How Bad Could It Be? Perform A Premortem

Orange BinocularsYou’re about to pitch a huge new client and they’ve asked a peculiar question as part of their RFP: “Imagine you’ve managed our account for 12 months and profit is down 50%. Why has it gone so poorly?” How would you answer that question?

Perhaps they’ve been reading the book “Decisive” by Chip & Dan Heath as I have. In Chapter 10, the idea is presented that people are better at making future-looking predictions if they establish a range. Either end of the range is considered a book-end and thinking about each separately further improves the accuracy. We’ll save the upper book-end for a future post, but today we’re going to talk about the lower book-end, also called the premortem.

Why A Premortem?

When framing the future as a certainty and then working backwards to a possible explanation, the wiring of our brains works differently. Let’s add some color to our imaginary RFP above by saying the client is in the HVAC industry of a large metropolitan area. They’ve been doing PPC for several years and most best practices are in place. What could have possibly caused their profit to decrease by 50% during the 12 months you were in charge?

Most likely you’re going to ask some probing questions and determine their level of plausibility. These were top of mind for me:

  • Did any new competitors begin doing PPC or significantly increase their spend/presence?
  • Did Google change the presentation of SERPs in such a way that would impact our results?
  • Did the client sales team change personnel or their tactics?
  • Did any new technologies enter the market that the client doesn’t service or provide?

Note that all of these reasons are external to the PPC management process. A reputable PPC agency would likely be managing according to best practices and testing regularly which would make such a drastic downturn unlikely. (Side note: however, best practices in one industry could be a death spiral in another, so don’t make this assumption lightly.)

What Does This Mean For Your RFP?

I have yet to see a client RFP with such a pointed, probing question, but imagine how this exercise might improve the proposal and recommendations being sent to the client. A section could be included that points out these potential market disruptors. It could go one step further and propose an action plan if any of them were to manifest themselves. For example, Google is currently testing AdWords Express Home Services Ads in the Bay Area right now! If that beta goes well and gets rolled out across the US, it would have a huge impact on the campaigns of our potential HVAC client.

The point I’m making is that a premortem gets you to think through drastic threats during the proposal stage of a client. That insight shows expertise to the client, but also helps you plan and prepare for negative influences down the road.

Have you ever completed a premortem exercise before? What you do think are some additional benefits of using this strategy? Share with us in the comments!