Jody Sutter, Owner of The Sutter Company

Jody Sutter, Owner of The Sutter Company

Pitching. The word itself is enough to make many of us want to walk the other direction. But if we don’t sell ourselves and what’s great  about our companies, who will? And when you think about it, most people love to talk about themselves. So why is selling your services and your team that much different? 

According to Jody Sutter, it’s because of our pesky lizard brain, our loving mammal brain and our super smart neocortex. So how can we get out of our own heads and show prospects how awesome we really are? The first step is listening to this episode of the Bureau Briefing.


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Carl Smith: Hey everybody and welcome back to the Bureau Briefing. With me today I have a business and development professional with 25 years experience who opened her own shop about five years ago, The Sutter Company. It's Jody Sutter. How are you doing Jody?

Jody Sutter: I'm good Carl. How are you?

Carl Smith: I'm good. It's really nice to have you on the show. I've had a few people who I would call coaches, people who are in that professional space to help people get better on the show and it's always one of those things for me where I'm just like whew that feels like a tough business. For you to have been going for five years and have 25 years of experience, I think you deserve a little round of applause.

Jody Sutter: Thank you very much.

Carl Smith: Good for you. Wait, tell everybody a little bit about yourself and how you got into this.

Jody Sutter: Yeah sure. As you said, I have been doing this for a long time. I guess my career has always been in and around business development for creatively driven companies. Sometimes those were small boutique agencies, sometimes those were big multinational global agencies, digital agencies, photography, production companies, so a lot of different types of agencies, worked with a lot of different types of clients, but the one consistency was business development, going out there marketing the agencies I worked for, and figuring out how to win more clients and close business. 

Then about five years ago it was kind of a lifestyle change. I moved out of New York City out to eastern Long Island and I decided to open my own firm. I ended up narrowing my focus to smaller agencies, and specifically working with the CEOs of smaller agencies that feel like they're underperforming when it comes to winning new business, which is frankly a lot of agencies. I think a lot of these agencies felt like business development was just a little bit mysterious, and so I help to kind of unshroud that mystery and show that it's really about getting some basic fundamentals right. 

I also found that because of the size of these agencies that whether they wanted to hear it or not the CEO or the leadership team, or the partners, whatever you want to call it, that the CEOs tended to be the most important business development resource that those agencies had. If they were able to realize that, then I put prescriptive solutions and programs in place that match their personality, their resources, their goals, and I try to put a program in place that they're going to be more likely to embrace because it fits them and that leads to long term revenue.

Carl Smith: Tell me how do you define small.

Jody Sutter: Yeah that's a good question. I have to admit that depending on who I'm talking to sometimes that's a bit of a sliding scale. I've worked with agencies that are as small as one and a half people, sometimes it's just a principle with a couple of part-timers, and probably the largest agencies I've worked with are more like 55 to 70. Yeah. Even though like I said I've got experience with lots of different sized agencies, that tends to be the sweet spot. Usually it's under 50. 

Carl Smith: Well in our experience we've heard a lot of shops, Kelly Goto was the first person I ever heard mention this, say that 30 to 50 is the toughest range in terms of full time employees. It's like once you get to 30 your original team is starting to get disillusioned, they never expected it to get this big, so your original growth disappears, they go away, it leaves this gap in terms of the culture, and then you're trying to quickly grow and you're putting in people who might not necessarily have not even the best interest for the company, but they're just kind of confused, they don't know what they're supposed to do, and all your systems are falling apart. Then once you get over 50 you're like oh okay well we're sustainable. I can imagine that that group is the group that's like okay Jody help us, help us now, we're ready.

Jody Sutter: It's a little bit of both too because a lot of times it is those really, those fast growing agencies that just need that extra support. But what I do find, going back to the CEO being the most valuable business development resource, what I also find is that once that, and again I'm using CEO as a proxy for partners and things like that, but once they can figure out where their business development strengths lie it makes it so much easier and more productive to then hire out or hire in the types of talent that they need. I think that's the other thing is that when they're not in touch with what they do well when it comes to business development they just keep making the wrong types of decisions about outsourcing and hiring. That adds to the confusion that you were talking about.

Carl Smith: I totally agree. Also the problem is when you hire somebody new, that CEO is the historian. They know what the company has done great at, what the company has not succeeded at, they have all the bias about why they can't succeed with certain things when they could have been part of the problem. It's like somebody new coming in has all of those challenges. But when we look at a shop overall, if they've got an established team or if they're just starting to form out, so many people hate pitching. I've talked to so many shops and they're like well inbound in the best, but there's certain work we want to get and to get that work we're going to have to learn how to pitch. What is it that you see in your years of experience that shops just do poorly? What is it about them when they sit down that they just don't know how to win the pitch?

Jody Sutter: This is something that came to me, or I guess a thought process that started developing a couple of years ago, and I had a bit of an epiphany moment when I realized that there is a fundamental disconnect between the way we pitch business and the way that our clients receive that information. It actually is based, it stems from the fact, it's based on how our brains work. It's not just us pitching and receiving that information, pitching to clients and clients receiving it, it's actually about how human beings communicate with each other. When I started realizing that I was able to then advise my clients in a whole new way of positioning themselves in the right way to clients. If you're willing, I'm happy to go into a little bit of the background of the brain science. I always laugh because I'm not a brain scientist, but I've manged to reduce this whole story down to about, I don't know, about under two minutes.

Carl Smith: Are you going to talk about my lizard brain and my neocortex?

Jody Sutter: I am. 

Carl Smith: Because we don't know each other that well Jody for you to start poking around my lizard brain. 

Jody Sutter: Well you know.

Carl Smith: No, go ahead. Share, share what you know. Make everybody smarter.

Jody Sutter: We all have them.

Yeah, so here's the little bit about how our brains evolved. Many of us know this, but just as a bit of a refresher. The lizard brain, the prehistoric part of our brain, the part of our brain that crawled out of the swamp with our little lizard bodies, our lizard brain-

Carl Smith: We were so cute. 

Jody Sutter: We were so cute.

Carl Smith: We were adorable.

Jody Sutter: Killing each other, tearing ... But so we were ... I guess we didn't kill everyone because we did survive and evolve, but so our neocortex is the part of our brain that's responsibility for fight or flight, aggression, basic pleasure instincts. The neocortex is also the front line for all incoming messages. When any type of message, whether it's simple or complex, pleasurable or unpleasurable, comes our way that it's greeted by the neocortex. Our neocortex figures out whether it's okay or not okay to send up the brain ladder. Then on the other end the most highly evolved part of our brain is our neocortex. Our neocortex is responsibility for abstract thought processes, languages, complex problem solving. 

Here's the problem. When we sit down to write a pitch, or write a document, or come up with that compelling email that's going to make someone want to hire us, we go straight to our neocortex and it usually spits out a bunch of dribble, a bunch of abstract language that's not very persuasive, and it's received by our client's lizard brains. The first thing they do is either delete the email, or pull up their smart phone in the meeting when they start to get a little bit bored or worried. That type of language is really threatening. What I try to do is work with the agency, my agencies, my clients, to switch things around a little bit and to start making their pitches a little friendlier to the lizard brain. It's not necessarily making them simpler or dumbing them down, it's just getting the process right. 

Carl Smith: Yeah. We tell people all the time in the different events that we have as well as in the community the number one thing to make people comfortable, to establish trust, is being familiar. 

Jody Sutter: Yeah.

Carl Smith: If you start using any type of industry terminology, then you're immediately making somebody fell uncomfortable and they're just going to check out. It sounds like that's what you're saying.

Jody Sutter: Yeah. You know agencies in general, not all of them, but in general agencies operate from two, maybe I'll add a third, but two really big challenges when it comes to business development. The first is that most of them have zero sales culture. To the extent that sales is even a bad word, which is why we call it business development. If there's no sales culture, there's no respect for sales, it means that the person or team that's responsible for generating new business is not going to be trained and supported terribly well. You send these people out there, sometimes it's a CEO, sometimes a CEO builds a team around her or him, but no one's really getting the support that they need. 

The second big disadvantage is that we sell really abstract stuff, and that is the hardest stuff to sell. It would be one thing if we were out there selling, I don't know, iPhones, those are fairly, or at least they used to be, fairly easy to sell. They're a thing. Someone can-

Carl Smith: You know what you're getting. 

Jody Sutter: Yeah, you know what you're getting. What also happens, then you get the neocortex involved, and you get the inexperienced sales people, or inexperienced agency people who are forced to do sales, they go right to their neocortex to ask for help. The neocortex starts spitting out stuff like, words like innovative, and results driven, and digital first, and all these things that they're not necessarily inaccurate, but they're not compelling. They don't tell a story, there's nothing tangible, and it's the same thing that that client heard in a dozen other emails or in the last two pitches they got from other agencies. 

Carl Smith: Yeah. Right now I'm just sitting here. You can't see me because this is radio. That's how it works. But I'm just shaking my head like ugh so many old pain points coming back. 

Jody Sutter: Yeah.

Carl Smith: How many times was I in a meeting with a client and I just said look if you really, really want to succeed let's work together to figure out what we do because if I start sharing with you what we've done for other people it's not you, it's not going to work. As soon as you get familiar and you get honest and you get just a little bit vulnerable, it's like that's when we would win. 

Jody Sutter: Yeah. Well vulnerability also I think means a lot. It's interesting I want to challenge you in a couple things, but first I guess talk about the vulnerability. I also think that that ties into a bit of narrative and story telling. One of the things I advise my clients also is that a way to get away from this abstract language is to start incorporating story telling into your pitch. The thing that makes stories so appealing to our lizard brains is this sense of, is the something at stake and also this back and forth between surprises and setbacks. When there's a setback, when you're describing a setback you're describing yourself as vulnerable, but ideally that setback you figure out a solution to that setback, which of course puts you in a position of power. But without that vulnerability, without that moment where the client says oh yeah that was a really innovate solution, they were totally relentless in trying to figure out how to solve that problem. You notice they're using words that agencies always use, innovative, relentless, and yet the client using those words not you because you're telling them a really good story. 

Now what's interesting about the familiarity, I actually think that case studies, even though it's about a different client, I think that case studies are a very powerful way of incorporating a narrative that a client can relate to without it necessarily being about the client. Do you find, how much did you use case studies in pitching?

Carl Smith: I would say we use stories a lot. They were case studies, but we never framed them as case studies. Mainly because it was hard to verify some of the true results-

Jody Sutter: Yeah, interesting. 

Carl Smith: So we never wanted to misrepresent-

Jody Sutter: Gotcha.

Carl Smith: But we would often go in and say here's a situation that ... We were working with Chase, like the big name always makes people comfortable, but say we were working with Chase, they were having this issue with converting on their home mortgage app. We talked with about 30 of their people, found out the main problem was that it just took too long. So we helped them speed everything up and they started closing about an extra 15%. Little things like that and sharing it that way always worked really huge for us.

Jody Sutter: Yeah, if you also focused there on their customers pain point.

Carl Smith: Absolutely.

Jody Sutter: That sometimes something I think that's glossed over. Another agency might have focused on the speed without spending a little bit of time on the lack of speed, the problem that they were trying to solve, and the repercussions of that problem.

Carl Smith: I remember actually part of the story I would tell is I was sitting down with one of your customers and we were going through the process and they asked me if I wanted a cup of coffee. I said yeah, but I'd like to finish this first. They said oh we've got time. 

Jody Sutter: That's great.

Carl Smith: We had about 10 minutes before the app actually was able to verify it. What you have to realize is these people get paid based on the number of applications they can get through in a day, so you're going to lose until you can speed it up. Yeah, so I appreciate what you're saying and it's good to know because story telling is so important in so many aspects of our lives, not just in terms of business but from a pitching perspective, I think that makes everybody more comfortable.

Jody Sutter: Yeah. Then the trick is learning how to take that story because often you do not have the time for a full blown narrative, so how do you take that element of story telling and put it into a quick Linked In introduction, or an email, or a phone call, or an introduction at a conference. 

Carl Smith: So tell us the answer Jody. How do you do it?

Jody Sutter: Well first of all I think it comes down to, it's all about the basics. Sometimes I wish that I had some sort of new inventive silver bullet that no one's ever heard of, but it really comes down to the basics of understanding what you do well, you the agency does well, and who your ideal client is. Once you can make that magic connection, then the stories start to flow. In fact, you're able to, you are often invited in to tell a bigger narrative. It's when you are not clear about what you do and when you're speaking to the wrong type of client that those narratives then aren't welcome. Yeah, I don't know if I actually directly answered your question, but a lot of it has to do with getting the positioning right first.

Carl Smith: No. I think you did. So often, and I think a lot of this comes true, I have this real battle right now with how many of us have imposter syndrome versus how many of us are insecure. I think there's a real difference. That's a whole nother episode. I think imposter syndrome is much more about being a part of a community that you feel is going to be let down if you fail. Such as if you're a woman in you're in a role and you're worried that women are going to be seen not being able to do a role, that's imposter syndrome. You probably absolutely strong. But for me, I have insecurities and I often say it's imposter syndrome. Okay let's get back to the point. That's what people like. Get to the point. I think a lot of it becomes insecurity when you go into a pitch and you're trying to justify why you're there and forget that the reason you're there is not to talk about yourself.

Jody Sutter: Yeah. I was, okay you're going to laugh and I guess your audience won't know that we had a quick conversation before this in which you said you really hate this, you don't necessarily love this phrase, but earlier today I was talking to a client of mine and ...

Carl Smith: I had no idea where you were going. I was like oh my god what did I say.

Jody Sutter: Sorry. 

Carl Smith: No, that's awesome.

Jody Sutter: But I was and he was ... I have to remember where I was going with this. He was talking about a phone meeting that he has with a potential new client. He was saying I'm going to go in, I'm going to talk about, I'm prepared to go in and talk about, first we're going to talk about my background, the background of my agency. Then I'm going to give them a bit of a case study. Then maybe I'll offer them some ideas on things that I think they can do with their marketing. Then I'm going to offer to send them an initial scope of work. 

I'm like whoa, whoa, whoa. I said let's take a big step back. First of all, I said what you want to try to do is couch that background and that case study and their needs and maybe even ... One of the things I also hate is when you get that question like well tell, you get a 30 minute phone call setup with the vendor and then that vendor gets on the phone and that vendor says well tell us a little bit about your issues. I think you know what, you should have done that homework before you got on the phone with me. You want to set it up with something, and this is where I also find that "case studies or client examples" become very useful because you're couching it more in the frame of reference that in my experience working with clients like yours here are the top three issues that we tend to help our clients overcome. Does that resonate with you?

Then you're asking an open ended question. Probably what's going to happen, because you are a qualified agency and you're talking to a qualified lead, is that they'll say yeah that's exactly what we're up against, or we're up against item one more than item two. Then they start talking about what that is and then you can react to that. Likewise, at the end instead of saying we're going to send you a scope of work, I think it's more about framing, again, open ended questions like well would you like help in trying to address some of those obstacles, would it be welcome if we sent you some ideas, and could we set up a time to talk about those ideas. You're keeping the dialogue going and again you're starting to incorporate their narrative as well as yours, or into yours.

Carl Smith: I'm just curious, do you think with your clients when they're talking with a prospect, do you think the prospect has a lot of different companies they're considering, or do you think they're kind of going one at a time?

Jody Sutter: Well gosh that's an interesting question. I think it really depends. There are some situations where it's a formal agency review and that tends to happen with larger enterprise clients and with usually with larger agencies I suppose, but not always. I mean one of the smallest agencies I work with they work with a global auto maker. They're always responding to formal RFPs, but they're a tiny agency. 

Carl Smith: Yeah. I was just curious because I think that changes so much of the discussion as well. It's funny you mentioned formal RFPs. I wrote this blog post, which was not overly popular. I mean it was tremendously, it was read a lot, but people didn't like it, called Really F'ing Pointless. We started replying to RFPs by redlining them and sending them back. 

Jody Sutter: That's really funny.

Carl Smith: And saying hey you're going to get taken advantage of. These are terms you're using, you obviously don't know what they mean. This budget is ridiculous. It's either way too much or way too little. If you want somebody just to have coffee with and talk about what's going on, we're happy to do that, but we've spent all of our time with people that are paying us money, so if you've got companies that are really diving into this heavily they're taking time away from people that are paying them and once you work with them they're going to take that time away from you.

Jody Sutter: Wow. That's awesome. What happened?

Carl Smith: We would get about, probably 10% we'd backdoor the RFPs. We'd at least get the call. Of those, if we didn't get them right then, we would follow up like six months later and see how it was going and sometimes we would get them then.

Jody Sutter: Well yeah. You know this also, I mentioned that there are three disadvantages agencies have working against them in business development situations. The third thing, which I didn't mention, is that we tend, most of us tend to be really client service oriented. Doing something like your agency did is anathema. They're like well how can we push back. Well, there's absolutely no reason not to. You have to be willing to accept the risks, but the potential rewards can be very high.

Carl Smith: And you can get through RFPs so much faster and it's actually fun. One of our mantras was serious fun. If something wasn't fun, we wouldn't do it. RFPs weren't really fun, so we figured out that way to make them fun. It was one of those things I always wondered how other shops approach it. Then we would also, if we knew we were pitching against other shops, and people didn't always like this, but if we knew a shop was going to present three ideas, we would say look if they're telling you they're going to give you three options they obviously haven't done enough research or have enough experience to know what you should do.

Jody Sutter: Right.

Carl Smith: Then if we knew somebody was going to come in with just one, we'd be like why we would they think they understand what it is to be you. I mean you have to be a part of this process, so we're going to show you three options for you to guide us in. We would totally flip our philosophy based on what we thought they wanted. Right now I'm thinking I should never publish this because I'm looking like a complete ass, but that was how we succeeded was because we just anticipated what they were needing and who we were up against.

Jody Sutter: I suppose this is a little bit different from what I advise, but I always say to play to your strengths. If you knew enough about what your competitors were doing in a competitive pitch, it would be silly to try to compete based on their strengths. It makes much more sense to do something contrary, especially if that's going to be playing to your strengths.

Carl Smith: You know it did blow up occasionally, but we always found that the people it blew up with we probably shouldn't be working with anyway.

Jody Sutter: The other thing you did, we're sort of getting off the topic of pitching badly, but the other thing you said you did, which is something I also always advise-

Carl Smith: Pitching amazingly. Let's talk about being great at pitching Jody.

Jody Sutter: Well it was also you went back. When it did blow up initially, you then followed back up with them after I don't know months or maybe years, I guess it depends on the contract. I think that, I think agencies neglect that too. You go through a pitch process. Essentially you are getting, even if you lose the pitch you're getting great exposure to a whole mess of clients at a desirable company, and then you're never in contact with them again. I think that's so silly. How did that, I'd love to hear more about how that worked out? Was that successful when you went back to follow up, and did you ever get business that way?

Carl Smith: Yeah we did. It wasn't always with that company though. Sometimes they would go off to another company and they would call us. I think the thing that worked the best was when we would leave a pitch, or follow up via email or whatever, I would always end with look if we lose because we cost too much I'm totally fine with that, I understand that, we're expensive, but if we lose because you think somebody else can do a better job I would love to have a conversation so I can understand what we need to get better at. There's obviously something that we've missed and it could be a combination of cost and skill. Then we would have that follow up call. They would always let you have it and tell you. Well y'all seemed a little arrogant, or it seemed like your experience in our industry was a little lacking, or whatever it might be, but it left the conversation open for us to come back. Then we would always do the six month check in, but we would ask at the end, we would say hey we know you're going with that group, we hope everything goes great, is it okay if we check back in in a few months and just see how it's going. Nobody ever said no. 

Jody Sutter: I really like the way that you phrased that to get feedback because there's something about that that's different than just asking for a followup phone call. A lot of times what I find is that clients are not very forthcoming with their comments, but the way that you phrased that is, yeah maybe because you were also making yourself vulnerable and you're saying we're willing to hear some criticism if criticism is required. That's interesting that you got good results from that.

Carl Smith: We're coming up on our time here. Is there any other advice that you would have to people listening who just don't want to pitch but know they have to?

Jody Sutter: The other thing that I really work on with the agencies that I work with is to be very honest about the type of personality you are. I've kind of narrowed it down to four different personality types that exist among agency leaders. Usually people recognize themselves in a combination of one or two. You've got the hunter, the natural born sales person, and you don't find too many of them. You've got the promoter, and the poster child for the promoter that I use is Gary Vaynerchuk, someone whose business and personal life really bleed into each other. He's always out there and he probably generates an enormous amount of leads for Vayner Media because he's such a promoter. You have the communicator, the person who is really good at taking complex ideas and making them easy to understand and they love to talk in front of a large audience. They're like your Ted talkers. 

Then you have the thinker, the introvert. They also tend to be really good at taking complex ideas and making them easy to understand, but you have to work a little bit harder to draw them out of their shell, to make them understand that, maybe to reduce their insecurities and make them comfortable in playing on their own field, and being comfortable in personality. Also, identify tactics that are going to work better for that. I mean this is sort of a long game, but often with someone who's a thinker I would say let's write a book. Let's write a book and then let's go and let's take some of that money and ... Today it's actually really not that hard to write a book. If you apply yourself you can do it in 30 days and it's not too bad right. Then maybe let's take some of your resources and let's go work with a publicist and let's make this is a serious thing. Then we're going to take that book and the publicity around the book and we're going to convert that into leads. Then I'm going to help you. I think often with the thinkers it's once the lead comes in the door they feel more comfortable taking it to close and I can help them through that as well.

Yeah, I think the mistake that a lot of agencies make is they think ugh I've got no other choice except to go out there and do what I feel is really icky and be a sales person and pitch myself. I think there are other options.

Carl Smith: Yeah, and those prospects can smell it. They know when you're not comfortable.

Jody Sutter: Yeah.

Carl Smith: Well Jody thank you so much for being on the Bureau Briefing today. I really appreciate it. It was great catching up.

Jody Sutter: Oh thank you so much for having me. I think it was sort of ... I'm not sure if we stuck to the topic the way that we were planning to, but I had a great time.

Carl Smith: I've never stuck to a topic Jody. That's no fun. Everybody listening, they know that. Well everybody I hope you have a great holiday season, it's coming up. We will talk to you soon. All the best.