The All-or-nothing thinking trap

I met with an actuary who attended an association meeting a month ago. He had planned to follow up with thirty people he had met there and admitted that he hadn’t done so. I asked why not and he responded, “I haven’t got time to follow up with thirty people.” While true, this answer is logically flawed. He could at least have followed up with the most important contact he made at the event, a senior vice president at an account he was targeting. He might have even found time to follow up with five or maybe even ten. Instead, he had fallen into the trap of All-or-nothing thinking. Here are two more examples:

* A business developer at a Big Four accounting firm helped a partner craft a letter to be sent to the CEO of a bank. A note came back from the CEO, saying he had passed the letter on to his CFO, and suggesting that the accountant follow up there. The partner told the business developer, “You see, it didn’t work.” He had apparently defined success as immediate access to the CEO. It was get that meeting or nothing.

* A management consultant was finding the call discipline required to build a referral network onerous. Like the actuary described above, she was having difficulty finding time for making calls. “Besides,” she added, “what can I possibly have to say to all these people every month?” She had fallen into the all-or-nothing trap by thinking that she had to call everyone on her list once a month. That might be true of some of her contacts, but more infrequent intervals would be appropriate for most of them.

In my experience, this is a common kind of error. It seems so obvious that people feel embarrassed when you point out that they have made it. All three of the professionals described here are extremely smart. They just haven’t learned yet that rain making requires many, many small advances to win big every once in a while. They haven’t yet parsed the effort down to the many small steps that they can make day after day. When they do, they will be well on their way to becoming rainmakers.

The Build-it-and-they-will-come trap
People making this error assume that if they make one highly visible effort, business will come. They feel surprised and almost cheated when it doesn’t.

The Brochure and Website Fallacies are, perhaps, the most common versions of this trap. They are especially common when professionals start a firm or a new practice. In many such cases professionals rush to create a brochure or a website and then wait for the business to come in. It doesn’t.

Here are a two more examples of such thinking:

* Attorneys from a major law firm made a presentation to the several members of a private equity firm to introduce their services, knowing that deals these people worked on produced millions of dollars in legal fees each year. When no work resulted from the pitch within three months, the head of the Corporate Practice at the law firm declared the effort a failure. Actually, the attorneys had made a good impression on the people they presented to, about all that could be expected from one meeting.

* Several partners at a management consulting firm said that giving speeches didn’t work for their firm. Over the years, they have given many speeches and never turned up any new business from it. They had done little, if any, follow-up work after the speeches, apparently waiting at the phone for calls from prospective clients, who would say, “I heard what you said last week and thought it so wonderful that I was hoping, just hoping, you could come to our company and . . .” When they had an opportunity to speak, these partners often arrived at the events shortly before they were scheduled to speak and rushed back to their clients as soon at their speech was over. When they began to treat speeches as simply one element out of many needed to build relationships with prospective clients, they began to win business.

The illogic of these people may seem laughably obvious, as I describe it here. I assure you that it wasn’t obvious to them at the time, and I see examples of smart, hard-working professionals falling into the Build-It-and-They-Will-Come trap all the time. Remember, there are many steps to getting a client to hire you. One event is unlikely to generate business, and if it does, recognize that this is unusual and lucky, rather than the norm. You need persistence to get new clients.



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Ford Harding is the president of Harding & Company, which trains professionals to win new clients. Rain Making – Attract New Clients No Matter What Your Field, a revised and updated edition of his bestselling book, was published in February 2008. His books are required reading for certification by the Society for Marketing Professional Services. His articles have appeared in Harvard Business Review, the Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. Contact Ford and read his blog at www.hardingco.com.


© 2008 Ford Harding