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The Finance Issue

Taking the Lead: Turning Your Losses Into Future Wins

Linda Klein and John Hinton IV

Our friend Mo Bunnell is an author and a leading mind in business development. Mo knows how to win clients. It seems to us that he never loses a pitch, so we were surprised to read his recent article confessing that he doesn’t win them all. He taught us that, “A Loss Should Set Up Your Next Win."

As children we were told that if you fall, you should get up and try again. “If at first you don’t succeed …” Bunnell builds on that timeless wisdom by giving us a recipe for turning a marketing loss into an opportunity to make a meaningful business relationship. He points out that after we have invested considerable time (and maybe additional resources) making and losing a pitch, we should at least spend a small amount of time trying to learn from the experience by following up with the person who turned us down. Admittedly, this is not an easy request. It will likely feel embarrassing to contact the person who just rejected you and ask why you didn’t win the pitch. However, that person knows better than anyone what you need to change. Equally important, that person may be the one most willing to give you candid feedback. Think about how much you can learn that could make your next pitch a winner. It’s worth swallowing some pride and making that call.

Setting Up Your Next Win

Bunnell suggests three key ingredients. First, he urges us to begin that phone call by showing humility and thanking the person for the meeting. It’s likely that the person on the other end of the line will feel uncomfortable too, so this initial icebreaker can place the other person at ease and create an environment in which their focus turns from how to end the call to trying to help you. The second ingredient might be hard, but if you don’t ask, you definitely will not learn. Ask who did win the pitch and why. Even if you do not get the identity of the winner, you will likely learn why the successful pitch beat yours. Then ask for feedback, which Bunnell calls “feedforward” because he always asks what the one thing is he should change in his next pitch.

Many people might have thought to do these steps, but Bunnell’s final ingredient can transform the call from an opportunity to win future pitches in general to win future pitches with this particular prospect. Ask what the company’s priorities are and how you can follow up. This gives you a way back in the door. Brilliant!

Additional Opportunities to Set Up Next Wins

We believe that Bunnell’s wisdom applies to many other setbacks in our law practices. First, he has identified a “loss” that happens in his practice. Unfortunately, we will experience other losses in our practice from time to time—the loss of a key employee, a firm initiative that does not meet the intended objective or a client matter with results that are less than ideal. It is worth spending some time trying to learn why your firm did not meet expectations.

Second, he has decided to learn from the loss despite the knowledge that this requires engaging in uncomfortable conversations. It is human nature to seek to avoid difficult and potentially embarrassing discussions, but Bunnell points out that avoiding them also means missing the opportunity to learn and succeed the next time. Our willingness to be humble is mission critical.

Finally, Bunnell has a plan in place for when he loses a pitch. He does not have to develop the plan in the middle of the loss—a time when it is easy to lose one’s nerve. Instead, he has committed to the plan in advance, which makes it more likely he will follow through. Create your own plan to learn from the key inevitable losses that will occur in your practice and commit in advance to executing that plan at the right time.

Retired Adm. William McRaven is quoted as saying that SEAL teams debrief after every mission. They do that to learn not only from the missions that went right but also from those that didn’t go according to plan. It’s one thing to give high-fives all around when we win—that’s a great celebration. The real winners also learn from their missteps. Go out and win, even if you lose.

Linda Klein

Senior Managing Shareholder

Linda Klein is a past president of the ABA and senior managing shareholder at Baker Donelson. She is a frequent speaker on law practice, construction and higher education law. [email protected]

John Hinton IV


John Hinton IV is a shareholder in Baker Donelson’s Atlanta office. His practice focuses on commercial litigation and construction law. [email protected]

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