Business Advice

Owning your screw-ups: One thing all businesses can learn from Bryce Courtenay

Ian Whitworth /

Scene Change co-founder and Motivation for Sceptics blogger Ian Whitworth. Source: Supplied.

One of the handiest things I ever learned came from a chance meeting with author Bryce Courtenay, when I was a clueless wannabe.

He was a lovely guy and generous with his time. And one tip from him fixed a ton of rank amateur moves I was making.

He used it in sales, but it applies to almost any area of work. And life. Anywhere you need to persuade people. But first, a bit of backstory.

Bryce, who is no longer with us, was one of the most successful ad people this country has produced. Then, at 55, he decided to become a global bestselling novelist as well. His first book sold 8 million copies and was turned into a movie.

He arrived in Sydney on a ship from South Africa penniless but ambitious. Cruising up Sydney Harbour, he saw a harbourfront home and said to himself: “I’ll own that place”.

Big call. They start at about $15 million now, and they weren’t much cheaper in ye olden day figures.

It took him 17 years, but he got the house. How did he do that? To start, he had a ferocious work ethic, but plenty of people have that and all they get is heart attacks and estranged children.

Own the loss

Bryce’s big insight was owning his losses. If his agency lost the pitch, he’d wait a few weeks for the dust to settle. Then he’d call them and say:

“Thanks for letting us pitch, we respect your decision and hope things go well for you. But would you mind meeting us and telling us where we went wrong so we can learn from it? And don’t try to spare our feelings, give us the unvarnished truth, I’m South African and almost impossible to offend.”

They almost always took the meeting.

And almost always Bryce would win next time he re-pitched their business. Just by knowing what they liked. By. Asking. Them.

You just think: how obvious is that? Very. Yet nobody does it.

Delusion sets in

In the lose situation, what everyone else does is think: “Our competitors have tricked the client with a dirty low price on a product the client doesn’t realise is inferior. Oh yes, that client will regret this bad call.”

I have heard sales people use the actual words: “They’ll come begging back.”

Nah.

This isn’t just a thing for people who work in sales. It’s an issue if you didn’t get the job. If you didn’t get the research grant. If you didn’t make it past the first date. Anywhere you’re trying to influence others.

It’s an old cliché that everything is sales, but it’s true. It’s just that what most people think is sales — the foot-in-the-door, silver-tongued, always-be-closing monologue — isn’t an effective way to get people to do what you want.

People usually approach the ‘sell’ as a kind of party game, where the other people know what they want, you have to guess what it is, and they’re not allowed to tell you. It’s like going out to dinner with someone you don’t know, ordering three courses for them off the menu, and expecting to pick their favourite each time.

Why don’t you just ask them?

String-pull boy strikes out

I’ve never done sales as an actual job, but I’ve done plenty of pitches and been in lots of influencing situations.

Before the Bryce advice, I’d go to important meetings and deliver generic material like one of those old string-pull dolls with five phrases.

*Pulls string*

Me: “We have the largest range of solutions of any company in this field.”

*Pulls string again*

Me: “We have national capability with offices in every state.”

Client: (Reading emails) “Wow is that the time?”

After the loss, businesses usually do one of two things.

First, the demoralizing witch hunt.

Second, the Mafiosi code of silence. This loss has brought shame upon us all, let us never speak of this again, and we’ll double down on the things we believe to be important.

It’s a real ‘guy’ approach. The kind that made the Vietnam War last 20 years.

Your reality is not their reality

One of the nice things about writing here is it puts you in touch with interesting folk.

I met Cian McLoughlin the other day, whose business Trinity Perspectives literally does the Courtenay thing, that is, win/loss analysis for big IT and telecoms deals.

After the tender, they go out and ask their client’s clients for a dose of reality, and the answers are almost always illuminating.

What you think are your strong points are often of little interest, and vice versa. Often, it’s that old classic that nailed you so often in exams — you made some good points, but you didn’t actually answer the questions we gave you.

It’s almost as if we should have listened to those things they told us at school.

This piece was originally published on Ian Whitworth’s website. Read the original here.

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Ian Whitworth

Ian Whitworth is a reformed branding and advertising creative director turned entrepreneur, who co-founded corporate audiovisual company Scene Change.

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