06/10/2013 11:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Inconceivable: How to Avoid Losing Your Best Client, Courtesy of The Princess Bride

One of my favorite movies is The Princess Bride. The brains behind the devious plot in the movie is a character names Vizzini. Among my favorite lines is each time Vizzini, when confronted with a potential threat, says, "Inconceivable." Vizzini actually faces similar challenges that businesses face every day in protecting an existing client account from competitors.  Let me show how much you can learn from The Princess Bride... perhaps it will provide justification to watch it for the fifteenth time.

Act I - You OWN the Account
During their escape on a boat, one of Vizzini's henchmen, Inigo, keeps looking behind the boat to be sure that nobody is following them.  Vizzini explains that someone following them would be inconceivable . Of course, they soon realize that someone actually is on their tail.

When I work with clients on how to grow their business, the first thing we evaluate is the threats that could lead to the loss of existing business. It is much harder to sustain growth if you lose existing clients. Many CEOs and executives will emphatically claim that it is inconceivable for anyone else to get in the door of their account. Like Vizzini, too often incumbent vendors are surprised when a competitor threatens an existing account.

Act II - They'll Never Catch Us
Vizzini and his gang reach a small island and come ashore at the base of steep cliffs. Vizzini has a giant with him, and he is certain that nobody else could possibly climb the rope to the top. His team ascends the rope.  When their pursuer gets to the cliff, Inigo says "He's climbing the rope... and he's gaining on us!" Vizzini responds, "Inconceivable!"

Executives in companies often say, "Even if they can get in the door, we have such a head start that nobody could unseat us." That might be true if your competitor takes the identical approach as you, but what if they come in from a totally different angle (like the ones we suggest when one of my clients is trying to displace an incumbent vendor)? The next thing you know, they are gaining fast and could catch or pass you.

Act III - Squash Them Like A Bug
Finally, Vizzini's gang reaches the top of the cliff, and he cuts the rope with a knife so the pursuer will fall to his death.  As they peer over the cliff, they see he is clinging onto the face of the cliff.  Vizzini exclaims, "He didn't fall? Inconceivable!"  Inigo then utters my favorite line in the movie: "You keep on using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means."

Just like Vizzini's adversary does not fall to his death, the fierce, innovative competitor entering your space might not accept defeat easily. So what can you do to preserve your strategic client?

Act IV - It'll Take a Miracle Actually, you don't need help from Miracle Max (played by Billy Crystal) to secure your prize account.  Here are some suggestions to help.
  1. Perform a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis on each account (Hint:  "The world coming to an end" or "Mr. Smith dying tomorrow" are not acceptable answers for threats... unless you've somehow seen Mr. Smith's recent EKG);
  2. Think about what you would do to steal the account away from the current vendor (requires that you imagine you do not, in fact, already have the client).  This is a great way to identify risks you may have overlooked. Now that you have thought about them, write them down and come up with defensive strategies;
  3. Be attuned to your client: Daniel Pink writes about Attunement in his book, To Sell is Human. Don't just think of them as a revenue source. Rather, think what you can do to make them your biggest fan. Clients defend and protect the vendors they love
  4. Buy or rent The Princess Bride. It might not be a business topic, but it'll make you laugh and smile... and that's worth something.  Here are the inconceivable clips.
With these tips from The Princess Bride, perhaps losing your best client would be inconceivable.

Act V - It's Your Turn
What threats did you think were inconceivable only to have to defend your turf. What can others learn from your experience?