Making a start: What you need to know about employing a new business agency.

Employing and deploying a new business agency is no small investment. It’s obviously a commitment financially, but it’s also a big commitment of time: both in what you must give to the process for it to succeed and how patient you need to be for the process to yield results (it’s widely acknowledged that - barring the odd splendid fluke - any new business efforts require many months of ‘faith’ before any wins hove into view). If someone tells you otherwise, they really want you to sign a contract (and probably one with a six-month notice period).

The two questions we get asked the most from potential clients are: how long does it take to get started, and what do we need to do to prepare? Brilliantly, the answer to the first question is entirely reliant upon the client’s reaction to the second.

House in order
Probably the hardest part of the kick-off process for a new client is the culling of much-loved creds. This deck will probably have evolved over months and years to include:

  • Photos of each and every staff member past and present (probably against the backdrop of a brick wall – am I right?).

  • At least ten case studies (each a multiple page entry with some serious narrative – but not always any kind of commercial outcomes or results).

  • Plenty of self-serving pages about when the company was formed, why it was formed, where it was formed, how it was formed, and the history of the fireplace (basically stuff that no one ever used to pick an agency).

  • Welcome pages, goodbye pages, a page before the case studies saying CASE STUDIES (you know, just in case no one can follow your ground-breaking presentation style).

Anyway, you get the point: creds are pretty much always too long, too long-winded, and exactly the kind of size that leaves email systems chewing on them like a cow with a pack of wine gums. Some clients welcome a ruddy good creds beating, others will cling on to every one of the 26 pages clogging up their chances of success.

So… once we’ve established that your cold channel creds need to be slim and impactful… what’s next?

Target acquired
So, you’ve done the smart thing and bought yourselves a shiny new business cannon (if I do say so myself) so where do you want to point us? You might be surprised to learn that some entirely amazing agencies have got to this part of the process only to say: “Oh gosh… we don’t really know; some big brands… or something… maybe?”

Please know what you want – you’re now paying us so make it worth your while by knowing what it is that we’re going after for you. Please don’t say “something like Nike or Apple” (unless you really think it’s a realistic target) and please don’t say “more FMCG”. Understand your own successes, understand what you did so well, and now let’s find some more excellent (specific) targets for you to unleash us upon.

Release the hounds
Ok, so we now know what we’re saying about your company (by mirroring the language of the now-excellent creds) we have creds (result-oriented and tight as a squirrel’s headband) ready and able to email, and we also know where our efforts are to be focused. Thank you. We’ll be back to you shortly with the first of your well-qualified, super-focused new leads. You’re welcome.

“We don’t pitch!”. Yeah you do.

Adversarial selling is a messy, unproductive and damaging thing to undertake. But having a normal conversation about something the prospect wants to get done it very different to the kind of sales that is taught in too many courses. It’s important to remember that you’re selling when you speak to anyone who might buy what you have to offer.

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When agencies outnumber opportunities.

Agencies from across the marketing spectrum are pretty bad at selling themselves. I don’t want any of them to become salesy, pushy “Wolf of Wall Street” types, employing hideous tricks and tactics. There are ways to be more compelling – more interesting to the decision-maker with too many options.

Agency decision-makers get dozens of approaches a month. Many get dozens a week. They receive endless creds documents. The nice ones read most of them. The less patient ones filter them out based on a few simple criteria. Some don’t read them at all.

Many of the things that agencies talk about are things that a decision-maker would use to exclude them as an option. Location, size, years in business. These can all be positives, but not very impressive ones. They can more easily be reasons to exclude. Marketing bods at companies can choose from many agencies. In our experience (and we’ve been doing this for 15 years*), they choose based on two things: the outcomes you can cause for your clients and the company you keep (your client list).

If you’re at a big outdoor event and there are 25 food stalls, you don’t look at all 25 and choose the one you will eat at. You exclude some first: “Well, I don’t fancy a burger, I don’t want to eat fish and chips while I’m walking around and I hate hot dogs”. Before you know it, you’re left with a few options. These are the ones that you now consider on merit. This is how marketing people whittle lists of agencies down. They exclude first. Often arbitrarily.

The opening chunk of your creds, website or proposal is crucial. It sets up the way the prospective client views the rest of the presentation. An incredible number of our clients started out with creds that opened with something like, “Based in Hexham, our team of 22 amazing people have worked on the most brilliant design projects for 18 years!”. Or maybe bullet points that illustrate the same thing:

About us

- 22 People

- Office and studio in Hexham

- Founded in 1998

- Fluent in Design and branding

Four boring facts that tell a potential client almost nothing. Imagine for a moment that your prospect last used an agency with 8 people, founded just three years ago, based in London. It went well. The outcomes were pretty good. Suddenly you’ve got nothing in common with this decent agency they quite liked. Now, everything you say is through the lens of someone who sees you as rather unlike the last guys. Maybe they liked that their agency was in London. Maybe they liked their small team. Maybe they liked that they were fresh and full off new ideas. Or maybe they liked them for a more important reason: It went well. The outcomes were pretty good. This is what you should lead out with.

If you’re the agency that increased shirt sales for Fullofit Shirts by 23% online, then that’s page one. If you’re the agency that raised staff retention for Slipless Gripmats plc by over 40%, then say so, early on. If you’re the agency that created a brand that staff and customers genuinely loved for Landwell Airways then make that the lead story. Your location, years in business and number of staff can go to the last page. Imagine blowing a potential client’s mind with your incredible results, then at the very end leaving them thinking, “All this from an agency way out in Hexham! Wow!”. It’s remarkably powerful to confound expectation.

And now all you have to do is make the rest of your story readable. A simple truth about sending out a creds PDF is that people are savvy to the size. They look at the file size. Above 5MB and they’re already planning to ditch it early. They’ll glance at the page count. 23 pages? No chance. This is a prospect in the cold-channel. They don’t care about your creative prowess. They don’t want to read a book about you. They don’t want to spend more than a couple of minutes on this. We’ve found that a page count of fewer than 10 pages is important. Single digits = readable. You are not trying to secure the deal remotely, just to create the next step. Tailor it. Make the filename refer to the prospective client if you’re sending it. Mention their name on the title page. People like this as much as they hate receiving something generic.

In cold-channel business development, you’re going to fail more than you succeed. 75%+ of wins go to a referral, or the incumbent. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a strong cold-channel campaign. It does mean you shouldn’t have a poor one. Make every word, picture and page of your creds count. Make it about the prospect, not about you. Focus on their commercial goals. Leave aside your patented processes. Don’t crow too loudly about awards. If someone hires you for twelve months, the thing they’re buying – the thing you should be selling – it whatever it is that they’ll have in month thirteen that they didn’t have in month one.

*See, you don’t care how long we’ve been in business. That didn’t make you want to hire us. But if it DID, call Steve now on 01708 451311. Just don’t tell him that was your reason.

What you can get from Sponge NB

Everything we do is done to find you new clients. We do the obvious things (I’ll list some of them below) and we do some less obvious things (I’ll list some of them below). We cost the same as hiring a full-timer and you get a fully-functioning business development department.

THINGS WE'LL DO

-    Research your prospects properly before contacting them.
-    Research you properly before contacting anyone for you.
-    Make really smart, non-salesy calls. Ask questions on those calls. Listen a lot on those calls. Not make too many of those calls.
-    Write readable, snappy, professional emails. Individual ones. Not some bulk-mailer “look, we’ve discovered Mailchimp” email/newsletter that any prospect deletes immediately. 
-    Consult properly for you. We have a vastly experienced project manager and sales trainer to make things work well. We have an ex-Global Marketing Director and Copywriter here, so your written communications are remarkable. We're not bashing out calls here.
-    Build sensible, well-managed databases. Refresh them often. Update them constantly.
-    Report honestly and usefully. 
-    Never enshroud our efforts in meaningless stats, graphs and numbers designed to provide false reassurance and keep the project running, even if it really needs reviewing/improving/sacking off. If it needs fixing, we’ll say so. Loudly.
-    Make sure you never think “I wonder what Sponge are up to?”. Speak to you regularly, but concisely. You don’t have time for fluff. You do have time to know what’s working and what’s not.
-    Conduct a really enjoyable and informative briefing day. We don’t need to learn “what you do”. If that’s not clear on your web site, we’ll be helping to make sure it becomes clear. We want to know your people, culture, language, highs/lows, hobbies, least favourite client. The stuff we’d know if we worked there.
-    Offer the benefit of our owner Steve’s experience – 15+ years of agency business development.
-    Find opportunities worth having. If it’s a meeting, one with an agenda, where we’ve asked about budgets. We average a couple of those a month for clients (that’s a historic number, so it might not be what you get. Some very large clients have seen fewer, some clients have seen far more).
-    Help you follow up those opportunities. Not pester, just keep up to date with.
-    Offer training if you want it. You might not need it but we can help polish even a decent business developer’s approach.
-    Give you a chunk of code for your web site so we (and you) know which companies have been on your web site. 
-    Think of smart things to make things happen for you. For example, we found a way to increase the number of senior marketers at larger companies with whom we could secure conversations. It takes an hour or two and you can then use it every day forever. 
-    Sell you actual things we’ll really do - however fuzzy - rather than impossible promises. Whatever you think of our web site, our size, our clunky logo, our address or our team photos, give us a call and you’ll only ever be sold the things we do every day. No inflated outcomes, no crazy KPIs . Honesty. 
-    Celebrate the wins we find for you and genuinely beat ourselves up when we don’t win. Our culture is to give a hoot. 

If you’re doing well in your business development endeavours, call us. Don’t’ wait until things are going badly. We can’t wave a magic wand, nor will we be likely to find really quick wins. If things are going badly, we can help you plan the right next steps. When things are comfortably plateauing, or growing nicely, we’re in a great position to help grow your company using a sensible, sustained approach.
 

USPs are mostly nonsense.

This is an excerpt from our article: Is your USP useless? Download the full article at https://www.spongenb.com/download1

Most of the people seeing this will be from a marketing agency of some sort (whether or not you like being labelled that…). I’m going to explain why selling any part of your service as unique is a mistake. I don’t mean you shouldn’t offer it. I mean you should understand why it might (or might not) be compelling.

USPs fall into a few categories:

1)      The “not actually unique”
We hear these a lot. They include:
 - We really get under the skin of your brand.
 - Our team take the time to understand your brand before we do ANY work.
 - Our unique experience in your sector…
 - Our senior team actually work on your business
 - Our team hail from <insert huge agency name here> but you don’t pay big agency fees with us!

2)      The indecipherable
Our multi-track, media-ambivalent, high-trust methodology engenders a client/supplier authority equivalence not found in other ideation studios”. Nobody’s buying it (literally or figuratively).

3)      The process-obsessed
So many agency web sites are mired in process, without a hint of an outcome. Without the outcome, or the suggestion of a type of result, nobody cares what your processes are.

 People buy outcomes (and only then do “people buy people” – and here’s why)

We’ve all said it – “People buy people”. It’s not true, it just seems like it. Correlation and causality are as different as we all know they are but we all see patterns where they don’t really exist. People do buy people sometimes, but only once some other needs are fulfilled. “People buy people” would be better summed up as “Being an arse to someone makes them less likely to buy from you”. Nobody chooses a supplier whose outcomes aren’t clear and whose selling proposition is indecipherable but who is just a really nice person.

Remember, the full article can be found at https://www.spongenb.com/download1

7 ways to stop making dreadful sales calls

First, let’s get something clear: we do a lot more than make phone calls for our clients. Today we’re just addressing the fact that most new business calls are remarkably bad. We don’t claim to have a magic wand, nor do we promise ridiculous results from our work. We do however make sure we avoid wasted opportunities. The phone call is a prime example of where waste can occur over and over in a single day. In a single hour.

1 - Research it

The first compliment you can pay your prospect is having taken the time to research them. Even a little bit. It’ll make all the difference to your confidence. It’ll make all the difference to how receptive they will be. You don’t need to know their dog’s name (though if you do, please find a way to mention it without sounding like a stalker (on second thoughts, you will sound like a stalker. Probably keep it to yourself)), but knowing where they have worked before (Linkedin will help with that) or which agencies they’ve hired before (trade press can yield that information) will show that they’re not just a name on a list.

2 - Make it different

Most agencies’ new business calls open with something like “We’re Crunchy Frame Creative and we’re a creative agency and we’ve worked for Channel 6, Harbinsons’s Jam and Nevaslip Prophylactics. Can I have a minute to talk about your marketing?”. Other than the fact that you’ve already started talking to them without establishing that they are okay with having an agency badly described at them, it’s just dull. You’re an agency? With clients? Wow! When can we brief you? If you’ve done your research and you’re smart enough, you’ll be able to open with a question that prompts some conversation. Some of our team are sometimes guilty of not using their research to spark natural conversation – it makes the call far harder to get anything from. Nobody in any marketing department wants to know who you’ve worked for or what type of agency you are until you’ve created a compelling reason for them to desire that information. You might create that compulsion through your clever questions, your knowledge of their company or simply your genuine, carefully directed enthusiasm.

3 - Stick to what you say you’ll do

If you tell someone you’ll send them information straight away. That means moments after the call. If you’re not going to send it immediately, then tell them when they’ll get it. If you tell them 3pm, make it arrive at 3pm and mention your promise.

4 - Follow it up properly

Your prospects get a lot of calls. If you’re going to build any relationship with them then you will need to stay in touch. If you don’t then despite how amazing your agency’s work is, they won’t remember you. There’s a fine, nay (nay?) invisible line between “staying in touch” and “pestering the heck out of someone”. Stay on the right side, but don’t convince yourself that they’ll call when they need you. Too often they won’t. If polite contact from time to time is enough to annoy them then they weren’t going to hire you anyway.

5 - Don’t offer outs

“Can we respond to your next advertising brief, or……..”. This “or”, hanging off the end of the sentence is like a comfort blanket to new business people. In fact I’ve heard it from salespeople of all types over the years. Listen to your new business calls. If you hear that, then stop doing it the way you’re doing it and hire us (quoting SNB_OURPREVIOUSNEWBUSINESSCALLSWEREAWFULSOPLEASEHELPUS for a 7% discount). Don’t offer exits along the way. If the prospect doesn’t like your approach, or if your questioning uncovers the fact that they don’t want you, then they’ll find their own exit. You ought to be looking for the next best thing, all the time. When are they reviewing? How long is the current agency contract? Are there ever projects that fall outside of their current agency’s remit? But don’t roll out the red carpet to the exit door, or why did you call in the first place?

6 - Don’t rely on something you sent

You sent information and now you’re calling. You mention it, right? Let’s look at the possibilities:

1)      You call, saying that you sent the information about your amazing work on Harbinson’s Jam. The prospect remembers this information. But the prospect also remembers seeing it and not calling or emailing you. Otherwise you wouldn’t be calling them, eh?

2)      You call, saying that stuff about the PDF about the jam guys. The prospect doesn’t remember seeing it, or didn’t have time. Now you’re back at square one, but the prospect now views you as the guys who sent the information that he instantly forgot, or couldn’t be bothered to read.

3)      You call, use your research and intelligence to ask questions, building on the previous information that led you to send information. If the prospect doesn’t mention it, then you can send it as if they’ve never seen it. If they now remember it of their own volition, then their image of you is rather stronger – they remembered your jam work unprompted.

In case it’s not clear, number 3 is best. So if you sent info, don’t mention it. Sounds counter-intuitive, but it isn’t about your ego, it’s about creating a compelling reason for a prospect to hire you.

7 - Close, boldly, openly and honestly.

There are loads of different types of closes – the assumptive close, the Ben Franklin, the negative close. Bin them – they’re too prescriptive. How about something like:

“I hope I haven’t interrupted your day too horribly, but if I did then here’s the short version: we’re a cracking new business agency and you’re an agency that could do with a long-term, coherent, effective new business campaign. How can we do some work for you?”. Too prescriptive? Of course it is. The conversation should guide the words you use to close. Do close though. It’s the bit that’ll start your stomach churning but when it works (and if you follow all of the above, it’ll work more often), it results in those lovely highs that make the new business slog worth every moment

Late and over budget

Back when I worked for a big, lumbering new business agency, our entire spiel on the phone was to jabber on, talking about the biggest clients our clients had. It was only when I started looking for the most compelling examples of my clients’ results that better win ratios emerged

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How did Business Development get such a horrible reputation?

Whether it's the band of Business Development Agencies (of which we're one), the endless Business Development freelancers or the super-keen in-house new business person, the choices an agency's MD has when choosing the right business development route are fraught with danger (in terms of more than just the money it costs - when it doesn't work out, it costs time and nudges an agency's plans back further and further).  There are many reasons a new business effort can fail, but there's one that is easy to solve and makes a big difference. It's a big part of the reasons than business development has the reputation it currently "enjoys". 

What is it?

Targets. Well, inappropriate targets. Too many Sales Managers, company bosses and Business Developers believe that the numbers game is how results are achieved. There are rooms full of talented, intelligent people being bellowed at, instant-messaged or emailed the same sentiment: MAKE MORE CALLS! I worked for a large membership organisation where 150 calls a day were demanded. That’s at the lower end of things. One of the Sponge NB (my Business Development Agency) team worked in a role where 300 calls a day was the task that greeted them  as they approached their desk. Hardly the sort of thing that’s going to result in motivated, enthusiastic workers. Numerical targets are of course the simplest way to measure a salesperson’s success. If they’re generating direct sales, selling memberships (or any other transaction) there and then on the phone, then counting the numbers at the end will of course tell you whether they sold a lot or a little. The problem is that they are unlikely to have achieved anything because of an arbitrary "higher is better" target. Intelligent, motivated business development people strive for more whether a target is there or not. They don't look to meet targets, they look for outcomes and then find the route to that outcome. 

The owner of a new business uses enthusiasm, relevant questioning, malleability of proposition, confidence, speed of speech, tone of voice and willingness to close. That's on every call, email or contact with a prospect. It barely matters how many times a day that happens, but what's certain is that "as many times as possible" isn't necessarily the right approach. Entrepreneurs finding their first few clients do things like "clear their head". They make time to research and understand each prospect. They build relationships with prospects until they don't really like calling them prospects (I've never thought of the little band of people I stay in touch with and show a genuine interest in as "prospects"). The progression from lead, through to client can often go via "friend" in some cases. Retrospectively that'll look just like "sales", but the term seems to sully the relationship that's there. Nonetheless, "sales" is what happened.

There's a problem - that can't happen 150-300 times a day. And so "prospects" don't hear the sort of approach that comes from someone actually giving a monkeys about them or their company. That awful approach will be the 10th one of the day. What chance do you think you've got?

But Business Development Agencies, freelancers and in-house Business Developers want to show the Agency boss that they're busy, so they smash out 150+ calls, filling reports with things like "Left a voicemail, calling back on Tuesday", as if that's any sort of outcome.

Targets need to be longer term and focused on outcomes. There's no point worrying about call stats beyond a fairly conservative number. We once resigned a client who called our Account Manager three times to find out how many calls they'd made since the last time they'd called her. It sounds extreme, but it can be seen in a great many agency owners. Targets are there to guide and then measure, not to destroy enthusiasm and morale, or to decide in isolation whether something/someone is working out. If the very targets you've put in place lead to irritated prospects and business developers, then what chance do your calls and emails have? 

Many people talk about "winning without pitching". It's essential to have an outbound sales effort, but it doesn't have to look like "pitching" often does. Sales shouldn't be adversarial - it should be conversational. Your outbound endeavours are tougher to convert than referrals, incoming leads or "little black book" wins, so make each approach count. If everyone's approach was well researched, properly qualified and as interested in what a prospect wants as it often is in blowing its own metaphorical trumpet, sales wouldn't have the horrible reputation it has.

New Business calls. How to close.

Ask concisely for what you want. Make sure that the thing you want has outcomes that the other party wants. This is of course step 25. Steps 1-24 are more fiddly. Good luck!