How to Deal with a Client That Steals Your Ideas

You work with your contact to create a new opportunity, providing them with your very best ideas about how they can produce better results. The sales conversation looks and feels like conversations that have turned into business for you in the past, and you believe that your insights have positioned you as the only choice. As you move towards a decision, you receive a call or an email from your contact’s broker, inviting you to compete for the business by completing a request for proposal.

You are right to feel entitled to the opportunity that you created. You are also right to feel like you are being used, especially when the company decides to go with your lower-priced competitor, who would have never known to create the opportunity and didn’t have a proactive, consultative bone in their body. Sitting with your emotional responses isn’t going to change the outcome.

To ensure a contact doesn’t steal your ideas in the future, you must have a very direct conversation with your contact, one in which you ask for an agreement on your relationship.

The Value of Your Insights

One of the reasons salespeople with real insights try to withhold them is because they know that they are valuable even if the client were to execute them on their own or with their competition. It isn’t easy to be a consultative salesperson without sharing your business acumen and situational knowledge, factors that create a preference to work with you over salespeople with a dated approach built on their products.

There is no way you can sit across from your prospective client and suggest that you know something they don’t know, but that you can’t share it with them unless and until they agree to buy your initiative sight unseen. That approach would make for a very short conversation and would not benefit you or your contacts.

You have no choice but to talk about why your prospective client should do something different than what they are doing now, with all the context that enables them to understand why you are making the recommendation.

The words “value creation” are wildly overused in B2B sales, and I am afraid that, in part, I am to blame. We don’t have a better way to talk about the idea that your client should benefit from meeting with you, from learning from you, and from working with you, as doing so improves their decisions and their results. You can call this insight-based selling or consultative sales or some other term that describes the modern sales approach that has replaced older, more transactional models.

Solving this problem requires a conversation about the nature of your relationship with your contact and their company.

What They Don’t Know

What follows is best-done face-to-face and should not be attempted over email or some other inferior form of communication. Your effectiveness here will depend on you having a physical presence, which indicates the importance of the conversation.

If your competitor knew that your prospective client should have been doing the very project you initiated and didn’t tell them, they are guilty of negligence. Knowing your client should be doing something to get a better result and not telling them is apathy, complacency, and a sense of entitlement. If they didn’t know to recommend the project you presented to your contacts, then they are ignorant, lacking awareness of what is—or should be—important to their client’s results and performance.

You don’t have to explain this to your contacts in the unkind terms you might use when you complain to your peers around the water cooler, but you do have to defend the value that you create.

When you create value for others, you are entitled to capture your fair share of the value you created.

The scenario above illustrates a point that is otherwise difficult to teach. Your idea by itself has value, and so does the execution. In this scenario, the company is stealing the value of the idea and paying only for the execution, something you are going to have to ask them to change, if you want a working relationship.

As Real as Real Can Get

When you sit down across the table from your contact to have a difficult conversation, you will have to explain that the ideas you generate are part of the value you create, the other part being the execution. You will have to ask your contact to allow you to execute the initiatives you bring to them so that you can continue to bring them new and valuable ideas.

With great diplomacy, you are going to have to explain that if you can’t help with the initiatives themselves, then you don’t have a model that works.

You might also give something back here. You might agree that you will be more than happy to accept an RFP for the transactional work, recognizing that some of the day-to-day work your client outsources doesn’t rise to the level of the proactive, transformational insights and ideas like the project you proactively initiate with your clients. Promise to earn the few additional pennies you charge them, and that what you propose and your execution will more than make up the difference.

If you are stuck, ask your contact if the ideas you have given them have been valuable. When they say yes, explain that your model depends on you being able to execute the project, and ask them directly for their help, and then tell them you have two more breakthrough ideas to share with them.

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