Why are some companies so much better at winning business than others? How can you improve the ratio of wins to losses? David Mansfield, from The Drive Partnership has some ideas.

As part of my work I’m often the guy who follows up after a bruising defeat, to discuss with the company what went wrong. And the answers, of course, depend on the circumstances and issues unique to each situation.

But there are common themes that everyone can work on to improve the odds. Companies that recognise the right approach have a much greater chance of success.

Let’s take a real example of two companies pitching for the account of a multinational food business. To preserve confidentiality and the embarrassment of the loser we’ll call one company Green and one Red.

Company Green had an established reputation, several clients of similar size and a good relationship with the chairman. Lately, its win ratio had dropped off to one in four which the company mainly put down to bad luck and its aggressive pricing policy.

Red had only been in business a couple of years and would be the underdog. With no existing relationship with the company and only a handful of clients to point to they were going to need to work hard to improve their chances.

As part of the process the company decided to run a series of ‘chemistry’ meetings. These have become common practice in recent years as a way of trying to ensure the right appointment is made.

The dates went in the diary. They would be run by the ‘gatekeeper’ who was in charge of managing the process. Although important he wouldn’t make the final decision. That would be down to the new CEO.

Company Green had been to many chemistry meetings and treated them as a ‘get to know you moment’. An opportunity to informally discuss their credentials and talk about the work they did for others. A time to reinforce why their track record and experience would make them the obvious choice on the day.

Red had a different approach. They viewed chemistry meetings as a vital opportunity to get the inside track. Their pitch team reviewed the brief and thinking to date. They drew a list of key questions to ask on the day. They wanted to test their approach in the meeting. Importantly they needed to know the thinking of the new CEO. Many of their questions would focus on what the decision makers would be looking for specifically on the day.

The CEO was new and it was his first role in running a multi-national organisation. Red suggested to the gatekeeper a short call with the CEO would ensure that the time at the pitch would be best spent. Now, they’re called gatekeepers for a reason and in some instances this would certainly be knocked back. However, if carefully presented it can be done.

The gatekeeper presented it as his idea to the CEO and the call with Red took place.

Green were all set on the day of the pitch. It was a very important client to win and they’d pulled out all the stops. They’d called the chairman who’d agreed to put a good word in. With clever graphics and props, the whole team was there, each having a role to play. The Green CEO would do the introductions and summary but this would be about the experienced squad. He made it clear he wouldn’t need to be around on a regular basis. They came away feeling pleased. There hadn’t been time for too many questions but they felt confident their experience and track record would secure the business.

Red took a different approach. Armed with inside knowledge they’d geared their presentation to the issues the company had identified as the most important. They didn’t waste time on lengthy credentials. They provided short punchy charts to support their recommendations. They left sufficient time for a discussion knowing that this would be the opportunity for the company to reveal it’s thinking. And their opportunity to win the business.

It didn’t take the company long to decide to appoint Red. The new CEO was aware he would need high level support due to his own inexperience. Green had specifically not offered this whereas Red, following their call, had confirmed their own CEO would be available as required.

Green were understandably upset. Inspite of everything they’d lost to a company that hardly qualified as a competitor.

Red of course understood the importance of when to ask the right questions and being seen to respond. Red’s win record for the year was four out five. Green’s continued to languish at one in four. They still don’t know why.

By David Mansfield, founder of The Drive Partnership and visiting professor at Cass Business School