How to Bust into the Big Leagues

You want A-list clients? Begin with an irresistible propositionthen overdeliver

We're an outsourcing startup that wants to break into the U.S. and European markets. But the big companies that could be our clients won't even talk to guys like us. How do we get them to at least hear our proposal? — Ram Muthiah, Seattle

By changing the game. In a nutshell, that's what it takes for a little service company like yours to get the attention of the monster companies you're trying to reach. Most of the time, those companies are so bureaucratic and risk-averse, and their buying operations so tied to their huge tried-and-true suppliers, that offering marginal improvements won't get you in the door. You've got to make an offer they can't refuse.

Sure, your entrenched rivals will be out there making killer offers, too, and with track records to prove they can deliver. To make matters worse, their sales teams have probably worked for years to develop relationships with the key players in each customer's buying operation, shepherding them through more "special events" than you could count. In other words, your competition has made itself the devil they know.

Which is why you have to do something radical. You can't get a contract by offering a somewhat lower price or slightly faster delivery. That's simply no incentive for the buyer to risk his reputation. Rather, you have to buy your way in with a transformative value proposition with almost zero risk attached. Essentially, you have to make it seem dunderheaded to turn you away. You have to offer a no-lose proposition.

Case in point: Indian outsourcing business Wipro. Starting in the late '80s, it came seemingly from nowhere to wiggle its way around the established players and into the hearts of big customer after big customer. Its modus operandi was to offer something outrageous—significantly higher quality with a massively lower price—and then overdeliver by a mile. And they quickly made the buyers who went with them look like heroes in their organizations. No wonder it took only a couple of decades for Wipro to grow to a $3 billion global operation with nearly 80,000 employees.

Similarly, in its early days in the mid-'70s, the consulting firm Bain & Co. told potential clients: "You don't need to pay us very much up front. Down the road, just pay us a percentage of the additional profits our recommendations are sure to earn you." With that kind of upside-only proposition, it's not surprising that Bain was able to get a foothold in an already overcrowded industry.

Along with their almost-too-good-to-be-true value propositions, both Wipro and Bain possessed a second critical quality that won them clients in their startup days: fire. Their salespeople may have been well-educated engineers and MBAs, but the best of them also displayed a certain religious fervor about the value their company could deliver. Their presentations would leave behind converts saying, "Did you see the way those people believe in themselves? They make me believe, too," rather than the usual, "Hmmm, interesting."

So, not easy—but there are your marching orders. If you want the big guys to "at least hear" your proposal, make it one that blows them away, with an outsized upside and minimal downside. And once in the door, you have to blow them away all over again. Together, that's the foundation upon which winning enterprises are built.

I am an IT consultant who makes $300 an hour at my firm. A customer has offered to pay me $1,000 a day to moonlight for them on the occasional weekend. Should I take it? — Anonymous, Houston

The only answer to your question is: Ask your boss. That's the one way to be clear about your company's policies on outside work and to know you're doing the right thing. After all, ethical decisions must always be transparent.

Your question, however, raises another point, and it's for leaders. No company, regardless of its size or business, should be without a safety valve that lets employees ask about such quandaries. It can be a confidential ombudsman, an anonymous tip line, or whatever method works best. The worst time for your people to feel alone is during an ethical dilemma.

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