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Thank You, Sir. May I Have Another? How To Stop Abusing Your Staff (And Yourself)

The other night I had somewhat of a revelation: bad positioning creates abusive business relationships.

I was watching the new TV show, The Pitch, and it made me nauseous. The Pitch on AMC features two ad agencies fighting for the same piece of business. I felt sick because it reminded me of a cycle of abuse that I allowed my company to become involved in—an abusive cycle that I actually enjoyed and made sure everyone in the firm did as well, before I finally came to my senses.

The evocative moment in the episode I was watching happened when the agency COO is thanking the CEO of C. Wonder, a chain of trendy women’s clothing stores in New York, for the amazing opportunity (to pitch).640x480_shark2

This thank you came on the heels of a hellish week of work for both the winning and the losing firms’ staffs—a week that included infighting, all-nighters and self-doubt.

It was the moment that the COO said “thank you” for being put through all this abuse that I had my flashback.

I realized that in the past, I had wasted hours, wasted a chance to bolster the reputation of our firm, and, worse, wasted the emotional capital of our most talented people. How’s that for enlightened leadership?

If the pitch I was watching on TV was like most, both companies signed up for this abuse at their own expense. (The loser rarely gets reimbursed for any of the money they spend pitching the client; the winner tries to figure out how to recoup the expenses from the contract going forward.)

From my experience, the financial loss of a pitch is endurable, but the damage pitching does to a company’s culture is often irreparable.

What’s even worse is that it leads to a self-perpetuating cycle of false hope, accepted abuse and diminished confidence—and that’s where the cycle of abuse analogy fits in.

The cycle of abuse is a social theory developed by Lenore Walker, who taught at the Rutgers Medical School, to describe an often-predictable pattern in an abusive relationship. It goes like this:

1)   Tension builds. The victim feels fearful and feels the need to placate the abuser. It only works for so long. Eventually there is

2)   The incident. Verbal, emotional or physical abuse. After which comes

3)   Reconciliation. The abuser apologizes, makes excuses, denies that it was abuse at all, or says it wasn’t as bad as the victim claims. And finally

4)   Calm. The incident is forgotten until the cycle starts again.

According to Walker, abusive relationships have a predictable, repetitious pattern. She adds, sustained periods of living in such a cycle may lead to learned helplessness and battered person syndrome—a pattern of symptoms, such as the inability to escape, that appear in people who are physically and mentally abused over an extended period.

In business, too many go through a similar cycle.

Instead of doing the real work of developing a truly unique offering, you hope that you can win with on-the-spot ideas, relationship building and showmanship. You accept that leaping through hurdles at the whim of our potential client is a sign of interest—they really like you—when it is really a sign that you have allowed your product, service or business to look just like everyone else’s. And in the end, after brainstorming, charming and entertaining as best you can, you’re told, “Wow, you almost won! Second place. Well done!”

Thank you, sir. May I have another?

In business, to underscore how serious the problem is, we’d be wise to refer to this as battered culture syndrome. And if you lack a strong position in the market, the symptoms—false hope, accepted abuse and diminished confidence—probably sounds familiar to you.

I am not drawing the analogy to diminish the hellish personal lives the physically and emotionally abused lead, but rather to draw what I believe is a significant parallel to how you are likely ALLOWING yourself to be treated in any pitch situation, including those with existing and potential clients as well as with the procurement departments at large firms.

No one says you have to subject your company to this. (More on this important point in a minute.)

The irony is that we, too, often allow ourselves to get addicted to this pattern. “We almost won” starts to feel good. The endorphins that result from staying up all night, arguing, being afraid, and just barely losing or winning become our normal, and we willingly repeat the pattern. I guess that’s why it is called a cycle of abuse.

Think this doesn’t apply to you? OK, those of you who haven’t felt abused by a demanding client or procurement department recently, please raise your hands. That’s what I thought.

But in business, everyone has to go through the pitch or procurement process you say. Not really. There are plenty of businesses and professionals who are not subject to this type of abusive cycle. Some got tired of it and decided they wouldn’t allow it to happen any more, and others have found the real secret to ending this pattern of abuse.

What’s the secret? It’s “simply” having a truly unique position in the market. In other words, you offer a product, service or business model that nobody else has. Since that’s true, you aren’t subjected to pitches. There is no one who can compete directly against you. This is one key reason that innovation is so important to profitable business; it literally allows you to go to market with something people need that nobody else has.

Here are some tips for business people who want to have an abuse-proof positioning:

Stop being a what-you-sell business and start being the who-you-sell-it-to business. Find a distinct segment with a significant need and develop a differentiated product, service or business model for them. It’s OK if that means you only sell to a small number of customers or consumers. If you have a unique offering, you won’t be competing based on price or salesmanship, and you will command a higher price and greater loyalty.

Invest more in product development than you do in advertising and marketing. Marketing is the tax you pay for a bad idea. If you develop a distinct, necessary offering, your potential target will find out about it with much less advertising costs. Their peers will tell them.

Hire salespeople who are less competitive. This may seem counter-intuitive, but overly competitive sales people are so focused on winning that EVERYONE looks like a customer. They will gladly take the abuse just for a chance to win. What you want are salespeople who are selectively looking only for the customers who really need the distinct products, services or business models you have developed.

One last thing … what would happen if you removed the logos from your marketing materials and your competitors? Could you differentiate one company from the other? If you are using phrases like “we care more,” “work harder,” “are more talented,” “have been around longer” or “are cheaper” to describe why your company is better, you are a likely a candidate for abuse. Why? Because your competitors are saying the same thing. This sets up the opportunity for your potential clients to pit your business—and your people—against your competitor, and soon they will be saying, “Thank you, sir. May I have another?”

First published on Forbes.com June 19, 2012.

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