  Would you pick a vendor who’s done a ton of product launches, or someone who catered your office holiday party, but gosh-darn-it he wants to work his way in.  Or let’s say you’re being sued for $5 million by a client who claims his VIP guests got food poisoning at your event.  Do you bring in a ringer who defends these cases routinely, or hire an aggressive attorney who really wants your business and successfully argued a parking ticket for you?  You get the point.

But wait!  Confused says she too is a ringer in product launches!  Surely the client’s boss will see that, and appreciate how Confused did that VP’s retirement party as a good faith gesture, right?  Sorry, not right.  Unfortunately, simply taking on that much smaller event lowers your stature in the client’s eyes.  It’s not fair, but it’s reality.

Now, once you’re in and have done the big product launches, if they then ask you to do the retirement event, you can take it on and it won’t hurt you.  But as your calling card for moving up, it’s a tough sell.  You get branded as the small job vendor, and you’re far more likely to get requests for more of the same.  Then what?

I remember years ago I took on a high profile fundraiser for a new client’s non-profit for next to no money.  The client was a well-connected Park Avenue socialite, and she swore she would introduce me to her friends.  And she did.  You know what they said?  “I hear you gave Penny a great deal.  I want the same thing.”

It can be done, and I’m sure I’ll get my share of readers who will argue the point with me.  But by and large, the odds are not in your favor.  If it really kills you to walk away from this opportunity, here’s what I would suggest.

1.    Bump up your fees by at least 30%.

2.    Then, in the proposal or contract, type in a line showing a discount for that exact amount.  Write something like, “Special discount in exchange for allowing our firm to bid on your next product launch.”  Then you’re at least spelling out your quid pro quo: I’m doing this event SOLELY to get a chance to bid on this other bigger event.  Hey, it’s the truth isn’t it? They’re obliged now to allow you to bid on their next launch event.  Mind you, they’re under no obligation to hire you; just to give you a chance to bid on the kind of work you want.

3.    And if for some reason they push back, that’s your cue to run for the hills.

In America we’re all enamored with the narrative of the kid from the mailroom working his way up the ladder to be CEO.  That may have worked 50 years ago, but it’s a non-starter today.  Mailroom Johnny has no chance against a college grad with an MBA in today’s business world.

I know, it feels so un-American.  It’s like stomping on the Little Engine That Could.  But it’s not personal, it’s just business.  Tell your client/prospect that, “as much as we’d love to work with you, we’d rather wait for the right project.  Perhaps (insert name of your biggest competitor-let them be the sucker) might be interested in this smaller event?”

2 COMMENTS

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  1. Howard
    Lorraine Mariella CSEP, CMP
    October 7, 2010 at 7:49 am Permalink

    Hi Howard,
    Once again you have provided an excellent article with an excellent point. When I first started my business over 11 years ago, one of the hardest things for me to learn is that sometimes it is in the best interest of the company to turn down business.

    Last year we had an existing client who wanted us to manage a meeting that was going to be attended by all of the employees from their location along with their top brass from the parent company that recently aquired them. The event had a very limited budget. We presented our proposal and piece by piece the client had asked to remove various components of the meeting. The trimmed down the A/V. They cut out the lttle things that would give the meeting and extra special touch. They cut vital components as well. When they were done, there was nothing but a shell of a meeting. I knew that this was not a meeting I wanted to be involved with, nor did I want my name or my company’s name on the final product. This meeting was destine to fail. It was hard, especially because they are an existing client, but I had to pass on this piece of business. They were disapointed, but they understood and had respected me for my decision.
    So the meeting went on without me or my company. I remember sitting in my office that day wondering how it was going and pondering if I made the right decision. The very next morning the client called me and I knew immediately that my decision was the right one.
    My contact said overall the meeting ran smoothly but it was obvious to all the attended that corners where cut. At the end of the meeting, the CEO approached my contact along with her boss. He thanked them for the meeting. He said they did a nice job and he knows that they had a limited budget but this is not how we do things at “company XYZ” and next time they would get more funds and that they need to hire a professional. And ever since that point that “Professional” has been me!

  2. Howard
    shantala
    October 7, 2010 at 3:01 pm Permalink

    well said. I’m using the same advice as I climb through the bottom rungs of the entertainment industry. Picking and choosing is so difficult in the world of acting.

    Thanks for a clear, concise breakdown!