Overcoming “We Don’t Do That Here”

You see it coming a mile away: the solution to your client’s problem.  The answer seems to simple that you imagine yourself yanking a Whitman’s Sampler from a newborn.  After listening to your client completely, you lay out your solution with clarity, specificity and proof of past success.

And then…


OK, now what?  What do you do when your client says “that’s not how things work around here?”

For years, I had a standard answer for this problem.  The answer involved probing for weaknesses looking for opportunities to nudge in whatever idea I thought would solve their problem.  Surely, my sterling logic would prevail sooner or later!  Thing is, it didn’t work.

After multiple attempts at bashing down the figurative door, I realized that a client saying “that’s not how things work around here” is really telling you two things:

  1. Something beyond your immediate client’s control has a greater priority than solving the problem in question
  2. You need to redefine the problem to have any hope of solving it

Let’s look at #1.  I’ve run into all kinds of immovable objects.  One client wouldn’t modify his annual brand brief because that would signal the inadequacy of the previous brand brief to the CMO.  Another client couldn’t segment customers by product usage because her company’s legal team considered those data private under FCC rules.  On more occasions than I could count, clients told me that they simply didn’t have to budget to try relatively inexpensive tactics such as A/B testing, longer copy or simple tweaks to a user experience.

In other words, the real problems weren’t ineffective marketing techniques, but rather the need for apparent continuity, legal approval or budget, respectively.

Here’s where the second issue comes in: redefining the problem.  Short term, you have a greater opportunity to find a problem that you can fix rather than tilt at the windmills of corporate structures, legal departments or budgets.  Have a heart-to-heart with your client.  Discuss limitations not as objects of frustration (which they are) but rather as guideposts.  From that point, you need to understand not just the objective, but the impact of this more important factor upon the objective.

Let’s imagine a situation in which a B2B marketer has asked you to drive more leads with content marketing.  While “more leads” seems unambiguous, leads do come in all shapes and sizes.  Maybe you want to use a relatively expensive series of short videos to drive prospects to ask for a demo, but budget doesn’t allow it.  While every sales team wants the phone to ring more, perhaps they need to consider an objective that requires less commitment from the prospect, such as a request for a white paper or even a visit to the website.  On the other hand, focusing on a smaller, more engaged group of prospects might yield better results with a smaller budget than a more broad-based program.

Of course, it may take a good amount of negotiation to match up the right solution with the right set of limitations/guideposts.  That’s where patience comes in.

Perhaps we should edit Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, the one that Alcoholics Anonymous has adopted:

God grant me the serenity

to accept the things I cannot change;

courage to change the things I can;

and enough wiles to change the subject!

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