Help! The Prospect is Stealing My Ideas!

Last Updated Oct 10, 2008 9:39 AM EDT

Zen Sales Master
A reader writes:
I am tasked with selling marketing services and as such it often is about selling a concept for an advertising or promotional campaign of some sort. The problem I often face is telling a prospect about the idea and running the risk they will just go and do it themselves. Even though I know they would not do it as well as my firm would, since it was after all our idea, nonetheless they of course feel they can. So my question is, how to pitch the idea without losing the deal? Are there formal documents to avoid this (contracts?) or is there some "honor system" to avoid these sink holes?
I have a solution to the problem but, before getting to that, I must point out that you're operating under some misconceptions.

There is a world of naivete in the remark: "Even though I know they would not do it as well as my firm would, since it was after all our idea." In the real world, there's little or no connection between being good at thinking of new ideas and being able to execute them.

High tech, for example, is full of defunct companies that invented fabulous ideas that were subsequently turned into products by idea-poor companies that specialize on tactical implementation. (Microsoft is a prime example.)

With that in mind, here's how to deal with this problem, in three steps:

  • STEP #1: Position Your Services as the Real Product. When you're meeting with the customer, emphasize the fabulous business results that your flawless implementation has produced for past customers. Tell a horror story or two about companies that fell flat on their boneheaded tuchus when they took the do-it-yourself route. Make the greatness of your ideas part of the overall package of services that you're selling.
  • STEP #2. Demand Up-front Concessions. Integrate a "Quid Pro Quo" element into all your sales process. Always insist the the prospect make some kind of sales concession for every action that you take. This gets the prospect committed, up front, to work with you rather than steal from you. I explain this EXTREMELY important sale technique in the posts "Stop Consulting for Free" and "How 'Quid Pro Quo' Selling Works".
  • STEP #3. Formalize Your Idea Presentation. The prospect feels entitled to rip off your idea because they don't see them as valuable property. Therefore, before presenting any "idea" presentation, demand -- as a Quid Pro Quo -- a written promise that they will not share the idea with anybody. Don't let them know that you're afraid they'll steal the idea. Just add enough formality to show that your idea is special -- and thus unethical to steal.
Let us know how it works out, OK?

Readers: Any further advice for this guy?