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The Chemistry Delusion: Why people don’t buy from people

Pitch perfect round table

The Drum’s Pitch Perfect event highlighted a scary disconnect between how clients and agencies approach new-business.

Most of you probably use the GP nearest your home. And if he was always rude, you’d soon switch.

But what if you needed a brain surgeon? You’d search harder, travel further and willingly pay top whack. And even if she was a right misery, you’d stick with it and do as you were told.

So when something’s important, we value expertise over bedside manner (...“If I’m curt with you, it’s because time is a factor”).

But although clients follow the same logic, agencies haven’t caught on.

Out of tune

This worrying dissonance stood out at The Drum’s Pitch Perfect event last week. A dedicated new-business conference, it featured talks from all sorts of agency and technology businesses.

The audience also had the opportunity to interrogate some tame clients. And that’s when the disconnect between what agencies believe clients value and what they actually want became clear.

When people buy commodities

The agencies spoke first and one phrase kept coming up - that trusty sales perennial, ‘people buy from people’. Not the most offensive jargon in the world, I grant you. But certainly one of the most damaging.

As former BT, RSA and Travelex Marketing Director, Dominic Grounsell, told me afterwards: “When everyone’s saying the same stuff, the people become the only differentiator”.

Hang on, you might think, what’s wrong with that? Well, if chemistry’s the tie-breaker, then your agency is a replaceable GP, not a valued surgeon.

That’s why this believable cliché is so insidious - it’s the last refuge of the commoditised.

Similarly, remember when you came ‘a close second’? They just liked you too much to say you were rubbish.

What clients really, really want

When the clients took the stage, agencies quizzed them on their agenda, which messages cut-through and how to reach them. Time and again, the replies referenced expertise.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most empathetic answers came from clients who’d also been on the other side of the fence.

Dixons Carphone’s head of brand, Corin Mills - formerly of branding specialists, Wolff Olins - implored agencies to personalise their approaches to him. But he didn’t mean rapport; he needs a point of view on his particular challenges.

Former Boots marketer and now Shell’s global loyalty lead, Carolyn McKeever - who’s also worked agency-side - was more direct: “Just tell me what problem you solve - don’t make me have to work it out”.

The research backs this up. In their 2013 book, The Challenger Sale, the CEB’s Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson showed that ‘relationship builders’ - salespeople relying on rapport - were significantly outperformed by ‘challengers’ who leverage expertise to build the case for change.

In short, ‘challengers’ lead the client forward.

Robin Bonn is the founder of Co:definery

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