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!

3 interesting ways to find new business leads.

1)      The competitors of those in the trade press

The news you read about a company wanting to appoint an agency is toxic to your new business endeavours. Firstly, if it’s in the trade press, it’s old. The best case scenario is that every agency on the planet has contacted the prospect. Most commonly though, the lead is now cold. Leave them alone and focus on the competitors of the company in question. If one company in a sector is used to outsourcing, then many of its competitors will be too. They’ll also be aware of the review and might be considering their own marketing support.

 
2)      The brands your team would like to work on

When we conduct our briefing days with new clients, one of the things we do is talk to the team at the agency and talk about dream clients. Once we’ve got Apple, Innocent, Audi and Nike out of the way, some really interesting ideas often emerge. It stands to reason that brands that your team feel enthusiastic about are the ones they could help write an amazing pitch for. And if you win the business, they’ll love working on it. No downside.

 
3)      The Top 10 of everything

Walk around your office and list everything (and I mean everything). For example:

-         Phone
-         Desk
-         Radiator
-         Blinds
-         Light switches
-         Fluorescent tubes
-         Doors
-         Door furniture
-         Squash racquet (hardly used)
-         Carpets
-         Copper pipes
-         Sink
-         Bin

All of these have manufacturers. Most of them are in sectors rarely approached by agencies. Find the top 10 of each (I’m not telling you how – you’re supposed to hire us) and then consider whether they’re marketed effectively. It’s a little trivial, but it’ll get you away from having new business planning sessions where you decide that FMCG, lifestyle and food and drink are the best sectors to target because they're famous. 

Four ways to get more from your new business agency

New Business Agencies sometimes screw up. We have. They all have. Quite a lot of the time though, if things aren't working it's not just their doing. It's a bit of both of you. Supporting your new business agency's endeavours is essential. There are things they know that are always helpful to trust them on. Like this:

1)      Don’t make them describe you in a particular way.

Just because you’ve decided to call yourselves a Brand Empathy & Ideas Generation Agency doesn’t mean that your prospects or clients would ever think of you as that. Worse than not thinking of you in your chosen way, there’s the simple fact that if someone needs what they call a creative agency and goes looking for one, they’re not going to immediately see that you might be able to solve their problem. If you have your new business person calling or emailing people who control marketing budgets, then encourage them to find out what the person might be looking for. If it’s “creative” then you’re a creative agency. If it’s “ideas”, you’re an ideas agency. Many of our clients over the years have insisted on a specific description and we’ve learned to say “no” because it does no good.

2)      If they ask for a short credentials document, give them a short credentials document. Do it on time.

Agencies love to talk about themselves. Clients speak to lots of agencies over time. Do the sums. Do you imagine that they want long presentations from every new agency they encounter? The chances are that after a couple of conversations and the mention of an upcoming brief, your new business legend (for that’s what we are) will need to send over some sort of document to move things along a bit. Unless they’re asking for specific examples, send them a short (9 pages maximum) description of your agency. Make sure the majority of it tells the prospect what they will get (which is different from what you do). Leave the dull bits (where you are, how long you’ve been in business) until the end (if they’re not interested by then, who cares where you are?). Actually, just read my article on the excellent Econsultancy – it’s at
http://econsultancy.com/uk/blog/11207-agency-creds-they-re-all-as-bad-as-each-other and it’s marvellous.

3)      Don't keep asking how many calls they've made.

I know you want your money's worth, but unless you've hired a phone-jockey to blitz a list, killing names off as fast as possible in the hope that they'll trip over something, they need time to do other things. Your new business person needs to be doing research, refining data, clearing their head with the latest football news, working on your proposition and myriad (which originally meant 10,000, but here just means "lots of") other things.

4)      Support them from the start.

Look, I know that hiring a new business agency is scary stuff. We’ll ask for a level of trust that in the early months is fairly un-earned. While some new business agencies will abuse your trust and have you spending valuable studio time putting together documents that will be seen by a temporary receptionist at a company with fifty quid to spend, this is (or should be) rare. What is worse – far worse – is stifling their ability to win you new clients by slowing them down. We often have to promise a terrifyingly fast turnaround on some detailed credentials documents to squeeze a client into a pitch. When they trust our word and support us, it invariably leads to a far more productive project. Our most successful client of 2012 obviously trusts us implicitly, but the key thing they did from the start was trust us, sight unseen. We’re good at this and I hope our competitors are too. Don’t get in the way.

This might all seem like common sense, but often the temptation is to take far too long to create a 28-page PDF which spends an age describing your agency as an Integrated Product-Oriented Brand Development and Advancement Consultancy. And then you’ve gone and broken all three rules.