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.

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.