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All of us on the consulting and supplier side have experienced this. We think we can bring great value to a company and yet we can’t get an e-mail returned. Why? What are we doing wrong?

To understand the dynamics, I asked Joan Lewis, until recently the SVP of Global Consumer and Marketing Knowledge at Procter and Gamble, and now establishing her own consulting practice, to share her thoughts.

DISCLAIMER: Joan is not speaking for P&G or describing any specific P&G policies or practices. Rather, she is speaking from a lot of experience about what breaks through for her, personally.

What follows is a quite contrarian view to how many suppliers sell. It’s time for a reboot!

Joel: How did most suppliers approach you? How would you decide who will make it onto your calendar?

Joan: Most told me they want to understand my business issues and how smart they are as consultants to address my unmet needs. That is so wrong! That approach would never work with me. Insights leaders do want new capabilities, and it’s very hard to sift through the many similar claims. There is not enough time to assess everyone, so we need to hear something of substance quickly.

Joel: Well then, what approach is better?

Joan: I want the supplier to lead with their capabilities and ideas that are new to the industry. What do you have to offer that is different and incremental? Don’t tell me how smart you are. If all you have is a better way of doing the same thing, well any client could go to their existing suppliers for that. That is why they invest in those relationships for exactly that purpose. However, if your capabilities stretch my thinking about what is possible or you address a problem we might have been working on ourselves but not yet cracked the code, I am potentially interested.

Joel: Could all suppliers with interesting capabilities get on your calendar?

Joan: No, because they might ask for the wrong thing. Don’t ask me for an hour or two to present. Ask me for 15 minutes and I am much more likely to respond. That also means you need to learn how to tell your story in 15 minutes and many don’t know how to do that either. If all goes well, you would get introduced to the organization.

Joel: How do you separate the true innovators from those who are really pretenders without substance?

Joan: First show me you mean it, and that you have something of substance. Create a demo that proves this works and adds something new. Have a pilot program ready to offer that acts as a proof-of-concept. Show me that you work with others I respect and interact with. Drop names. Oh, and by the way, if I am interested, I WILL check!

Joel: Are there other style issues that you respond to and alternatively, that turn you off?

Joan: Definitely. As I said, do NOT come in with an approach that we are really smart consultants. That is table stakes and non-differentiating. Come in with new capabilities…talk about yourself. That will earn you the right to hear my pressing issues. It is also important that you are completely open. Candor is critical.

Joel: Great advice, thank you so much! Do you have any parting comments?

Joan: I just want to add that I and other insights leaders DO value smart consulting. The challenge is that we have to get to know you to see that, and everyone claims it, so the STATEMENT is not differentiating. The comments here are, I hope, helpful thoughts about how to break through to have a chance to prove that you DO have differentiated, great consultants AS WELL AS a new solution to a real problem.

Joan Lewis can be reached via LinkedIn. Her profile page link is here.


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5 Responses to “Clients have unmet needs, yet you can’t get a meeting. Why?”

  1. Joel Rubinson

    This interview with Joan really affected my thinking about how to approach prospective clients and to understand what works when I am successful at winning an assignment. The points about stretching thinking about possibilities…I’ve had clients play that back to me (you’re our futurist, our thinktank) I guess I never understood that fully until now. Also, the need to tell your story in 15 minutes…I know I can talk in paragraphs as Erwin Ephron used to tell me! Anyway, I hope this interview has as much impact on you as it had on me, and I thank Joan for sharing her insight

  2. Interesting.

    What she seems to be saying is that she is interested in techniques more than solutions. As a consultant, the problems tackled are often very specific to the client and require problem solving. That’s why we ask about business issues up front.

    I understand that in a corporation as large as P&G the senior team isn’t in the weeds and perhaps that is the difference. She wants to see industry related solutions whereas her team wants to solve problems.

    That is categorically different from being on the front line as many managers are (or talking with MR managers who work from briefs submitted by stakeholders).

    I agree with the 15 minute thing and if your goal is technique driven it makes sense but if your goal is to solve a problem, then a consultant needs to demonstrate that he or she can assimilate an issue and relay possible plans of “attack” or at least talk about what a solution could deliver. Maybe the real answer is a hybrid where you are able to call on your proprietary solutions or new industry solutions that can add value or discuss a specific issue with an eye toward customization. The real crux of most issues however often involve internal changes. I am surprise she focused so much on people saying their smart – that hasn’t been my experience but rather people saying they are good at identifying and solving problems. It sounded almost defensive in part and very much like someone who is visual in nature and unable to process content that is verbal. There has to be respect on the part of both parties and if the only respect the consulting team gets is within a product, I don’t see that working well as a relationship where there are mutual benefits.

  3. Great insights on the customer as one would expect from someone with such rich experience. I don’t feel like she’s precluding approaching her with solutions, I think she’s saying make sure you come forward with unique ideas or capabilities that are different from what she can currently get from her suppliers, and boil it down to 15 minutes. Of course any capability or technique needs to be pitched in the context of the benefit(s) it provides, but she doesn’t want to hear the same old solutions, that the people make the difference, that we’re more consultative, and wonder “where’s the beef” that makes you truly unique and effective.

  4. Thanks for sharing the interview Joel. I would be very interested to ask Joan if she still stands by the claim she made at the ARF conference in 2011 that became viral in research circles:
    “Survey research will decline dramatically in
    importance by 2020, with social media listening
    replacing much of it and adding new dimensions”

  5. It’s a solid interview. But it doesn’t cover the whole story.

    Stretching capabilities and showing new ways of doing things all make a ton of sense when you are trying to penetrate a new account.

    On the other hand when you’re trying to grow a relationship, build more connections within the same organization, etc. – that’s when depth, smarts, and industry knowledge all come into play. So it really depends if we are talking about the first meeting with a new account or if we’re talking about your 3rd meeting with your 3rd person in an existing account.

    Also it’s not as clear cut as she lays out when it comes to expertise and smarts. We’ve won a ton of business over the years by being focused on a single part of a single industry. – B2B tech.

    The problem for most firms comes in when you try to be all things to all industries.

    Then there is no way you can be truly deep and smart – across all those industries.