Before setting up The PR Cavalry our founder Nigel was an agency MD and a PR freelancer and has pitched for work hundreds of times. He’s crashed and burned plenty of times but learnt a fair bit along the way.
One thing he has learned is that professional buyers are not there to make your life hell, but they very easily can do if you approach them without understanding what they are there to do and what is important to them beyond getting the lowest price.
Here are some thoughts about how freelance PR consultants can win business from larger corporate clients.
It assumes that the client, if not actually a procurement professional, is a fairly expert evaluator/buyer of professional services.
Should you even bother?
Let’s be honest, unless you are well known to the organisation, a niche, solo bidder starts a long way behind the field. You need to be equally honest with yourself about your chances.
Assuming you are known to the buyer or the decision maker and you put yourself in the running, it is still not a level playing field and it’s easy to be knocked out of the race at the very start, but this may be because you try to win it on your terms, not theirs.
There are two steps to success: firstly, be considered – this means that your bid has to be compliant and that means a systematic approach to the process.
(Massive generalisation alert here….) PR consultants have both an attention to detail on things like grammar, but also they like big picture, arms waving stuff which needs to be curbed, because buyers are not really concerned by the creativity of your ideas.
Secondly to win you have to stand out, but that’s academic if you don’t get to show off your big ideas.
Let’s look at the methodical part in more detail:
At the heart of the brief will be certain essential deliverables or business problems. Approach each one in a consistent way, exam style –
1. What is The Issue?
2. What is the Solution?
3. What Benefit Will Follow?
4. What Evidence Supports That? (Show how you have done this for other clients)
The important thing is to make it easy for the buyer to understand what you are offering and how you are mitigating risk. If you require them to do extra work to follow what you are saying (in effect ‘trust me on this, we can fill in the gaps later’) then it’s extra work for the buyer which is to your disadvantage.
How Can a Freelancer Compete Against Bigger Providers?
The first thing to consider here is ‘have you actually got a chance of winning this, even though you know you could nail it’.
You may know that you are more than qualified to handle this brief, but that isn’t something that you can rely on.
Much of the answer lies in the balance of the weight the buyer gives to the bid document and the presentation meeting.
It’s really important that you discover this at the outset, but why?
If most of the decision is based on the proposal document then you are at a disadvantage because agencies have greater resources to produce a comprehensive bid and they are deeply time consuming.
If on the other hand, half the decision or more is based on the face to face presentation, then you are at an advantage because it indicates the decision is more to do with accessing the provider’s deep technical expertise than process or the status of the provider.
That leads to the next point – don’t wet your pants
Don’t Wet Your Pants
When you get in the room you are almost inevitably going to be outnumbered but the biggest threat you face is not people talking at you.
It’s silence – and the temptation to fill the void with Ill-considered noise.
A professional buyer will hear you jabbering away and see someone ill-prepared to negotiate and able to be thrown off your game plan.
It’s an invitation to push you on price at the first meeting. Trust me, they won’t hesitate to do so.
When things go silent, it’s for a reason and your preparedness will see you through.
So What Do Buyers Actually Want?
All professional buyers want to reduce costs and if your preparation is all about a defence against that, you are failing to address the other big thing they want, which is to mitigate risk.
That’s a much more fruitful area for you, if you are prepared.
You need to identify what risks matter to them in making this decision and design your pitch around that.
If this meeting is a separate one to the first pitch which will have been big picture stuff – painting a vision of the future, then that first presentation has now done its job and is mostly irrelevant so don’t lead on it.
Front and centre of this meeting should be your plan for delivery, your plan for reporting and your proposed KPIs - all described in the language of how these meet the buyer’s need to mitigate risk.
Switching PR advisor has significant risks and you have to show how you minimise them. If the professional buyer hires you and you are brilliant, they have simply done their job. If they hire you and you fail, they are in the firing line personally.
As a solo practitioner, the risks of you not being around at times or stretched thin are very obvious so you need to show that you have a detailed plan for that, ideally showing how you have done this for other clients.
Clear evidence of track record, demonstrations of methodology, proposed contingency plans, having insurances in place, an understanding of their T&Cs should all be up front in your document and practiced before the meeting.
Also think about an element of risk & reward in your pricing as well (which a big agency might not be able to offer) which shows that you are committed to the success of the assignment. (See later on different pricing models)
A practical way to demonstrate that you are thinking like them and anticipating their concerns would be a simplified risk register which covers foreseeable pinch points or resource stretches and disputes.
How and When to Approach a Buyer in the Pitch Process
This sounds counter-intuitive but don’t try and sell to a buyer.
Buyers meet loads of potential suppliers every week and thinking that you are the one that is going to charm them is a really high risk strategy and a very poor use of your limited time with them in the bidding process.
Instead use the time to learn and understand what they are looking for. Fill in the gaps in your understanding and ask them to clarify how they will evaluate the bids. Pay close attention to the words they use and echo these in your response.
Most people have a dread of professional buyers but actively seeking a meeting with them is healthy for both parties and there is nothing worse than losing a bid by a small margin because you didn’t ask something simple that allowed you to be cornered.
Be Ready to Discuss Price
Understand this – a discount on your day rate comes straight off your profit. Write it in big letters in your pad. Unless something else changes in what goes into the deal, reducing your day rate is the LAST thing you agree to.
Pricing is an article in its own right, but briefly there are only three basic way to price professional services: Time & materials, fixed price and shared risk
T&M is what the buyer won’t want to agree to because it’s open ended and the risk is on their side. On the other hand it’s an easy way for buyers to compare bids and you are probably going to be at an advantage versus an agency competitor. If you get an offer of T&M, agree and move the conversation on fast…
Fixed price could be very advantageous to you if you are confident that you know what is required to deliver the work and that you can describe the spec of the work in enough detail to protect you if things change. Changes to project scope are the big problem in the post, so tread carefully.
Shared risk is highly dependent on the client delivering their side of the bargain and in PR that’s a big ask with so many variables. I’d be very wary of going with this as your main pricing strategy, but it can be good for parts of the brief and it can be a good way to show that you are committed to the success.
Preferred pricing strategy is something to understand as early as possible in the process, which means approaching the buyer with questions early. You don’t want to start negotiating price in the room sitting across from someone who does this for a living.
What’s Your BATNA? What’s Theirs?
Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. Your fall back position, what you’ll accept if what you want isn’t on offer. You have to have one, the other guy has to have one too.
Trying to defend Plan A when it’s obviously not going to be agreed makes you look naïve and unprepared.
Not understanding that that the other guy has a BATNA also makes you look foolish too.
It’s not weakness or defeat to shake hands on a BATNA. You’ve just won the business on terms that work for you and them. Be happy.
Overall think of professional buyers as you would a senior journalist wanting an interview with a client: something to be welcomed but to be wary of and where success is all about knowing what you are entering into and setting the ground rules early on and standing your ground when the other party starts to cross the line. The end result might not be exactly what you hoped for, but you had a plan and for the most part, it worked. A good day.
For more thoughts on How PR Freelancers Can make More Money please click the link.