Lifelong listening

Nameplate I'm a big believer in lifelong learning and the importance of listening before crafting a communications strategy, much less a campaign.

But, I recently learned a very painful lesson by violating my own code of listen first, last and always.

The setting was a new business presentation to a professional services firm. Because I'd done so much work in the field over the years, I just assumed I knew what the prospect's challenges would be. Even worse, I was so blinded by the brilliance of what we'd built at Peppercomm over the past 18 months or so that I didn't listen when the prospects began to explain why they were firing a global, holding company and looking for a smarter, nimbler and more creative partner.

They proceeded to tell me they wanted PR 101, the kind of stuff I churned out when I worked for Geltzer & Company and Hill & Knowlton in the 1980s. Press kits, editorial calendar, speaking opportunities, case studies, media training, etc. Their wish list could have been penned by a young Harold Burson, Al Golin or Howard Rubenstein.

While nodding my head to indicate my compassion with their current plight and understanding of their sincere desire for publicity by the pound, I was positively salivating to them all about:

– Transmedia communications.
– Content curation.
– iPhone apps and Facebook pages we've created.
– Our take on best practices for engaging with audiences in the blogosphere.
– New websites we've designed and an employee video our creative director had recently completed by traveling to 21 client plants around the world!

When I was done, the non-plussed prospect blinked, and asked me the following question: “Steve, do you even call yourselves a PR firm anymore?”

That got my attention. I tried to back-peddle faster than Joe Willie Namath in his prime. I assured him that basic PR, as well as the blocking-and-tackling he said he needed, still accounted for the bulk of our billings. I tried to quickly insert some examples in my next, few remarks, but time had run out, and the prospect's appointment with the next firm was only minutes away.

Recognizing how badly I'd blundered, I sent an immediate follow-up note, emphasizing our laser-focus on bread-and-butter media relations. But, the die had been cast. And, sure enough, a 'Dear Agency' note arrived a few days later, thanking us for our time, wishing us well without new, integrated approach, but emphasizing that the prospect was headed in a completely different direction.

In hindsight, I realized I've been proselytizing about listening for so long that I'd stopped listening when it mattered most.

Trust me, though. I'll make sure listening first, last and always becomes more than just a mantra with me (and my firm). The failed new business pitch was a painful, but important, speed bump on the road known as lifelong learning.

The next time a prospect says he wants to buy a hamburger, I'm not going to suggest a petite filet mignon instead. I may not even ask if he wants cheese. I'll let him know we've got just the right burger for him. Period.

6 thoughts on “Lifelong listening

  1. I was in the room with you, Rep, and i think you did listen. But we didn’t act on what we heard in the moment. We should have stopped, turned off the presentation and said, “We need to scrap what we prepared based on what you just told us. Let’s start over,” even if it meant we were a bit embarrassed that what we put together wasn’t on target. Instead, we tried to reinforce some of our media relations successes as part of the broader campaigns. Too subtle.
    Given the other concerns cited, I don’t know that this was even the deciding factor. But shame on us if we don’t learn from the experience.

  2. Sometimes it’s better to give a prospect what they want, rather than what they truly need.

  3. The phrase is “the die had been cast,” not the “dye had been cast.” C’mon, Steve — you know better than to stumble when turning a phrase.