I have a shameful secret. One of my favourite movies of all time is called Real Steel. You know?  The one with Hugh Jackman and the giant fighting robots? Well, the reason I like this movie is (one) it stars Sir Hugh Jackman and (two) it’s about giant fighting robots.


But the other reason I like this film is that it illustrates something I’ve observed about client acquisition and new business development, particularly in the business-to-business context. See, for years in advertising I watched many trying to be the hero. After all, it makes sense to tell everyone the superpowers we possess to solve their problems, right? The problem is that the customer doesn’t see us that way.

The thing is that in our own lives we follow one main character, every day. We see the doubts, fears, hard work, little missteps and big wins play out in a great never-ending story. We’re the protagonist in our own private movie and we’re the hero in this show. We don’t see our software vendor that way! Try to position yourself there and you’re competing for a role they’ve set aside for themselves.

So, back to the giant fighting robots! Think about it. You’ve got Jackman’s character (Charlie). He has talent and he’s a fighter, but he’s got problems. Something is missing. He makes mistakes and takes risks that cost him. He doesn’t know how to reach his potential. Then, something happens. A new character appears in the form of his estranged 10-year-old son, Max. This is the turning point. The boy has a different perspective and some unique skills that make him an agent of change.

He’s a guide.

The guide doesn’t save the day. He shows the hero the way to win. In the process, he not only saves his dad, he conjures the relationship between himself and the father he never had. And then, mechanised steel giants beat the ever-loving snot out of each other for 45 minutes to an hour. It’s awesome, go watch it!

To me, the parallels to the client acquisition process are obvious.  If you truly want to make and keep authentic relationships, stop trying to be the main event. Be the thing that directs them to victory.


1. Let them tell the story.

People love talking about themselves. Give them a chance to tell their story and they will reveal valuable information to you. Ask lots of questions like, “how did you end up in…?” And “…what’s it like being a….?” And “…that must be super-stressful… how do you deal with…?”

As they tell you their story they will begin to think about their own private movie without knowing it. Show genuine interest and keep going deeper until they open up and you find out what’s really going on in their lives and their work. Not only will they feel good afterwards, you will have some information to work with.

2. Reframe what you do in the context of the story.

It’s not your movie poster, so don’t try to claim the headline. You’re not the: “world’s most amazing lawyer”. Rather, you: “give entrepreneurs the confidence to make bold moves”. Don’t say: “I’m the most efficient virtual assistant”. Rather, say something like: “I help busy people focus on killing it in business!” Figure out your role in the supporting cast of this film and tell them how to write you into it.

3. Frame your experience in the context of the story.

The client isn’t interested in your accomplishments, they’re only interested in their own happy ending. Don’t tell them how you worked on [MASSIVE PROJECT WITH HUGE DELIVERABLES]. Rather, tell them how their story ends.

If possible, tell them about another hero you worked with and what success looked like. Tell them the happily ever after. If the anecdote relates, people can’t help comparing themselves and they will already be picturing you in the story.

4. Wait for permission to enter the story as the guide.

You cannot appoint yourself to this role. Only the hero can do that. Sometimes, it takes a little time. In the film, Charlie dismisses Max time and time again before he starts to come around.

Resist the urge to jump in and disgorge information and action points. Resist the urge to respond to the first thing that looks like a gap and ham-fist your sales pitch into it. Wait for your cue. When they’re ready, they’ll ask. Your patience will be rewarded with trust. Otherwise, risk getting killed off in the first act.

5. Become the ultimate method actor.

Above all, be prepared to be part of this story for a long time. People aren’t stupid. They’ll sense when you’re only in it for a quick buck. Even if you say all the right things, your body language, tone of voice and a million other non-verbal tells will betray your superficial intent. You need to be genuine. The only way I know how to do this is to give yourself fully to the role. You won’t win any Oscars, but you will win the hearts and minds of clients and make friends along the way.


What do you think? Do you agree or am I way off base? If you have another interesting perspective to share, I’d love to hear it. For now though if you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment with a bowl of popcorn and 127 minutes of loud noises!