Are You Playing a Finite Game with Your Most Important Contracts and Customers?

Retaining business is a game of strength and stamina, but it often doesn’t feel that way. The milestones imposed by the procurement cycle put invisible limitations on the way that we approach the job of selling, particularly to existing customers. In his new book Game Changers, Dr Jason Fox —an expert in motivation and game design for meaningful work— says there are two types of games we can play; finite games or infinite games.

Finite games are played for the purposes of winning, while infinite games have no fixed outcome — only the sense of progress.

I reckon this is a neat way of describing how we view the game of pursuing and retaining business.

Most new business pursuits are treated like finite games. We win, or we lose, and we move on. Wins are inherently motivating, while losses have the opposite effect. There is actually a third outcome that some find even more demotivating than a loss; no outcome, despite a lot of effort. I can remember two such situations. Years ago, I worked with a large professional services firm on a bid for a multinational client. At what was supposed to be a celebration dinner for the bid’s lodgement, the lead partner told us that the bid had been pulled due to competitive concerns from an international office. Two dozen faces around the table dropped like stones. On another occasion, I was working on bid with a team from the UK when my father-in-law died. Due to the deadlines, I was the only person in the family who couldn’t take time off to support my partner or help with funeral preparations. Months later, we heard that funding for the program we were bidding for had been cancelled due to a policy change. In both cases, thousands of hours of work went down the drain.

Thinking of new business pursuits as a finite game is okay up to the point where the contract is won, but what happens next? Nurturing and building relationships with an existing client is an infinite game – a game of patience, possibility and progress. But because the procurement process introduces artificial milestones — because we know we have to re-bid for the contract every three years — this makes it feel like a finite game. As a result, we spend too much time using the existence of the Request for Tender as an excuse to procrastinate, instead of making progress. This is a losing game for us and for the customer.

If the contract signing is the whistle signalling the first bounce at a football game, the first RFT is just the first quarter siren. Even when competition is tough, and change is endemic, there’s no reason your relationship with the customer can’t extend for all four quarters — more than a decade — and for years and years after that. The game of serving a customer needs to start the day the new contract is won, and it is a game that doesn’t need to end unless you want it to.