Why winning is easier than finishing second

Nov 21, 2009

Over the last 18 months at work, I’ve taken on certain duties that, as a software developer, were new to me. Whilst it’s hard to work as a software developer without having at least some exposure to client meetings, specifications and project scoping, my more recent experience has included writing proposals, giving presentations and generally taking a more active role in sales. Some of the things that I have learned have surprised me.

Looking back over a range of projects, some that we won and others that we lost, my most striking conclusion is that the amount of effort expended on the ones we lost, on average, substantially exceeded the effort expended on the projects that we won. Finishing second somehow takes a lot more work than finishing first.

I have some ideas about why this might be. For any given project, you have starting odds of winning; these might be based on your portfolio, existing relationships, ability to charge low rates or your sales acumen. Before a single word is written in a proposal, there’s already some competitors better placed than others. And in many cases, the company that’s best placed at the beginning goes on to win. Sometimes the favourite is so far ahead that there’s no point in trying to beat them.

But it can be quite difficult to know that this is the case. It’s very tempting to think that if you create the best proposal possible, give a great presentation to the client and generally bend over backwards to satisfy their every whim, you’ll win the contract. In truth, if you’re having to make that kind of effort it’s probably a sign that you’re not going to win. If you feel that the only way to be in contention for a contract is to spend large amounts of (unpaid) time trying to persuade the client to award you that contract, you’re almost certainly better off doing something else.

Now, this might sound a bit defeatist and depressing. But it really isn’t. The solution isn’t simply to give up on any hope of making sales. The solution is to sell via your reputation, such that the potential clients you deal with already know who you are, what your strengths are, and have pre-screened you for inclusion in pitching processes. Instead of being one of the “also ran” companies there to make up the numbers when someone else is the favourite, the goal should be to be the favourite. Some of our most interesting and most rewarding work has come from sales where there wasn’t even any other agency in the picture, where the client knew what they wanted and knew that they wanted us to deliver it.

This is where, at least in a web development context, open source software really helps. Open source projects generally have good communities around them, making it easy to talk about your projects and promote yourself through your work. Publishing modules or case studies, or giving talks to user groups, are great ways of establishing credibility. Being known for being great at something means that clients come to you when they know that that’s what they want.