By taking the time to reflect on why you lost a customer or failed to close a sale, you'll find ways to improve on the next one.
You close your laptop and thank your counterpart across the table for their time. Once you're safely out of earshot, you grab your cellphone, call your colleague and pronounce: "The deal is dead. They were never interested."
Then you rationalize about how this was just not the right organization to work with. Time to mentally close the books and move to the next item on your long to-do list, right? Wrong.
The last thing most of us want to do is to take time away from an active customer to review what we consider a cold lead. Learning from a deal that didn't happen means asking hard questions about yourself and your team. But facilitating an atmosphere of humility and accountability is a necessary process to make your company stronger and make you a better leader.
The most straightforward way to learn from the lost deal is to schedule non-moveable time to truly THINK about and process what went wrong. Schedule an hour of your time two to three days after the fact, when the details are still fresh in your mind but the emotion has started to approach its half-life.
When reflecting, always assign blame by pointing with your thumbs rather than your fingers. In other words, what could I have done better? How could I have handled the situation better?
Resist the urge to use convenient excuses about the customer being unable to make a decision or their historical involvement with a competitor. Ask yourself, Why?-a minimum of three times-to get to the root cause. This will help you to identify some nuances where you need to improve, but have conveniently chosen to ignore because it's hard to fix. You might even uncover an idea or two for how to salvage the opportunity.
Next, schedule time with your team to get their perspective about what went well, what went poorly, and why.
Quickly move past all the "it's not me, it's you" reasons about how the auto company would never buy steel from someone other than their current suppliers or how the decision-maker's long-term relationship with another firm gave you no chance. Force the group to only talk about things they could have done to help the situation rather than how the situation prevented the team from achieving their goals. Really peel back the onion to figure out how your team could have been better. Don't assign blame, but focus on how to improve for next time.
We regularly use this approach in our business to make our team better. We recently had a poor client experience where we tried to help a client with some system improvements. The project became a distraction and a "time-suck" for our firm. After playing the blame game for too long, we examined our own efforts and quickly learned that by trying to please our client in too many ways, we had strayed away from our core competencies of partnering with organizations to help them grow strategically.
We made a mistake, took the time to process what went wrong and, in turn, became a better firm with more focus. We always have time to improve, and now we better understand how to actually make that happen. The old adage rings true: You really can learn a lot more from defeat than you do from victory.
KARL STARK AND BILL STEWART are managing directors and co-founders of Avondale, a strategic advisory firm focused on growing companies. Avondale, based in Chicago, is a high-growth company itself and is a two-time Inc. 500 honoree. @karlstark